With warnings that a polar vortex would plunge the east coast into a President’s Day weekend cold spell, I was comfortably certain that my quick escape to Southern California would yield a polar opposite forecast. That surety gave way to reality, as even the most experienced marathoners struggled during Saturday’s Olympic Trials, the warmest on record. To successfully complete my Sunday trek to Santa Monica, it was obvious this marathon mortal would need to adopt a cautiously conservative approach.
My most recent marathon, New York City this past November, tested me in ways I hadn’t expected. I was still scarred by those final miles, where a failure to adapt my hydration and pacing strategy to the conditions had dealt a crushing blow to my confidence. These memories, still vivid and raw, coupled with a shorter, 12-week training regimen had led me to eschew setting any time goals. Instead, I aimed to focus on adapting to the warmer conditions while reclaiming my mental fortitude.
It was just a short shuttle bus ride from downtown LA to the starting line at Dodger Stadium. The pre-dawn air was comfortably chilly, and I savored the cool temperature that I knew would rise steadily once the horizon gave way to a beaming sun. I made may way into the stadium, which served as a temporary staging ground. Though I’d seen countless views of Dodger Stadium on television, this was my first time inside the historic stadium. I marveled at how cool it was to be able to freely meandering around. As a first time visitor to Los Angeles, I couldn’t wait to see so many of the city’s landmarks that I’d only admired previously on screen. In my mind, the TMZ tour bus didn’t have anything on today’s stadium to the sea course.
Soon enough, it was time to check my baggage and head to the corrals adjacent to the stadium, just beyond the walls of the outfield. As the skies began to give way to the day’s light, my anticipation was building.
For many events, great care is given to the actual start to tie into a city theme. In New York, it’s the firing of a howitzer cannon, followed by a rendition of Sinatra’s New York, New York. New Jersey’s start occurs outside a horse track, so a call to post bugle is apropos. In LA, the signal to start was given by the wailing of a siren, which I found reminiscent of a slow speed car chase. I doubt that’s the association they were going for, but I found it fitting, nonetheless.
After clearing the start line, the course almost immediately began an uphill climb, followed by a sustained downhill. Throughout, I focused on controlling my pace as I headed toward the next landmark on the day’s sightseeing itinerary, the Chinatown Dragon Gate. As I passed under, I longed to capture these sights for posterity. For the first of many times this day, I wished the Google Glass had made it to market. Just two miles in, I already knew it was going to be a thrilling day.
From Chinatown, we headed toward some familiar downtown roads. As wound our way toward Grant Park, the meet-up site of Friday’s Ryan Hall shakeout run, the crowds were mostly sparse, but those who did gather were evidently deeply concerned about our collective future. As runners, its not uncommon to be conscious about our soles. If our soles are too worn, injuries can arise. Conversely, if our soles aren’t broken in, and blisters can confound. But whether peering over an overpass, under a tree on the left or alongside a building on the right, a remarkable number of spectators were resolutely holding signs scribbled with dire warnings- for our souls. I had no idea marathoners were such a sinful group, but apparently we were in immediate need of repentance. Indeed, the eclectic spirit of the City of Angels was alive and well.
Whether training over the Queensboro, Brooklyn, Manhattan, or even the Triboro bridge, or routinely climbing the Cat or Harlem hills, inclines are part and parcel of New York City running. That said, the ridiculously steep multi-block (I lost count) climb through the downtown portion of the course was no joke. Focusing on effort, I felt my pace increasing, commensurate with the grade. My mind drifted as I eavesdropped on two locals behind me commiserating about their most recent marathon experience. As they regaled each other with war stories over the difficulties of New York’s bridges, I took a deep breath and pushed forward. After all, I was a New York runner. This, like those bridges, was merely breakfast.
Finally heading out of downtown I looked forward to arriving in Los Feliz, which, according to the official race program, was where I’d be able to see the Hollywood sign for the first time. Alas, the sign was nowhere to be seen. There were so many landmarks along this course, that their associated mile markers were a blur. Los Feliz remained elusive.
As the day’s temperature continued to rise, I had just settled in to a comfortable pace when otherwise ordinary streets gave way to a lush greenery and a picturesque fountain. In my Los Feliz haste, I’d somehow forgotten that I’d first pass Echo Park.
When it comes to leisure reading, I’ve always been a fan of mystery and legal thrillers. LA-based writer Michael Connelly is one of my go-to authors, and one of his first books I read was titled, Echo Park. I had envisioned Echo Park as a crime-ridden dumping ground for bodies. As I ran by, I realized that presumption was misplaced. The park looked absolutely stunning. I realized if I’d likely fallen into the same trap as longtime Law and Order viewers, who probably think analogously of New York’s Central Park.
Nearing the 7 mile mark, I maintained my position alongside the lefthand side of the course. Hydration would be key today, and I wanted to make sure I was always inline to easily grab a cup of fluid from a volunteer’s outstretched hands. Having learned my lesson from last fall’s New York outing, once I’d secured a cup I’d take more than a quick gulp. Today, I’d gulp and continue on, before finally draining the liquid gold.
I may not remember the exact time or milage moment, but I will never forget looking up and to my right and seeing those nine white letters standing upright along the hill in all their glorious wonder: Hollywood. As quintessential as the Empire State Building, it was the single sight I’d been visualizing for weeks in all its glory! From that point on, smile lines would be permanently etched on my face. I was running in the moment, and having the time of my life doing so.
For much of the course, spectator masses would appear in pockets. But whether the roadside was thinly or densely populated, their support was buoyant. Makeshift aid stations appeared as storeowners unloaded pallets of bottled water, while residents poured bottled water in cups. Tubs of orange slices were handed out by various running clubs, while members of various community organizations armed with spray bottles spritzed momentary relief from the heat. It’s one thing to prepare a homemade sign to encourage an individual marathoner. But the the forethought and genuine care of these most meaningful gestures of encouragement were quite another. I was both appreciative and awestruck.
With its namesake sign serving as a beacon, I was ready to make my way into Hollywood. Running down Hollywood Boulevard, just beyond the spectators lining the side of the street, I began to make out etchings in the sidewalk. Their star shapes were instantly recognizable, and I could feel my pace quicken with excitement. I consciously eased up, determined to fully take in the atmosphere. Off to the right, was a stage, were a couple, one clad in running clothes, beginning to take their marriage vows. I’d remembered reading that on this Valentine’s Day, a makeshift chapel was available to couples ready to tie the knot. The effort was a publicity stunt designed to promote the upcoming release of the sequel to “A Big Fat Greek Wedding.” Of course, this was Hollywood, after all.
Continuing on, there was the Dolby Theater. Where were the American Idol contestants, I wondered. Had I missed the famed Chinese Theater? Nope. There it is. I’m not sure I’d ever had so much fun running. When I usually take that dreaded gander at my race photos, I’m normally wearing a focused expression. On this day, however, I have photographic proof of my miles-long cheek to cheek grin. The elation was as demonstrably obvious outward as it was felt inward.
I was on such a high that I didn’t notice leaving Hollywood and entering West Hollywood. But as I made my way through West Hollywood, I did notice the rising temperature. The fluid stations stretched a good distance, and I began taking both gatorade and water. By mile 14, I faced my first bout of discomfort. Prior to the shakeout run, Ryan Hall had provided attendees with his anecdote for when difficulty seeped in: gratitude. So rather than turning up the volume of my music, I did the opposite. I turned it down and started thinking about how thankful I was. My appreciation to be running this race. My gratitude for the ability to run. My thankfulness to the support of my family’s encouragement. In no time, I was back on track.
By around mile 17, the loud Hollywood sign gave way to a more understated, yet iconic brown and yellow sign. I was entering Beverly. Hills, that is. Swimming pools, movie stars. Though with my bright orange singlet and shorts, I was feeling more like Jed Clampett than Carlton Banks. As I turned the corner onto Rodeo Drive, I couldn’t help but notice that one spectator sign that is a marathon mainstay was conspicuously absent: run like you stole something. I guess they figured this wasn’t the street to plant that sort of idea.
As Beverly Hills turned into Brentwood, the miles were accumulating. The sun was also in full force. So far, my hydration approach was working, but I wasn’t ready to let my guard down yet. While I have always abided by the admonition to never try anything new on race day, I decided to make an exception.
After downing a cup of gatorade at the 18 mile fluid station, I grabbed a water. I took a quick gulp, then brought the cup over my head and poured the remaining liquid onto the back of my neck. As the water rushed down my back I instantly felt a jolt of alertness. The pour not only had a cooling effect, but also a rejuvenating impact. Where I had begun to feel a bit sluggish, I was now feeling fresh. It’s not a novel trick, I’d seen others do it countless times. Why hadn’t I? I did the same at mile 19. And mile 20. and mile 21. Like watering a blooming plant, each pour had an invigorating result.
Passing the 20 mile mark, the fabled point where the marathon begins, the elevation began to climb again. I again channeled my thoughts, focusing on gratitude. Yes, my legs were tired, but I wasn’t dehydrated. And mentally, thanks to Hall’s tips, I was in fine shape. I remained in the present and continued on, putting one foot in front of the other.
In the later stages of a marathon, a mantra can be a helpful tool to push through the final miles. “Pain is temporary, pride is forever.” “I got this.” I’ve successfully used each of those before. On this day, I turned to Sir Isaac Newton for inspiration, “What goes up must come down.” Knowing that by mile 23 the course would yield a much deserved downhill, I adopted Newton’s scientific observations for solace during the challenging late terrain.
Once I finally began the course’s final descent, I was euphoric. I honestly felt the best I had in the closing miles of any marathon to date. As the elevation lowered, fog enveloped the sun and the temperature seemed to drop with each step. As excitement and gravity took over, I let my legs take control. When the terrain eventually leveled out the air was thick with a soupy fog. I’m sure the sea was around, somewhere, I just couldn’t see it. I wasn’t sure how much longer till the finish, but I knew it was drawing nearer. Then, just ahead and seemingly out of nowhere, it appeared.
3:58:21. Not my fastest marathon, but not my slowest. But I’d managed the heat, maintained my mental wits, paced well, hydrated properly, finished strong, and most importantly, savored the sights of LA. I could not have asked for better, and I was elated.
Oscar winner John Huston may not have been speaking about the LA Marathon when he observed, “Hollywood has always been a cage…a cage to catch our dreams,” but he might as well have. Coupled with the Olympic Trials, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to exceed the high expectations set by this runcation.