At almost exactly the halfway point, just before mile 13, I passed by the apartment building where I spent my first year in Los Angeles. I was running the most perfect Marathon course in the world: 26.2 miles of memories and images from a city that I've called home for almost 17 years.
I didn't plan to run another marathon. In 2003 I trained for eight months to achieve that goal, and had a gruelling experience on an unseasonably hot day on an unremarkable loop course beginning in downtown Los Angeles. I was 31, and I wanted to cross "FINISH A MARATHON" off of my list. I did it. I struggled. I vowed that I would never run another one. In fact, I didn't run at all for several years. The marathon killed my running fever like a shot of penicillin.
Of course, time has a way of undoing vows. I've been running quite a bit over the past several months, slowly increasing my distance and stamina on tough trail runs in the mountains of LA. I've been registering for events I'm not even sure I'm capable of finishing, and the thrill that gives me seems to be addictive. It started with standard 5K's and 10K's, evolved into trail runs and organized bike rides, and has now become whatever I can find that seems interesting and exciting. In the weekends leading up to the 2012 Marathon, I did the SoCal Tough Mudder in Temecula, a 25k Malibu Creek trail run in the Santa Monica mountains, and the Pasadena Triathlon last weekend. I was looking for a Sunday event for March 18. LA Marathon kept popping up, and because of the size of the event, there weren't many other options for me to register for on that day. "Fuck it," I thought to myself, "I'll give it a shot."
That last minute registration was a very different approach than my carefully calculated plan in 2003. Back then, I started running with a training group called the "LA Leggers" eight months before the event and ran every weekend with them through March. I gave up drinking and ate like an athlete. I ran lots of miles during the week. I showed up on race day back then 100% certain I would finish. I had physically and mentally prepared enough to give me that confidence. As I registered for the 2012 LA Marathon practically on a whim, I was far less certain. 26.2 miles is tough, but that thrilling uncertainty fueled me. Fear, doubt and anticipation is a powerful intoxicant, and for the two weeks after I registered leading up to March 18, I rode high on that drug of doubt.
It was the "new course" that got me. Unlike the 2003 course, this "new course" was a route from Dodgers Stadium near downtown LA all the way out to the ocean in Santa Monica. It passes some of the most iconic landmarks in the world. I've lived in Los Angeles for seventeen years, and I have a lot of memories here. For me, landmarks like Grauman's Chinese Theater, Rodeo Drive, and the Hollywood Sign have countless personal stories attached to them. My past is alive in the sights and sounds of LA, and this course would be like running through my life spent here. That's what got me. I wanted to run through this great city on closed roads with cheering residents lining the route. I wanted to be the pulse of the city for a morning, pumping through it's veins with 25,000 other people in a surge of focused energy and fearlessness. LA's "new course" was too tempting, and as I registered for my second marathon ever, I gave little thought to the difficulty of the task ahead. It almost didn't matter how much it might hurt.
Of course, the weather scared the shit out of me. For ten days before the race, the prediction was nasty rain and wind. Some reports predicted hail and thunder storms for the whole weekend. I checked my phone compulsively for updated predictions all week. The day before the race, there was a torrential downpour. I seriously doubted my ability to finish in terrible weather. I was barely prepared to finish in perfect conditions, so soggy shoes and a headwind filled with hail would likely break me. The night before the race, I set my alarm for 3am and hoped for the best. The weather was out of my control As long as I got my car to Santa Monica and got on the shuttle to Dodgers Stadium in time for the 7:24am start, I was holding up my end of the commitment I made to run the race. I focused on that and went to bed at 9pm.
It's easy to dismiss Los Angeles as vapid or soulless. It's a go to criticism for people that are either unfamiliar with or disillusioned by this great city. It has been slammed for ignoring its own history, and for churning through the dreams of young hopefuls like a thresher. Perhaps so. However, it is also a city filled with hope and possibility and culture. As with anything, your Los Angeles experience is what you make it. Surround yourself with vapid dipshits and you will be disappointed. Seek out the culture and discover the thousands of vibrant artistic and social communities throughout Los Angeles and you can't help but appreciate the richness and intricate texture of this city.
The weather, somehow, was perfect. I sat in Dodgers Stadium in the dark, cold morning weather staring at a puddle in the middle of the field, hoping not to see rain drops. The stadium filled with runners. No one spoke of the weather, as if we had collectively agreed not to jinx the fact that there was not yet rain. Ponchos and stretching and adjusting gear belts and earbuds, bathroom lines and last minute carbs and tension and excitement filled the place. 25,000 of us found our places in the starting corrals. The overflow backed up into the parking lots, as runners jettisoned their rain gear and warm clothing. Dozens of worn out sweatshirts, ponchos, extra shirts, and hats flew through the air to the sidelines as the minutes ticked down towards the start. A welcome speech, a National Anthem, a countdown, and....here we go.
My run through Los Angeles was a run through my past. Each mile of the race was layered with a rich tapestry of 17 years of memories here. My first apartment in Los Angeles on Sierra Bonita and Sunset at mile 12. The Regent Beverly Wilshire, where I worked as a doorman in 1998 at mile 17. Blue Palms Brewery, my current favorite lunch spot just up the street from my office at mile 11. The Coffee Bean at Beverly Glen and Santa Monica, where my wife and I used to meet for evening coffee, back before we had kids. On a beautiful morning that was supposed to be nasty and rainy, I ran through the heart of a city that has become mine. This is my home. Running from Dodgers Stadium to the Pacific Ocean allowed me time to reflect on how far I've travelled since arriving here in a U-Haul back in 1995, and I felt proud. I got lost in metaphors and symbolism as I tried to connect the run to my life, so I eventually stopped trying to encapsulate the whole experience. Instead, I tried to live and exist within that steady rhythm of my feet hitting the ground. Right here, right now, right here, right now. And so on.
The first thirteen miles were smooth. Good gear choices and healthy muscles made it problem free, and I took care to hydrate at every mile. My music drove me forward. Travis Barker and Girl Talk and Eminem and some other favorites pushed me. I ignored the work left to be done and enjoyed the miles I put behind me. The weather was cool and the air was fresh. I could do this.
The second half of the race was hard. I didn't train for 26.2, and that caught up to me at about mile 16. Muscles began to angrily protest, and I began to really take my time through the water stations. Mentally, the hardest miles are the hopeless miles: 18-23. It is there that continuing on feels impossible. No justification makes it feel easier. No whispered words of encouragement to myself inspired a rally. My legs hurt, and I had not put in the long miles to expect more than utter exhaustion. I pushed on. I walked from time to time, and stretched my legs when necessary. I kept running. I wanted it to be over. I wanted a beer.
The last four miles of the LA Marathon follow San Vicente Blvd all the way from Westwood to the ocean. It is a route I became intimately familiar with in my 2003 training with the LA Leggers. We ran up San Vicente every Saturday on our training runs, so it was familiar territory. I thought I'd cruise that last stretch with ease, but my legs had other ideas. It was a hard four miles, eked out in fits and starts, walks and limps, and at times, utter desperation to be done with it all. Finally, I rounded the corner at Main Street, and made my way the last half mile to the finish line. 4:49:17. I didn't set any land speed records, but I beat my 2003 time by six and a half minutes. I grabbed my medal and my tinfoil heat wrap and went straight to the bar. The beer was as good as you might imagine.
Another marathon under my belt.
I vowed in 2003 that I'd never run another one. I've told people that for nine years. And yet, time has a way of undoing vows. It also has a way of erasing fears. In this case, time gave me nine extra years of experience to reflect back upon as I raced through Los Angeles. At the end, I felt better than I did in 2003. I beat my time by 6 minutes, which means 40 is better than 31.
I guess I knew that already.