It’s 5 a.m. on a rooftop parking lot in downtown Santa Ana and the night sky is just beginning to fade. Under a lamp’s orange glow, people in hoodies and sweat pants emerge from the stairwell, wiping the sleep from their eyes and hugging themselves against the cold.
“You guys ready?” asks Marc Payan, clutching a mug of coffee in one hand, his phone in the other.
On his command, about 100 people lunge around the concrete lot, then quickly step into two long lines facing each other. They squat and punch the air, kick their legs, then shuffle quickly in place.
“A little quebradita,” Payan tells them. “Move your hips if you want.”
In a park in L.A., say, or Malibu, this type of early morning fitness camp would be unremarkable. On the beach in Santa Monica, so many people pay big money to have instructors yell and cajole them into shape that the city sought to regulate such boot camps.
But in one of the nation’s densest cities, there are no beaches and hardly any parks. And, for many, paying $100 or more per month for a fitness group just isn’t an option.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that early this year, when Payan came to Santa Ana from his home in Irvine and started offering free fitness classes before sunrise in a downtown alley, people showed up.
When the early morning sessions moved to the rooftop of a parking garage, even more joined.
Payan greets his students with the exuberance of a man who not too long ago lost 88 pounds working out six days a week. The individuals he calls warriors, the whole group a tribe. Many have become true devotees. Like Angelica Araujo, some even arrive at 4 a.m. to get in an extra workout before the 5 a.m. session. They spread the word among friends and family, anyone who will listen. Araujo, 31, invited 15 people, 10 of whom now regularly venture into the early morning cold to get in shape alongside her.
“There’s a sense of community here,” she says.
Health statistics in Santa Ana are notoriously depressing. More than 70% of adults are overweight or obese, according to a study by Orange County Health Needs Assessment. High rates of chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease often go untreated because people lack insurance.
Santa Ana’s dense cityscape doesn’t help. While nearby Irvine has 38 acres of parks per 1,000 residents and Laguna Beach has 69, Santa Ana has about one, according to county statistics. In the absence of green space, people do what they can to stay active.
Kids take over parking lots to ride scooters. One group maps downtown walking paths where residents might walk safely. And a dark downtown rooftop becomes a refuge.
Before the 5 a.m. session on a recent Wednesday, Sara Serna, 52, walks circles with a friend around the lot. When the lamps flicker off and only the pale fluorescent light of nearby office buildings is left to light their way, Serna hardly notices. She pumps her arms as she moves around and around against the cold.
“It’s just nice time. It’s quiet,” she says.
Serna has diabetes and had taken to walking for exercise but “it was just getting worse,” she says. The first time she came to the rooftop at the invitation of her niece, she was sore for a week. But it didn’t stop her from coming back.
“It’s just helpful when you have a lot of people cheering you on,” her friend says. Serna agrees. On the rooftop, the dark is something of a security blanket. Nobody judges you, she says. Nobody notices if you’re wearing makeup or if your hair is in place.
The free classes started in Payan’s garage in Irvine. When they got too big, he moved across the road to a park. But he saw a need in Santa Ana, so in January he put out the word on Facebook that he’d be offering the workout he’s dubbed PayanX at 5 a.m. for anyone who wanted to show up.
They wouldn’t need weights or any special equipment. Just their bodies. And the ability to wake up before sunrise.
Now, he’s trained a few leaders he calls X-men to teach classes in Santa Ana and Irvine when he’s not around. They’ve become so popular in Santa Ana that they’re offered five days a week. Payan says he doesn’t charge because he thinks people change only when you throw off their expectations: Offer exercise for free and they see a community, not a burden.
But he also sees opportunity.
Like a Latino Richard Simmons for the selfie age, he’s looking to brand the PayanX lifestyle. He’s exploring deals with Latino and Asian grocers to sell nutrition products, offer adventure groups, even roast coffee and open a shop in downtown Santa Ana. He says the 5 a.m. sessions will remain free.
Most of the people who venture to the workouts don’t know about any of that, though a few buy the PayanX T-shirts and sweat shirts he sometimes sells.
One of them is Elvira Alvarado, 43, who met Payan’s group at a health fair this summer and has been coming, on and off, ever since.
“I’m a single mother, so I can’t really afford the gym,” she says. Like Serna, she is also diabetic. She works out three days a week while her children sleep.
“It’s free and it’s local,” she says. “Everything falls into place perfectly.”
At 6 a.m. the class wraps up. A few people linger to talk to Payan. But soon the rooftop is empty again. Alvarado heads home to get her kids ready for school.