IT’S WELL PAST noon on this October Sunday, and the crowd that earlier had been in the thousands has thinned to small clumps of friends and families waiting for their favorite runners to finally pull in. The winners of the Portland Marathon came and went hours ago. A sound technician has already started dismantling the speaker system that’s been blaring PA announcements and Taylor Swift since before 6 a.m., since before the sun could unmask Mount Hood on the other side of the Willamette River.
Jocelyn Rivas, coming up Naito Parkway, doesn’t seem to notice or care that teardown coincides with her arrival. She’s 40 yards from the finish line. She’s been running for five hours and nearly 11 minutes, and yet her navy-blue compression socks remain firmly in place, her visor snug to her temples, her smile widening with each stride. And she has her iPhone extended, ready to record the finish. Sure, all’s not perfect. The hills around mile 14 had tested her sometimes-achy lower back, and she needed to stop at mile 16 to massage a cramping leg. There are no well-wishers waiting for her, either. And she hasn’t figured out yet how she’s getting home, to Los Angeles, in time for work tomorrow morning. She’ll worry about that later.
Rivas has never run this race before. Doesn’t matter. The blacktop ahead still must seem familiar. She’s about to finish her 94th marathon in seven years. Her 24th this year. Her 38th since the coronavirus pandemic all but shut down the racing world. And when she does, she’ll need just six more finishes to claim a record that a woman born the way she was should never be pursuing.
After running beneath the finishing banner, she stops to high-five a runner she met eight miles earlier. “His name was Dennis,” she’ll say later, “and he said this was going to be the last marathon he ever ran.” That’s definitely not her plan. She bends over for a second before moving forward to collect her race medal. Then she remembers something. “Can you take my photo?” she asks a race volunteer. She holds the medal — it’s the size of a coffee saucer — near her chin with her right hand and raises her left arm toward the banner. Her neck tilts slightly. Click. She has the evidence she came to Portland for.
Guinness World Records will want whatever documentation Rivas can supply to verify the record she’s after. They’ll want to see photos, videos and course maps from the marathons she has run, including from her first, in 2014, when she was 17; and from the five she’ll run in the weeks after Portland; and from the one she plans to run this Sunday in Los Angeles, which would give her 100 — and the Guinness record as the youngest person to ever run that many marathons.
The record has been held by a British runner, Elizabeth Tunna, who got it in 2011 at age 24 years, 351 days. Rivas will be 24 years, 292 days this Sunday. She’s spent thousands of dollars and traveled thousands of miles and endured hundreds of doubts to get to the milestone run, so it’s understandable when she says, “I hope I break this record.” What’s harder to figure is when she adds, “I hope in a year or less someone else breaks it.”
It only becomes clear why when you hear her whole story, the story of what it took not just to get to a finish line but to get to a starting line.
JOCELYN RIVAS IS a DACA recipient, a so-called “Dreamer.” Since 2012, the controversial Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program has provided protection from deportation for some people without legal status — like Rivas, who was born in El Salvador. But DACA’s long-term viability has never been a sure thing. The latest test came in July, when a federal judge ruled DACA to be unlawful and prohibited the Department of Homeland Security from approving any new, first-time applicants. The Biden administration appealed the ruling in September.
By now, Rivas has come to accept her impermanent status. “After years and years as a DACA recipient, the [main] way I can become a citizen is by marrying someone who’s a U.S. citizen,” says Rivas, who was 15 in 2012 when she became a DACA beneficiary. “I don’t want that; I’m very independent. I like doing things my own way.”
Since Sept. 5, 2017, she’s been showing just how resolute she is. That morning, former President Donald Trump’s administration announced it would revoke DACA. The news shocked Rivas, leaving her in tears, unable to run, and feeling “very empty” most of the day. But by the next day, she had posted on Instagram her goal to become the youngest Latina runner to complete 100 marathons, a record then held by another Los Angeles runner. (Rivas was not yet aware of the Guinness record.)
“It pushed me to do something,” Rivas says of the Trump administration’s order, which subsequently was blocked by the Supreme Court. “I never wanted to feel that way again. I wanted to feel like a stronger person. I already loved marathons, and it gave me the purpose to get back to doing more of them.”
At the time, she was in her third year at Cal State Los Angeles, the first in her family to attend college. She was studying computer information systems, taking 18 credits per semester and working eight-hour shifts at an Apple Store. And she had checked off nine of the required 100 marathons. But besides the records and the satisfaction that came with going 26.2 miles, she had another reason to keep running: “To show [that Dreamers] are not just here to do nothing. We are doing great things,” Rivas says. “Dreamers have struggled a lot. We’ve been between, ‘Are we going to stay?’ or ‘Are they going to deport us?’ It’s hard emotionally.” She pauses. “You keep on chasing your dream because one day it could be taken away.”
WHEN SHE COMPLETES her 100th marathon, Rivas will have run 2,620 miles, or roughly the distance between her birthplace — San Salvador, El Salvador — and Los Angeles, the city she first arrived in late the night of Oct. 1, 2003, unsure of where she was or why.
She was just 6, a tiny girl with short, dark hair, who spoke no English. She and her sister Jessica, 11 at the time, had just spent 15 days with strangers who had been paid to ferret them from El Salvador through Guatemala and then through Mexico. She huddled next to Jessica for most of the trip, crying and wanting to go back to Sensuntepeque, the town where she played with friends on the dirt- and rock-strewn streets outside the home of her abuela, her grandmother Maria, whom she had always thought of as her mom.
At one point, Jocelyn almost got her wish. A few miles from the Mexican border, Guatemalan immigration officers boarded the girls’ bus. They wanted to see the sisters’ Guatemalan IDs. “We didn’t have any,” says Jessica, now 30. “All I had was some money my grandmother gave me, about $50.” The girls got off the bus and went into the immigration office. An official took Jessica’s money, and the sisters got back on the bus.
By the time they reached the U.S. border at San Diego, the girls were traveling by car and with two American women. One of the women told Jocelyn to pretend she was asleep. If the guards asked, Jocelyn was ready to say her name was Jose. “The driver said she had a son with that name and he was about my age, and he had short hair,” Jocelyn says. She never had to say a word. The guards waved the car through.
A couple of hours later, she sat in a McDonald’s in an area of South Central populated by immigrants from Mexico and Central America. A woman, with dark hair, a pleasant smile, came over as Jocelyn ate French fries.
“Hola, soy tu mamá, sabes?” the woman said.
Jocelyn looked back blankly, wondering who this person was, this person claiming to be her mother. “She was a stranger to me,” Jocelyn says. “My mom was back in El Salvador.”
Jocelyn had no memory of this person — or what Rosa Rivas had gone through in the first days of Jocelyn’s life.
JOCELYN WAS BORN on Jan. 19, 1997. Moments after the delivery, Salvadoran doctors told Rosa, already a single mother of two daughters, that her baby had a broken neck, a broken back, and two broken feet. They gave no explanation for Jocelyn’s injuries or what may have happened, and no clear indication if the baby would be OK. “I was surprised when they told me this. I didn’t expect it,” Rosa, 52, recalls through an interpreter. “I expected her to be fine, a little girl.”
They spent 10 days in the hospital. When Rosa finally took Jocelyn home, she cried almost as much as the baby did. Twice a week, for the next six months, she boarded a bus with Jocelyn and rode 45 minutes to the hospital in San Salvador where physical therapists massaged the baby’s feet, spine and neck. When they returned home later in the day, the two would go to the restaurant where Rosa worked. She placed the baby on a soft pillow in a back room, hoping Jocelyn would stay as immobile as possible while Rosa served tables.
Today, Rosa can’t remember if it took eight months or 12 months or longer for Jocelyn’s bones to heal. But eventually they did — and the little girl got going. As Jessica says of her sister, “She didn’t walk fast. She took her time. Her feet were kind of sideways — not like a normal kid.”
A year or so later, it was Rosa who was on the move. She left Jocelyn, Jessica, and Jennette, her oldest daughter, with her mother and emigrated to Los Angeles. Her plan was to make enough money so she could eventually bring the girls to the United States. (Jennette would enter the U.S. two years after her sisters.) Rosa worried about the gangs around Sensuntepeque and the harm they might do to her children. And she wanted to provide them more in the way of food and clothing and other essentials. “We didn’t live well [in El Salvador],” Rosa says. “I wanted to come to the United States to get ahead and to give our family a better life.”
A reasonable plan, but when you’re 6 years old and sitting in a McDonald’s late at night and a strange woman comes up to you and says she’s your mother, you’re not thinking reasonably. “Are you sure you’re my mom?” Jocelyn asked Rosa before she went to her new home in South Central.
Over time, the relationship between the two has had its fits and starts. Jocelyn refused to call Rosa mom until weeks after hearing her sister use the name. When they argued, Jocelyn would rush off in tears, yelling, “You’re not my mom! My grandmother is my mom!” Adding to the strain: Money in the Rivas home was tight. Rosa worked two and sometimes three jobs, mostly as a maintenance worker. Jocelyn often saw Rosa only late in the evening; Jessica was the one preparing dinner. (Jocelyn says she has no relationship with her father. She was unaware of him until he reached out via Facebook a couple of years ago.)
And, there was the reality of their residence status.
Before DACA was enacted, Rosa made sure to tell her daughter what it meant to be undocumented: Finding steady work and going to college would be difficult, and being deported for the slightest infraction was always a possibility. She told Jocelyn she was different than many of her classmates. “You have to work double more than most people because you’re undocumented,” Jocelyn remembers her mother saying. “And don’t ever tell me you can’t do anything.”
As it turned out, the one thing Jocelyn most wanted to do, Rosa told her she couldn’t.
IT’S HAPPENED TO many: You watch a marathon, and then you say you want to run one. It happened to Jocelyn Rivas while watching classmates from her high school, the James A. Foshay Learning Center, run the Los Angeles Marathon in 2013. “I was like, ‘Wow, they’re doing it. Why can’t I?'” she says.
Because her mom wouldn’t let her. Rosa had her reasons, like the memories of the crying baby on a pillow. But there were also the days when Jocelyn came home from school complaining of a sore, tight neck or pain in her lower back. They had no medical records but figured the discomfort was related to her injuries at birth. “I didn’t want her to become a runner,” Rosa says now. “I didn’t want to make the pain worse.”
Jocelyn ignored her mother, signing up for an afterschool program called Students Run LA when she was a high school junior — without telling Rosa. Since 1989, SRLA’s volunteer coaches have trained several thousand teens to run the L.A. Marathon. Many of the runners come from underserved neighborhoods.
Rivas rarely missed a practice or cut short a run during the six-month SRLA program. Weekdays, she and her teammates would take off from school and run up Exposition Boulevard to the USC campus. They dodged taco carts, ran alongside a train line, got jeered now and then by the porch-sitters not used to seeing runners on Exposition. Matt Thomas, an SRLA coach at the time, describes the route like this: “It’s concrete for miles. You’re stopping at traffic lights, making sure you don’t get hit by a car. It’s not an ideal kind of scene.”
But it gave Rivas her running start, as well as a taste of what was in store. After one five-mile run, she asked a teammate, “Do you feel any pain in your back and neck?” He said no, which made her wonder. “I was feeling a lot,” Rivas says. “It was a bit more than usual. I thought maybe that’s the way you’re supposed to feel when running.”
Most nights after practice she went back to Foshay, where its robotics team often worked late, sometimes past midnight. The team, co-founded in 2001 by Darryl Newhouse, had built a national reputation. In 2015, Jocelyn’s senior year, it received the prestigious Chairman’s Award at the FIRST Robotics Competition, outclassing some 3,000 schools from around the world.
“She had a different type of drive than a lot of students,” Newhouse says of Rivas. “I don’t think she has a preconceived notion of failing. She has an uncommon desire to succeed.”
Shalom Sanchez, an SRLA coach, trained Rivas for her first two marathons. “She was always pushing herself, and it wasn’t just with running. She was always pushing herself with activities at school,” Sanchez says. “I’ve worked with hundreds and hundreds of kids, but you rarely see one that has the character she has. She always wanted to grow.”
Rivas finished her first L.A. Marathon, from Dodger Stadium to the pier in Santa Monica, in 4 hours and 31 minutes; she was second among the Foshay runners. It was a warm March day, with temperatures hitting 88 degrees, and Rivas struggled on the hills near mile 18. But the biggest hurdle came at mile 22. “I started to cry. I was thinking about my mom,” she says. “I was doing all of this just to prove her wrong.” Four miles later, when she got to the pier: “I felt like something I have never felt before. Like everything was possible. That was the point where I realized I fell in love with running. It was just something I wanted to keep on doing.”
This time she asked herself, “When can I do the next one?”
THE NEXT ONE will be the Guinness record-breaker. It will take place in the city where she arrived 18 years ago not knowing why she was there. Now she has a reason. “I hope my story inspires someone to go after [the record],” Rivas says a few days before she’ll run the L.A. Marathon, her 100th. “That’s one thing I learned on this journey. People think a title belongs to someone. No, a title doesn’t belong to anyone. It belongs to humanity. It’s about how you push the human body.”
Rivas has had to push her body — and mind — more than she originally planned to get thisclose to the Guinness record. Blame COVID-19 for that. On March 8, 2020, she ran her 56th marathon. She had plans to run 44 more by year’s end — and break the Guinness record with time to spare. But then the pandemic changed everything. Her next 20 scheduled marathons were all canceled. Suddenly, she’d lost control of her record pursuit, not to mention hundreds of dollars in nonrefundable entry fees. “I was so upset. I really lost all my motivation to run,” Rivas says of those early pandemic days. “I went from running a marathon every weekend to simply not running. It was very hard.”
Julie Weiss, who once ran 52 marathons in 52 weeks, counseled Rivas through the race stoppage. “When I noticed that she was feeling down or wanted to give up because so many races were getting canceled,” says Weiss, a Los Angeles-area runner, “I was like, ‘It’s going to be OK; it’s actually going to be better than OK. Sometimes you reach for this goal, and you expect it to be a certain way, but it will be better because of these obstacles you’ve had to overcome.'”
A glimmer of hope came in July. Via a Facebook page populated by marathon fanatics, Rivas learned of a race in some place called Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, and snagged one of the last of 30 race entries. She ran with a mask, and a renewed belief that maybe there was still a way to get to 100 by the deadline in January 2022. Since that marathon, she’s averaged three per month, a rate juiced by her running six marathons in nine days this past December and into January. She doesn’t run them particularly fast. She usually finishes at least an hour slower than her 4:12 personal best. But she always finishes.
“You keep on chasing your dream because one day it could be taken away.”
In the process she became her own travel agent, scouting for off-the-main-line races in places like Utah’s Beaver Canyon and Texas’ Bachman Lake. Rivas, by day a technical support engineer for a software company, has discovered when the best fares hit (“Tuesday night,” she confides) and how to find a $30 hostel with nearby vegan restaurants. She’s traveled to 14 states to compete in races, including six trips just to Texas. Four times she’s run marathons on back-to-back-to-back days.
Marathons have taken her to the deserts of Utah and to the wine country in northern California. On a lonely run in Ocala, Florida, when she thought an animal was after her. On a run in Louisiana with mimosa shots every few miles. And then there was the marathon in El Paso, Texas, where, at mile 24 and just a few feet from the Mexican border, she remembers saying to herself, “Damn, if I cross that border, everything changes for me.”
Rivas knows her limits, although those limits are often ones most runners never have to consider. For instance, DACA doesn’t allow her to travel to marathons outside the U.S. And she can’t forget critical deadlines — like renewing her DACA status every two years — just because she’s running a race. And when she’s warming up before a marathon or cooling down after one, it’s rare that she’ll spot a runner who looks like her. “When it comes to marathons,” Rivas says, “Latinos don’t feel they’re being represented.”
But she’s also discovered how potentially limitless the possibilities are for her. Evelin Rodriguez went to high school with Rivas and has run some 5Ks with her. And like her friend, she is a DACA recipient, by way of Mexico. “[Rivas is] chasing what I would say is the American dream,” Rodriguez says. “Who would have thought that by running marathons she’d get to change her life?”
Yes, seven years of running have changed Jocelyn Rivas. Before her first mile with Students Run LA, she made the mistake of eating a bag of spicy Cheetos. Today, she’s a vegan. That first mile was also the first time she ever ran in running shoes. Now, different shoe companies send her samples to try out. And when she finished her first marathon, on that warm Los Angeles day, she sported a smile many teens have seen in the mirror: braces from molar to molar. As she’s about to run her next marathon, her smile will reflect something else.
“Many people don’t know the story of Dreamers or don’t know enough about Dreamers, so now they can put a face to it,” Rivas says. “They can say, ‘Hey, look, this is just an example of one Dreamer, one out of 800,000. They’re just here to follow their dream.'” And get to the finish line.