by Bryan Felber
It’s pitch-black on a lonely section of the Western States Trail – a century-old dusty path that winds through the unrelenting Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. Much of the trail that stretches from Utah to California is only accessible by horse, helicopter, or foot. For 34-year-old Mayra Lopez-Garcia, she’s opted for the last form of transportation – the never-failing heal-toe express. Only problem is, as she summits a peak to reach a pit stop at mile 80 of her 100-mile ultramarathon, the wheels of her carriage – her feet – are “completely trashed.”
“What’s going on, Mayra?” the on-call podiatrist asks her. She takes off her shoes and socks to reveal soles caked with callouses underneath which lurk blisters the size of golf balls. For the last 30 miles or so it felt as if her feet were being stabbed with an icepick 1,500 times a minute. “Oh, there’s nothing there,” the podiatrist reassures her. “We’ll just put some nut butter on and you’ll be on your way.” The anti-chaffing cream is applied and Mayra clicks downhill, the blood orange sun rising at her back. As the cheers fade into the howling wind, the podiatrist makes a comment to one of her teammates: “Yeah, her feet are trashed. I just didn’t want to worry her. She’s only got 20 miles to go.” Just another day in the life of an ultramarathoner.
A normal marathon, which to 99.5% of the population is anything but normal, is 26.2 miles. Try running four of those, back-to-back, up and down mountains, and in 38-degree Celsius heat and you might come close to what Mayra was feeling on June 25th, 2022 during the Western States Endurance Run. What’s more – she did it all while she was on her period. “I got my period at about mile 8,” Mayra tells this dumbfounded male writer. “I ran like that for 30, 40 miles. I decided, ‘I’m going to be like those marathoners with blood everywhere, whatever.’ I didn’t want to stop.” But when she got to mile 60, she finally gave in and shouted, “I need a tampon!”
As a Mexican-American social worker for homelessness and mental health, Mayra Lopez-Garcia is no stranger to adversity. It’s no wonder she blazed through Western States in 26 hours and 46 minutes making her 32nd in the women’s category. Coincidentally, her husband, Jerry Garcia (no relation to the Grateful Dead guitarist), placed 32nd in the men’s category. The question she gets asked all the time by non-runners is, Do you sleep? No. No, she does not. She’s on her feet, every grueling second, with stabbing pains shooting from below and blood dripping from…yeah, you get it. But what’s most incredible is that she does it all smiling. “I go into races happy. Because if I start getting nervous, sometimes you start doubting yourself. And that’s me going into any race. I’m smiling, I’m saying hi. I’m just like this person who’s all over the place. So that’s how I was going into the aid stations throughout the race…until mile 80.” But I can imagine her smile was only slightly uncurled then.
The 100.2-mile course that climbs 18,000 feet (5,486 meters) and crashes down 23,000 (7,010 meters) all in all, is an OG of ultramarathons. Its 369-field size admits “qualified applicants only,” so getting in is just as hard as finishing. The million-dollar question for her and the other 368 participants is, Why? Why on earth do you do it?
“I mean, I just enjoy it. I don’t know if it’s the pain because I’m sure I go through pain. Sometimes I bypass the pain because I put myself in a positive space all the time, or at least I try to even when I’m hurting. I mean, honestly, it’s fun.” I knew I wouldn’t get a straight answer. But oddly enough, I kind of know what she means. As just a measly marathoner I am in no way in Mayra’s league, but I understand what she means when she talks about communal suffering. “I always go back to the community,” Mayra explains. “It’s so fun, like sharing miles with people. When I train with people it’s like, hey, we suffer together! You connect with people in the mountains when you’re training for 2, 3 hours. But also, running gets me through my day because being in the social services field and working with individuals who are homeless or have addiction, it can be draining. So, it’s an escape for me. I’m in my space. Like, you can’t touch this. It’s me and the road.” Correction: it’s her and the trail. Big difference. Training for a marathon, which is usually on city streets, is vastly different than training for an ultramarathon, which is almost always on trails. I was reminded of this difference when I asked her for ultra training advice. “Training for ultras is hardcore,” Mayra warns me. “It’s a lot more time than road running where you go 13 miles and you’re done in 2 hours. With trail running not only do you have to prepare before but you have to prepare things for after your run. You know, you have to drive to a trail head then you have to run. There’s more climbing. So there’s more time that you have to stay out there. On a Friday I will run 10, 15 miles. Saturday 30, 35 miles and then Sunday 20 miles. That was my peak training. Yeah. So it’s a lot more time consuming.”
Mayra grew up in South Los Angeles where you’d find mostly Latinos and African Americans. “There were drugs, prostitution, addiction, homelessness. Growing up, that’s all you saw. And we didn’t really have sports or recreational stuff like that after school.” It wasn’t until Mayra turned 13 that a women’s softball team was formed. (Luckily, she had been playing alongside her brother at the park, so she wasn’t a stranger to the game.) Her parents prioritized sports for her and her brothers – the most time-tested antidote to falling in with the wrong crowd. They also made her attend a high school that was an hour and a half by bus away from her home to avoid the gangs and drugs that plagued her district’s high school. “There were always fights, gangs, guns, drugs to the point that there were hate fights in that school. I really don’t know what would have happened to me if I would have gone to Jefferson School.”
In typical Mayra fashion, she catapulted herself onto the varsity team as a freshman. “Softball girls were always husky. So, I was always big.” Before body-positivity was a thing, Mayra was so conscious of her figure that she would bury herself in sweaters even during 38-degree Celsius summers. By high school, she was being bullied and called by her brother’s name. By the beginning of the summer before her final year of high school, she joined the cross-country team as a way to train for softball season. When she joined she wasn’t even able to run a mile, but by the time she started to shed her “baby fat” as she calls it she was running 5k’s and up. “I was losing weight and I was liking this transition. Like, I was really enjoying it. And then we went on vacation [my family and I] and that’s when I became anorexic. I noticed that I was not eating at all. And then if I was to eat, I would cry myself to bed because I would think that I was going to get fat even if it was a healthy meal. And mind you, my mom always cooked very healthy.” By the time Mayra went back to school, she was 102 pounds (46 kg) at 5”6’ (168 cm). None of her clothes fit her anymore and the contour of her bones showed beneath a thin veil of flesh. But during all this, she kept running and running well. Her coach told her, “You’re one of our top five runners now. We gotta get you actually training.” So, there she was, heading out for the bus at 5:30am with one meal in her stomach, and not eating for the rest of the day, lying to her mom that she had eaten after school. Most of her teammates were tiny, but Mayra’s weight loss was drastic. Dropping that amount in that period of time did rouse a doctor’s concern, but she “became a good liar” and attributed it to her newfound running passion.
It wasn’t until she was running track at Los Angeles Community College that her teammates began to take note of her eating disorder. “We would all go out in a group and I wouldn’t eat or I would just move my food around. And the injuries kept coming and I would get fatigued really quickly. So that’s when they noticed there’s something wrong. When my coach confronted me, I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re right, I only eat one meal a day. I know I have a problem.’ Because if I’m crying when I’m eating, obviously that’s a problem. So, I knew in my mind that I had anorexia.” But like so many mental illnesses, it’s easy to self-diagnose, but treating it, especially by yourself, is much harder. Altogether it took Mayra two and a half years to overcome her anorexia thanks to a strong support community of teammates, coaches, and family members. Every day, her teammates stayed sitting with her until she finished her meals. Her mom made sure she ate before and after school, and her coaches continually checked in with her. Even today, her coach, Armand Crespo, who now leads an independent training group for runners of all ages, checks in with her out of habit. Unfortunately, each year some 10,200 people don’t share the same outcome – this is the death toll related to eating disorders and in terms of mental illnesses, it’s second only to opioid addiction.
Not only did she emerge with healthy eating habits but also a lifelong fitness habit. Before graduating high school she had already run her first marathon with Students Run LA in the 2005 Los Angeles Marathon. This exposed her very early on to the idea of long-distance running. After graduating college, she realized running was way more fun than drinking and partying. Granted, it takes a certain type of person to choose marathons over margaritas but the exposure in her youth at least planted the seed. In young adulthood, she started running trails at Griffith Park in Los Angeles and started to meet likeminded people. “I was like, oh, this is fun. I can run more than six miles? Because in college you don’t run more than 10 miles. So they opened my eyes more into mountain running and those are the same people who introduced me to ultra-runners. ‘This is my friend so-and-so and he runs 100 miles.’ Wait, what?! And that’s when I was like, I want to see this is. I’m interested in this. Like there’s more than 50k’s? There’s more than a marathon?!” It’s so true. Races of 100 miles or more are inconceivable to most people, even people who grew up running in school. Mayra not only fell in love with the sport, but she found her love through it – she met her now-husband Jerry on the trails.
Jerry Garcia is a whole other story. As an engineer and firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service, he’s used to enduring pain, facing off with walls of flame and inhaling billows of smoke in full gear for 40-hour shifts. Fast forward to December 2021 when Mayra and Jerry, who are both HOKA Flyers, ambassadors for the niche shoe company, get a call from Christian Moore, HOKA’s associate manager of events. Mayra was just three weeks off her first 100-mile race, Rio de Lago when Christian asked point-blank, “Are you both interested in running Western States?” The race takes place during the last full weekend of June, the beginning of fire season. “I said, yes! I was yelling, like hell yeah! Jerry did hesitate a little bit because of work.” But Jerry’s a veteran ultra-runner with several races under his belt, including an outright win at the 2017 Angeles Crest 100, so if training did get interrupted, he’d at least be able to fall back on experience.
They were admitted as BIPOC runners (Black Indigenous and People of Color). As Mexican-Americans, Mayra and Jerry mark the early days of an ongoing effort to diversify the sport. To paraphrase and modify a Spike Lee line (when the Black director was referring to the Oscars being white), foot races are like the Rockies – the higher up in mileage you get, the whiter it is at the top. With its time-consuming training, it’s no wonder white people with disposable time and income are able to commit to the sport that offers no reward except a pat on the back and bragging rights. Mayra informed me of a notable exception in that of Ruperto Romero, a 58-year-old serial winner of 100-mile races who grew up in Mexico without enough money for shoes.
But even groups that tout inclusivity, like the women-based Trail Sisters, fall short of living up to their claims. Mayra was invited to speak on their pre-race panel and was asked how the trail community can invite more people of color. Her answer was simple: “We have to go to the youth. I wouldn’t have known about marathons if it wasn’t for Students Run LA. So I feel like we need to take it back to our youth. We need to teach our youth that there’s more out there. But how can we when our programs are being cut, especially in the low-income communities?” Mayra’s right. The government isn’t focused on exposing low-income youth to healthy habits. Grassroots efforts, including local road and trail races in these communities, I believe is the answer. And since most ultramarathons take place on Indigenous trails, organizers should at least be compelled by irony to reopen these ancient highways to their original stewards.
Mayra can be seen mid-stride, plastered with a smile on Instagram and Strava. When it’s not fire season, her and Jerry enjoy trail runs together through the Angeles National Forest near their home in Palmdale. Next up for Mayra is (possibly) the Javelin 100 in Arizona. Coach Armand wants her to return to the marathon. But Mayra’s heart is in the trails and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.