Israel Hernández, a senior at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles with wavy, green-dyed hair, ran his first marathon in the eighth grade. It was so much fun that he decided to do it several more times.
But in 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, while training for the Los Angeles Marathon, Hernández felt the first symptoms of a serious illness.
“I had pain in my chest and other parts of my body,” said Hernández, who was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
His mother, Josefina Montero, was horrified when she saw his X-ray after he was taken to the hospital. She cried a lot but never lost faith and encouraged her son whenever he had to undergo grueling chemotherapy sessions.
Hernández said her mother inspired her by saying that going through chemotherapy was like finishing a marathon.
“He told me to never give up and keep going,” Hernandez said.
Hernández missed out on running the marathon in 2021. He underwent six rounds of chemotherapy and now goes to the doctor every six months for check-ups. After being cleared by his doctors, he returned to his training group, Students Run LA, last year.
“It was very difficult because I couldn’t fulfill my dream. My dream was to be the fastest, but my mother told me that health always came first,” said Hernández, who completed the 26.2 kilometers of the marathon in 4 hours and 14 minutes in the ninth grade; last year he did it at 5:45.
A portion of the Garfield High team received their uniforms before the Marathon last Saturday.
“It’s understandable because I haven’t been running since chemotherapy. I hope you have a better time this year,” he said.
On Sunday, Hernández and about 2,500 other students will run in the 38th edition of the marathon as part of Students Run LA. They will be joined by nearly 500 adult volunteer mentors, many of whom are teachers and administrators at the students’ schools.
The marathon will feature athletes from over 50 states and 67 countries, starting at Dodger Stadium and winding its way through West Hollywood and Beverly Hills before ending in Century City.
Hernandez’s courage and positivity have impressed his coaches, who say he has become more confident as he progresses.
“What happened to him is something he didn’t wish on anyone, but he has a lot of enthusiasm and energy. Other students or adults would have already given up. He keeps coming to practice. I’ve run the marathon many times, but this is inspiring,” said Students Run LA Garfield coach Abraham López, who has run the marathon 22 times.
For Students Run LA, the marathon is the culmination of seven months of hard work and dedication. It includes more than 185 school groups representing disadvantaged communities, from the San Fernando Valley to Whittier, San Pedro to Eagle Rock and everywhere in between.
Raymond Eason, Garfield High’s Students Run LA coach, has coached students at the school since 1998 and continues alongside López, Erika Ramirez and Cindy Cumbess.
“Israel has a lot of energy. You wouldn’t realize everything that happened because when he comes here he gives everything he has. He keeps the team very motivated,” Eason said.
“They learn patience and that when they put in the effort, they get something important,” added Lopez.
Celeste Ortega, born in East Los Angeles and raised in Puebla, Mexico, is one of Hernandez’s eight teammates at Garfield. In normal years, the school team has about a dozen runners, but that number dwindled during the pandemic.
Ortega returned to Southern California two years ago in search of a better future, while his closest family members, including two younger brothers and an older sister, remained in Mexico.
“I came here for my family. I want to help them one day. I know that one day we will be together,” said Ortega, 18 years old.
For Ortega, running the marathon has been an opportunity to expand her horizons, make new friends and build community in a new home.
He came to the US for school in the spring of 2021 and lives with his aunt Jeanette Rosas and cousin Axel, who was part of SRLA in Garfield. Axel learned that his cousin liked to run during a visit to Mexico and encouraged him to join the SRLA team.
“I want to be another source of pride for my family and the family I live in right now, and also all these achievements I have achieved are thanks to cousin Axel; she is what motivates me,” said Ortega, whose dream is to attend USC to study physical therapy.
Being part of SRLA has given Ortega the opportunity to improve her English and build a community beyond her classroom. She said the best part of SRLA is working toward your goals with other students and teachers.
“It’s hard but for me, at first I thought it wasn’t much for me. At mile 22 I couldn’t hold on any longer; I felt that I couldn’t hold on,” Ortega recalled. “But I enjoyed it and now I’m preparing for the second race and I want to do a third.”