Sunday, March 20, 2011

LA Stormathon

Just to preface, I’m not in top running shape right now since I haven’t been training a lot, but I’m coming back slowly and ever so surely.  However, I have run 12,770 logged miles (to be precise), 26 marathon races, and countless half-marathons, 10K’s and 5K races.  So I know at least a little of what I am talking about, maybe…relatively…. 

…and I have run the LA Marathon in rain.  One year, maybe around 1999, it literally poured from the start line to mile thirteen, then on and off showers after that.  My soaked shoes and socks were simply extra weights that happened to be attached to the bottoms of my feet.  It was not comfortable (obviously), but also not terrible.  Since it was just rain, my body stayed warm from running my ass off for three and a half hours and change.

This year, I was just an observer of the race on television.  But regarding the race today, the completely stormed out, blustery twenty-six point two mile ordeal that thousands must have faced, well, it’s just too bad.  There’s nothing one can do about the weather, and you can’t postpone an event this large involving street closures, media, organizers, volunteers, sponsors, goody bags, trips taken from out of town, entertainment stages and a hundred other things I can’t even think of. 

But when I heard this storm was coming potentially involving a lot of wind, my little alarms went off.  My least favorite kind of running is in strong winds.  I absolutely hate running in them both because it messes with my pace and gait, and because the wind robs one of body heat.  It’s just chaotic. That mixed with already being soaked like everyone was today is just not enjoyable. I thought to myself last night in my warm bed with my girlfriend, cat and cockapoo laying by my side, what a potentially awful run people could have in this year’s race.

I just heard on KNX that already up to 15 people have been taken to the hospital for hypothermia.  It just breaks my heart; the thought that a lot of people's first marathon experience was complicated by this kind of weather.  It’s just how it is, I know…believe me, I know; I’ve done it in all kinds of conditions.

But I have to emphasize how long a marathon is for one’s body.  Up and on buses early before morning light to get to the start line, usually a barren location not protected from the elements, lots of waiting for an often delayed start.  And then for newbie’s, you are so far past “wasted” by even mile 18 or 20 on a nice 65 degree sunny day that these conditions can become dangerous for people who don't have a lot of running experience and haven’t really the sense of what their body signs are telling them, even with the typical eight months of first-time marathon training.

Markos Geneti, the Ethiopian who won today, finished in 2:06:35, and of course, he and Buzunesh Deba (winning female) each looked like they just jogged out to their front lawn to get a popsicle from the local ice cream truck. But then again, they probably run about 90-140 miles per week depending on their training cycle. So nothing will surprise their bodies that they haven't experienced before.

But today, it’s the first-time guy or girl, who just thinks, "Oh, this is going to be a rainy run,” but had no idea what they were in for.  There are gusts I'm sure here in Burbank at the moment of 50 mph.  The unfortunate thing is that they will not have run this race under even moderate conditions, and some of them may never want to do it again. 

I sound cynical, I know. Why not say to myself, “Well, the people who get through this are going to feel like they really accomplished something.”  And they will have indeed.  But I’m for the people who just barely got themselves to try it; for the type of person whose life it could really change profoundly.  Months of getting themselves to train and eat well daily in order to maybe see what a different kind of lifestyle might be like.  It’s Malcolm Gladwell’s tipping point; one unlikely circumstance might end up tipping them the other way where they might just give up on trying something like this again.  I hope not. I enjoy this sport so much that I want everyone to have a great time like I always have.

I can tell you that on a “normal” racing day, it’s just so much fricken fun that I can only think of a few other things in life as exciting.  You and thousands of people around you stretching near the start line, telling war stories of other races, laughing and relaxing, and then quiet, by your self for a while until someone else drifts into your universe. 

Everyone gets into the start area as the start time nears.  You look forward and wonder, “Will I be able to pass some of these people?  There must be five thousand in front of me.  I hope I don’t trip over them when we start.” You look back to the sea of people behind you and think, how can there be so many runners all in one place?  You hear a starting gun, and the wheelchair folks are off and rolling.  They’ll blaze to the finish line in an hour and a half or so; about the time you’ll be starting though Hollywood. 

“Five minutes….five minutes everyone,” the announcer on the entertainment stage nearby sounds.  “Oh God!  This is actually going to start.  I’m standing here at Dodger’s Stadium, and I’m going to end up at the Santa Monica Pier!  How is that possible?”  There is a surge forward and people get excited and they allow the elite runners to move into their start positions; one of many surges to come.

“Okay, thirty seconds.  The race will start in thirty seconds.”  Super-duper loud speakers start blasting Randy Newman’s, “I Love L.A.,” the LA Marathon’s mascot song.  Really nervous.  So much energy and excitement in the crowd now that there’s nowhere to put it all except into running. “Let me grab some of your Bengay,” a girl says to her friend standing near you.  You look at your watch to make sure it’s on the chrono setting.  Shake it out.  Am I too stiff?  Did I drink enough, or am I going to get hot right away?  Did I drink too much and am going to have to pull over at mile three and pee in the bushes? It's a bummer for the women on that point.

“Bang!”  You see what looks like a handful of elite runners start running, but it will be another five minutes before we even move.  It’s like when the CHP releases a traffic break on the 405 freeway, but it takes a while for the flowing waters of the opening dam to reach your boat.  The front runners are already a mile ahead and gaining road at sub 5:00 minute per mile pace. “Well, I guess I won’t be catching any Nigerians or Ethiopians today.” 

A couple more false surges, and then you start running, and running and running.  Passing through all cultural parts of town as one organism with 19,000 heads.  Entertainment and food everywhere, and people cheering for you.  “Go! Go!  You can do it! Dig in!"

And you go, and you fly for a while, and then you start to feel it, and then you do have to dig in.  "Only six miles to go," they scream.  “Oh man, this is always such a long way!”

You see, the thing is, it’s always going to be a long way, because in any marathon, you’re always going to be running the best that you can.  It’s not one of your regular runs.  Your veins are pumped up with  adrenaline and you’re pushing yourself whether you realize it or not.  You can be a five-hour marathoner or a two and a half hour marathoner, and regardless, it’s still a major exertion either way.

You pass the twenty-three mile mark.  “Three miles to go.  That’s nothing,” you tell yourself.  You’ve run three miles sleepwalking in your underwear.  But now, you’re running on the moon with no oxygen.  You’re a few hundred yards from the summit of Mt. Whitney above 12,000 feet, and your body is heavy.  You understand now that you are just made of bones, a lot of flesh and water; it's all dead weight.

Scraps of spent Gatorade cups, protein bars and goop packets litter then roadway.  You pass areas where sheets of water cover the asphalt from so much water being handed out, consumed, and thrown down.  At mile twenty-four, you are so exhausted, but pushing hard, trying to keep the pace even.  People’s cheers have long ago receded into the general din of the race.  You’re glad they’re all out there pulling for you, but you really just want to make it to the end.

As you past mile twenty-five, the race starts again.  It’s just four laps around a high school track and you’re there, but you’re carrying your cement legs, just trying making them spin enough to get you to the end of the race.  People’s good running gaits have devolved into bouncing and loping with elbows way out as the finish line looms in sight.  The crowd nearing the end here has thickened to eight deep, and everyone is pressing against the traffic barriers, shouting at you, yes you, with all of their might to get you in.  “Go, you're almost there, go, go, go!!!”

And here you are; the end of the race.  The announcer at the finish is calling out people’s names and cities.  You hear yours called out as your stupor floats you under the finish line banners and into the chute.  You’re so done as your legs are tightening up and someone throws a medallion around your neck with a,” Congratulations.”  And you think to yourself.  "Wow, I did it.  I’m here.  I just ran a marathon!"