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In Los Angeles, Latinos Run Connects Runners from All Walks of Life

Gabriel Ortega of Los Angeles, California, is an ambassador for the Latinos Run community. Ortega started running in high school to prepare for the demands of life in the US Marine Corps. Years later, after he left the military, the sense of discipline stuck, and Ortega continued to run.

At first he ran for personal fitness, but soon running opened up a world of social connection for Ortega. He found accountability and satisfaction in his role as a leader and mentor, inspiring others to live healthier, happier lives.

Fleet Feet caught up with Ortega over the phone to learn more about his journey and the Latinos Run community.

Fleet Feet (FF): How did you start running?

GABRIEL ORTEGA: I’ve been a runner since high school, but I never really identified with saying I was a runner. It wasn’t until I got involved in the running community and learned of groups like Latinos Run that I started to see myself as a runner.

FF: Why didn’t you identify as a runner?

ORTEGA: We ran a lot in the Marines for physical conditioning, but I was just running because I was supposed to. When you walk away from the military you keep some of those habits in your life. Running was one of them for me, and that’s when I realized, ‘Oh, this is a part of who I am now.’

I ran to get outside, to clear my head and have time for myself. It was something I did alone. Then I met a friend and we started running together. He introduced me to the social aspect of running where people were meeting in groups, connecting online and documenting their runs. That’s when it kind of sparked for me. In 2016, I started running on a bigger level. I started promoting running to the community and getting more people involved.

FF: How did you get started with Latinos Run?

ORTEGA: I found Latinos Run on Instagram and reached out to the founder, Maria Solis Belizaire, in 2016. I started helping with events on the West Coast in Los Angeles. We have a big Latino population, and I was the guy on the ground over here who helped promote the activities she had going on.

FF: What is the community like? Do you train together?

ORTEGA: A lot of the group is based on support given online. There isn’t a dedicated group that meets on a regular basis in LA. People who identify as Latino in the running community run on their own and spread the word through social media. They will tag their post with #LatinosRun. So when we do have events annually where we meet up, they will all come out and we can meet each other and do a run together.

Especially in this climate we’re relying on social media connections to interact with each other and promote important events in our community. We’re trying to promote a healthier lifestyle. With everything going on related to COVID, protests and fires in our community, it makes it hard to keep people engaged in a healthy activity. People talk about the new normal. We really hope this isn’t the new normal, but that we can just endure it and get out to the other side and be better for it.

FF: What does the Latinos Run community mean to you?

ORTEGA: We’re fortunate in LA to have such a diverse community where we have a broad spectrum of people who fall under the so-called label of being Latino. Whether they self-identify or other people may assume they’re Latino based on physical features, we have so many people here and we’re kind of united under that banner.

But, we’re united as runners first. You get to look around and see you don’t stick out like a sore thumb anymore. You have people who look like you or who come from different areas of the city or have different careers. There’s so much diversity.

I’ve been so blessed to meet people from all walks of life throughout our city. We’re happy to have that uniting factor of being runners. That brings you together first and foremost. Then you learn about all the other stuff.

FF: Do you think running brings people together?

ORTEGA: It definitely does. I’ve met hundreds of people from running. Some of those relationships become friendships based on running itself. But you build deeper bonds beyond running.

I happen to be a father. I like to meet other dads who run, people who happen to be in the same age demographic. Or, we run in the same neighborhood. All of these things go beyond the initial meetup of just being a runner. I think that allows everyone to get to know each other better. Maybe make a friend you might not have considered connecting with in that way.

FF: Do you think it’s important to see different body types, skin tones and shapes reflected in the running world?

ORTEGA: Definitely. With something like running, anyone who hasn’t ever run before might feel intimidated, and say, ‘Well I’m not a runner.’ But it’s important to be able to look and see that there are runners who look like you and to realize that you don’t have to look like an elite athlete.

You don’t have to look like a model or a bodybuilder to be a runner. You’re there for your health, and you’re there to run and to be in connection with your body and what it can do. And whatever goals you have for yourself in life, to put it out there while you’re running. I think it’s beautiful when we have different people of all shapes and sizes out there. It makes it accessible.

To see someone and say, ‘Well if they can do it, I can do it.’ And that’s all you need to spark it and keep going.

FF: What is the biggest lesson you have learned from running?

ORTEGA: It’s more mental endurance than physical. In my military training, when running sometimes you want to quit and you’re told that you can’t. Now, when training for a marathon, if you put that goal in front of you for 16 weeks, the hardest part I’ve always found is that mental commitment. To say I’m going to set that alarm and be up at 5 a.m. I’m going to make sure my gear is laid out the night before. I’m going to get a good night’s rest because I’m going to meet my group and we have this plan or training schedule to adhere to.

A lot of it is that mental toughness to stay disciplined and stay on that right path. Because it’s so easy to say well let me just skip this day. Or, I can make up that run later. That’s when it starts to fall apart.

When you can commit to a plan and stick to it for that entire training season knowing at the end you’re going to cross that finish line. It takes more than just the mile that you’re on. Your body will want to stop when you’re doing a marathon. But you have to know that you’re stronger than that, that you’ve put in the time and the training and you’re going to finish. To me it’s just that mental endurance and strength to keep going.

FF: How have things been going for you since COVID hit LA?

ORTEGA: Not everyone agreed with it but in LA we were able to still hold our marathon on the last weekend before everything shut down in the city. That was the last gathering of everybody, at least in my community, and the last major event in the city. So it was like, OK, what do we do now? I was staying at home working out, running in my neighborhood. But the tracks are closed down. I haven’t been able to do speedwork in months. It’s been difficult. I’m having a little bit of withdrawal.

FF: What keeps you motivated?

ORTEGA: I’ve found there are a lot of little things. Treating yourself to nice running shoes. Or, focusing on a PR that you might want to obtain. That individual accountability. But I know that there’s a lot of social accountability.

From my perspective because major races are such a big part of my running community. You decide, all hands in we’re going to do this. The people you connect with push and inspire each other. You’ve made this contract that you’re going to get out there and run that race, whatever it happens to be.

I have accountability at my Individual level. I might adhere to a training plan and commitment to that. If I put it out there to the universe and on social media and others are following me, I know that I’m accountable to them to lead by example. That, to me, is one of my biggest things, I try to lead by example. If I’m asking you to go out there and do it, I should be out there doing it too, showing you that it can be done.

Rapid Fire Questions:

Full Name: Gabriel Ortega

IG Handle: go.gabrielortega

City / State: Los Angeles, CA

What do you love about running?

The physical and mental health benefits.

Who inspires you?

Kobe Bryant and Dwayne Johnson.

What is the biggest lesson you have learned from running?

It’s more mental endurance than physical.

What do you wish you had known when you first started?

To wear proper shoes.

What advice would you give to new runners?

Be consistent. Find a support system. Whether it’s a running buddy or a running group.

Where do you like to run?

I love to run throughout my neighborhood and in various parts of the city.

What running accomplishment are you most proud of?

My first marathon.

What piece of gear can you not live without?

My Garmin watch.

What is your favorite pre-run snack?

A couple bananas.

Favorite way to recover after a run?

Normatec compression boots and Hypervolt massage gun.

Do you like to run alone? With others?

Both. I love to feed off the energy of other runners. But I also enjoy my alone time on a solo run.

What gets you motivated?

My friends in the running community.

What is your favorite thing about the Latinos Run community?

The diversity.

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