Skip to content

Miles of Change: The Jess Mena Story and the Power of Community Running

Miles of Change: The Jess Mena Story and the Power of Community Running

By Jonathan Andrade

There’s only five minutes until takeoff and a few stragglers are half-begrudgingly trudging up the sloped parking lot at the Marvin Braude Mulholland Gateway Park trailhead.

Jess Mena, creator of the Tempo Training Run Club in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley, has already been parked an hour, eagerly waiting for the start of another Wednesday night club meet.

An avid runner and coach, Mena doesn’t expect everyone else to arrive as early as she does.

“I mostly end up doing an extra workout,” she said of the early solo miles, noting she rushes back from the group run to pull out post-run Gatorades for everyone.

Mena, who works as a physical therapist by day, also savors having ample time prepping for another evening chasing sunsets in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Shoes go on first. Sunblock’s second. Then a quick fill of the tiny 5-ounce Salomon water bottle she carries. Just in case.

Choosing the right hat for the day—as it usually does—takes the longest.

“This is my favorite hat, for sure,” Mena said, showing off a special Fractel design created by Ambrose Killian. “It’s super dope.”

While there’s a medley of well-known brands swinging from the makeshift hat hanger that dangles in her Jeep, Fractel hats are by far her favorite.

“They’re just so artistic with their stuff,” she said before settling on a pastel-coloured cap to compliment her matching navy blue Tracksmith outfit.

The rest of the club moseys up to the meeting spot, where Mena outlines the night’s route for the ever-growing and diverse group of runners.

Tempo Training, which will celebrate its second anniversary on Dec. 1, initially started as a way to advocate against the harassment of women.

“Eighty-four percent of women have experienced harassment while on a run,” Mena famously ranted in an Instagram post that drew more than 100 praises and comments from fellow runners. “The problem is not us. Stop blaming us. Educate your dads, uncles, brothers, cousins, colleagues, teammates and sons. We are tired of running in fear.”

Running in groups helps decrease the chance of out-dated catcalls, unwanted verbal harassment and despicable physical assault.

While the group was exclusive to women at first, friends of Mena who are men wanted in on the weekly running party.

“I couldn’t be too exclusive,” she admits. “It’s changed and evolved and it’s become what it is today.”

What started with meetups of two or three runners has blossomed into gatherings of dozens of club regulars on any given hump day. The increase in attendance is reflective of the booming local run community.

An area that was mainly known as the home of the Valley Runners and New Basin Blues run clubs has since grown into a section of Southern California with more than 10 run clubs. Leaders from these clubs have become tight-knit through social media, hosting collab runs throughout the week and coordinating special, large unified meetups on weekends.

While Tempo Training is its own club, it’s part of a larger, thriving San Fernando Valley run community.

“We wouldn’t be here without everybody else,” Mena said.

And Tempo Training wouldn’t exist without Mena, who started running at age 12, the same age she was when she ran her first marathon.

“It started with the Students Run LA Organization,” Mena said of the non-profit that turns students of the Los Angeles Unified School District into marathoners. “(Running is) the only thing I was actually really good at. My parents tried to put me in soccer, but I was not very coordinated.”

The daughter of Salvadoran parents, Mena said it wasn’t until she started running at Whittier College that she noticed the lack of people of color in the run community. There were plenty of fellow Latino runners throughout her middle school and high school years, but that was because she attended predominately Latino schools.

“It was kind of a culture shock,” Mena said. “Thankfully, running has evolved and it’s been inviting to so many cultures.”

The diversity at Tempo Training meetups is on full display in the weekly group photos, which Mena shares on the club’s Instagram account. From speedy Salvadorans to leisurely beginners, runners of all levels are welcome.

The club bounces back and forth from the paved paths around nearby Lake Balboa Park and the dusty trails at the “Top of Reseda.” It mirrors the interest of Mena, a two-time Boston Marathon finisher who transitioned to trails sometime during the COVID lockdown.

She’s completed more than 15 marathons and two ultra marathons, and she has plans of toeing the start line at three more trail races before 2024.

While Mena still loves road running, she’s currently focusing her time on the trails.

“They’re both challenging in a different way,” she said. “They both bring out a different athletic side of me.” 

Mena’s training understandably gets hectic leading up to race days. Weekday evening workouts and lengthy weekend long runs consume her calendar, but her commitment to her club—and the people who rely on those Wednesday miles—is unwavering.

“I knew If I wanted it to work, I had to be committed to showing up for the run club, and that’s one thing I’ll continue to do,” she said. “I want to show, not only commitment to myself, but also to the community.”

Before Mena and her fellow club members begin the night’s run, they make one last stop at the trail’s welcome sign for a group photo.

All smiling faces in that proverbial safe space Mena envisioned years ago.

“It really does warm my heart to see the same people coming every week,” Mena said. “When I sit down and think about it, I feel fulfilled…It’s become our run group.”


You can follow Jess Mena on IG here


There are no comments for this article. Be the first one to leave a message!

Leave a comment