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A running story. A love story.

Mayra Lopez-Garcia and Jerry Garcia cover the tough miles of life together.

Heather Balogh Rochfort

August 26th, 2022

10 min read

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With just one minute before the starting bell of the 2015 OC Marathon, Mayra Lopez-Garcia locked eyes with Jerry Garcia. Thanks to the tight-knit running community in Los Angeles, they’d followed each other on Instagram for a few months and recognized each other’s face. But they hadn’t yet met until Mayra’s friends from her Griffith Park running club introduced them amidst the surging crowd of runners pushing toward the starting line.

Was it love at first sight? “I was like, ‘Who’s this man with this big tattoo across his chest?’” Mayra says, laughing about Jerry’s conspicuous ‘Let’s Get It On’ ink.  

The introduction was fleeting as thousands of runners began their 26.2-mile journey through Orange County. And yet, it’s a perfect summation of their relationship now: Jerry, Mayra, and miles and miles of running.

Mayra and Jerry doing what they love, together. Photo courtesy of Hoka.

Mayra likes to say she started running “for the wrong reasons,” like so many women of her generation. She grew up as a softball player in South Los Angeles, emulating her father’s love of baseball. It wasn’t until her junior year of high school that she joined the cross-country team, scoring bonus fitness for softball. But as she logged more and more miles, the pounds fell off.

Bullied throughout middle school for being overweight, Mayra loved what running was doing for her body — so she kept running. By the time her senior year rolled around, Mayra was no longer a “throwaway” member on the cross-country team; she was a top-five female athlete. She also joined Students Run LA, completing her first marathon at the age of 17. But as her star was rising, her weight was simultaneously crashing. “I was a great liar when it came to food,” Mayra remembers, noting that her mother still worries whether she can trust Mayra’s food judgment.

Mayra kept running in college, but that’s when she hit her low point: 102 pounds. Fortunately, her coaches noticed the extreme fatigue and constant string of injuries. They addressed their concerns with Mayra’s family. From there, everyone rallied to care for her recovery. For the remainder of college, Mayra didn’t have a single class or meal without a teammate, coach, or family member sitting beside her. Gradually, her body got used to eating again. By the time she graduated, her anorexia was in the rearview mirror.

Her running ebbed and flowed post-higher education, but she eventually returned to the sport after discovering the trails in LA’s iconic Griffith Park. She ran like a metronome: every single day, three miles out and three miles back on the exact same trail. One day, a group of older runners approached her with a friendly smile. Hey, we see you here every day, they told her, Let’s run together!

As the miles ticked by with her new group, Mayra learned they were a humble-yet-rugged crew of ultrarunners, brought together by their ragtag love of the sport. It wasn’t organized: the group of Latino runners had been haphazardly running in the park for 20 years, showing up daily to log some miles and eat some lunch together. But their love of endurance was strong, and they brought Mayra into the fold, introducing her to foreign concepts, like running 100-miles. Before long, she was smitten. “It opened my eyes to a whole different perspective of running,” Mayra says. “And it brought me to Jerry.”

While Mayra’s path to ultras was a bit lumpy, Jerry’s was downright mountainous. He also grew up in Los Angeles with a loving family and two hard-working parents. However, his community was tough, and filled with hardened gangs. Surrounded by drugs and drinking, Jerry succumbed to the lifestyle, and before he graduated high school found himself in Juvenile Hall, otherwise known as a youth detention center. “I was spiraling,” Jerry says. “My mom and dad had no control over me.”

When he got out, he made his first attempt at straightening out his life. He joined the Navy, hoping that a career in the military would help him find a path forward. While stationed overseas in Japan for two years, he brought his previous life — and attitude — with him. He provoked often and fought with everyone, so much so that the military eventually arrested him for it. “I felt like I had to prove myself to those guys; that I had to represent where I came from,” Jerry says. Finally, the Navy had had enough, and let him go.

Fortunately, his captain was generous: “He gave me a general discharge under honorable conditions,” Jerry says. “He did it so I could still find work when I got home.”

But back in Los Angeles, Jerry fell back into his old habits, burying himself in methamphetamine and criminal activity. Now in his early 20s and legally an adult, he bounced in and out of the county jail system. The shame of his Navy discharge and the guilt he felt for letting everyone down created a perfect storm of self-destructive behavior.

After his mother drew a hard line, Jerry ended up on Skid Row, the infamous Los Angeles neighborhood known for a large-yet-stable population of homeless people. He wasn’t fully living there, but he spent a lot of time hanging with friends in the area when he couldn’t find another place to crash. It was during one such evening when the harsh reality of his dingy and dire situation hit him. At midnight, he called an old friend for help. “The hardest part was surrendering,” Jerry says. “I told him, ‘I give up. I need to go to recovery.’”

His buddy drove Jerry to a rehab center, where the detox process began. Over the next year, Jerry’s confidence grew as his former lifestyle faded. Eventually, his mom invited him home so he could get a job delivering pizzas with Domino’s. He enrolled in a local junior college with a wildland fire program. Looking around the classroom, Jerry’s confidence and competitive streak kicked in. “I thought, ‘If that guy can do it, I can do it.” He landed a job with the United States Forest Service, where he’s worked for the last 15 years.

Mayra, Jerry, and miles and miles of running. .Photo courtesy of Hoka.

While visiting an ex-girlfriend, her roommate nonchalantly mentioned she was training for the Pasadena Half Marathon. Jerry hadn’t yet run a mile, but again, his competitiveness kicked in. “Yeah, I’m running the marathon,” he said, before rushing home to register.

“I got my ass kicked,” he says. “It was a humbling experience, but right after I knew it was a challenge and I wanted to improve.”

Jerry dove into marathons the same way he does with everything: headfirst. After a few years, he met someone training for a 50K. So, Jerry ran a 50K. Then, he met someone running a 50-miler. So, Jerry ran a 50-miler. “I fell in love with the challenge but also the atmosphere,” he says. “I found a good group of friends unlike before when I always worried about backstabbing.”

By the time Jerry and Mayra met in 2015, running was a cornerstone in both of their lives. In fact, Jerry waited until Mayra qualified for Boston before asking her out on a date. “She was riding a high and super pumped about her BQ so I thought I stood a better chance!” he says.

Western States 100 finish line, 2022.

Early dates found them running at Griffith Park or viewing the movie Run Free: The True Story of Caballo Blanco. Jerry introduced Mayra to new trails and longer distances and Mayra helped crew for Jerry when she realized his friends had brought cans of beans for his race fuel at aid stations. Mayra immediately fell in love with Jerry’s sense of humor and how secure she felt with him. Although the duo is not married, “We have the same last name, so we just pretend we are!” Mayra says. And they improved as runners, with Jerry going on to win the 2017 Angeles Crest 100 and Mayra eventually tackling her first 100 at Rio del Lago in 2021. Finally, they both joined the HOKA Flyer ambassador program which brought them to the pinnacle of their storied relationship-and-running careers: their shared dream to run Western States.

This past June, both Mayra and Jerry finished the celebrated 100-miler, wrapping a beautiful shoelace around the past decade of their partnership. And Mayra connected with Jerry’s crew ahead of time to be sure they had exactly what he’d need out there on course (no beans!), and warned them, “If he looks serious, he isn’t mad, he’s just focused, so don’t get worried!” Jerry finished four hours ahead of Mayra but was waiting on the track for her sprint finish.

In the end, the duo completed America’s most iconic footrace the same way they do everything else: together. “Running is at the core of our relationship,” Jerry says. “We just build off that. We’re different people than we were five years ago, but we just keep challenging ourselves and each other.”

4 responses to “A running story. A love story.”

  1. Dan Lehnberg says:

    Such an inspiring story of courage and perseverance. ❤️

  2. […] in Los Angeles, we look at two tight-knit running communities that helped Mayra and Jerry Garcia find themselves and ultimately each other. Plus, Will Ferrell “hits all the buttons” on […]

  3. Yovanni Mojica says:

    The Garcia’s are so friking cool!!

  4. Betsy says:

    Your life stories and love are inspirational! Thanks for who you are and what you bring to this world!

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