Ever since moving here almost 3 years ago I’ve wanted to run the LA marathon because Los Angeles the first city that has felt like my own — my streets, my friends, the first town of my choosing. I’ve run this city for 3 years and now I have a day to run for miles and miles with nothing to stop me but myself.
Between daylight savings and a scheduled 4:00am shuttle ride, I figure I get about 3-4 hours before the alarm wakes me up. No matter. Early morning Tower 26 swim practices have conditioned me to know exactly how little sleep I can perform on, and it’s surprising how little a person can get away with.
I’m not even too tired when I roll out of bed to turn on the light. I try not to wake my poor, sweet sister who has traveled all the way from DC to watch me race. In the dim light I fumble and pull on my special race outfit — a purple shirt with the words “I Run This City” printed across the front. In a sentence, this is the essence of my race mentality.
Race morning goes smoothly; breakfast, parking, shuttle, and finally a 4:30am arrival at Dodger stadium. Now is the hurry up and wait part, with three hours and a bundle of nerves to kill before start time. By the time 6:30am rolls around I start to get anxious, with thousands of other racers milling around. I’m bundled up in a sleek black slicker and my race sunglasses (despite the pre-dawn darkness). I pump the volume on my iPod and try to get into the zone.
Finally, the herds start filtering out of the stadium toward the start line. Despite the crowds and the growing excitement, I’m surprisingly calm and focused. I’ve always tried to think of races as just really long workouts, and I suppose that’s taken the edge off. Plus, long training runs and endurance cross-training have given me the necessary mental confidence to know that I can do this. I clump up with other members of my pace group, suck down my first gel pack of the day, and wait for the horn to blow.
The horn sends us off 15 minutes later and we all shuffle to the start as the speedsters up ahead get started first. A surprising number of people discard excess layers, abandoning really nice looking warm-up jackets and shirts that will be donated to charity after the race. Shamelessly, I’m tempted to grab a couple to hang on to, but talk myself out of the idea, knowing that holding onto someone’s sweaty dry-fit T-shirt isn’t worth the $30 I could pay for a new one.
Within minutes, it’s my turn to cross the start line. I start the clock on my watch and break into a jog as we all begin the race. We cheer and whoop and smile for the cameras and spectators while we run for joy in the cool morning air. The energy is bright and fun, everyone running like little kids and shouting. It’s a beautiful sight.
It doesn’t take long before I see a different sight. One that I had expected but nonetheless, still find surprising. We haven’t even made it out of the parking lot and there are already men clumped along the side, relieving themselves in the bushes. I can’t help but let out a laugh. Others stop to document the occasion with cell phone pics (yes, really) but I turn away and focus on the race.
Unfortunately I’m not focusing well enough because my pace is way too fast. I’m running on adrenaline and pent-up carbs, the uneasy energy of a taper week that saw no swimming and only 13 miles of running. I’m feeling free in my careless whimsy, weaving with power and grace between the slowpokes ahead of me. I pass them with glee, thankful for the unorthodox “dodging” lessons with my training mentor at the Venice Boardwalk. I cruise through the first 4 miles or so in this fashion, slowing down to gulp water at the tables but ultimately going fast fast fast because I can and it’s a race and no one can stop me because I run this city!
Full disclosure — I had never competed in any sort of running race before registering for the LA marathon. Not a half-marathon, 10K, or even a 5K. Triathlon has been my main sport, and through training I’ve grown accustomed to only running after exhausting myself by either swimming or biking. Most of my training runs are typically done after a morning swim session, in a condition in which I’m sufficiently warmed up and ready to pace myself for a consistent split. In other words, when I start off slow, it’s because I have no other choice.
Not the case now. I’ve had three days of solid rest and a bucket of potatoes and bananas (my power foods). I feel like I could run carefree for miles, and unfortunately that’s exactly what I do.
I keep this up until about Mile 9, my pace staying a good 90 to 60 seconds ahead of what it should be and that’s when I feel the first of the pain, an aching in my feet that won’t be leaving me any time soon. It starts to dawn on me that I’m running a marathon — a really, really, really long distance race that I’m only a third of the way through.
It’s okay, I tell myself, buckling down for what is about to become a day of grit and perseverance. Another thing about routinely having days that start at 4:30am and end at 10:00pm — you learn how to just keep going.
Fortunately the miles still come quickly. 10, 11, 12 and even 13 feel like a straight shot through Hollywood, the dimness of the morning shadows still blanketing the streets and keeping us cool. Then the sun comes out at Mile 13 and we start back down the mountain, having reached the halfway point. 14 and 15 aren’t too bad, taking me through familiar territory. Fairfax, West Hollywood, the top of Beverly Hills. I distract myself with old memories of my experiences in these neighborhoods — the job interviews I had, the bus stop connections I missed, where they caught the WeHo arsonist back in 2011 and all the places I circled around while searching for parking. (Remember, this is the LA Marathon).
It’s strange but the memories actually help, reminding me that this is my home and that I run this city and that I’m partaking in a special experience that is letting me celebrate the day and my town by running its streets with 25,000 other people. The thought helps push me forward.
Until Mile 16. Forget what you’ve heard about Mile 20 being a singular point of “The Wall.” For me, the 5 miles that stretch between 16 and 21 force me into the deepest, darkest pits of despair imaginable. For me, the wall is not a destination, but a journey — a long, belabored and endless trek into the depths of physical and mental endurance. The spectators, who for the past few hours have been amazing human beings, cheering on perfect strangers with their witty signs and citrus fruits and upbeat attitudes, have suddenly turned into maniacal distractions. Loud noises, people yelling, things banging and everyone everywhere telling me to keep going. My conscious mind loses control over my actions and deep, feral, animalistic instincts take over, forcing me forward through pain and chaos for no other reason than that I have to and that these loud people are telling me to keep going.
My brain regains control around Mile 21, the pre-determined point at which I had planned to call my trainer and report on my progress. The other part of the plan is to meet him at Mile 24 so that I can have an extra bit of encouragement as I finish the race. I tell him that I’ve reached the Trail of Tears, where most of my fellow racers trudge along in a sort of walk-jog that looks weary and broken.
In case there was any confusion, he reminds me that I am not to walk under any circumstances and I assure him that I won’t…not yet at least. Our conversation ends on an uncertain note as he realizes that I’m much further along in the race than he anticipated, and he hasn’t left for our determined meet-up point. We end the call and in the back of my mind I wonder if he’ll make it in time, but there is little mental real estate left for such questions. With the call over, my mind returns to focusing on the pain.
Miles 21 and 22 and to an extent 23 aren’t so bad, as I pick up and start to feel what must be my second wind. It also helps that we’re reaching the downhill homestretch where I’ll soon have a chance to see my own supporters. I start the trudge down San Vicente, my pace picking up slightly as we hit the downhill slant to the sea. It won’t be long before I’ll be able to see the ocean and the thought lifts my spirits just slightly. The spectators are angels once again, cheering us on through Brentwood, delivering high fives and wild shouts of encouragement.
I can do this, I think again, knowing that there was never any other option but it’s reassuring to articulate it.
I’m getting thirsty as my own water bottles run low, but I’m aware that if I stop for water at this point that I might not actually start again. I’m tired of gels so I abandon my hydration and nutrition schedule, wanting to just push to the end and be done with it all. It doesn’t occur to me that this probably isn’t a very smart move. A helpful spectator yells at us and points at the walkers, telling us that no one walks the last 2 miles, that we have to run. He’s right, and I keep going.
I approach the intersection where my trainer should be waiting for me, but sadly I don’t see him. Guess he’s going to miss me. I keep going. It surprises me how little this fazes me but I suppose after 24 miles of running, and 15 miles of pain, not much is capable of shaking my resolve. The idea of having a bandit companion for the last 2 miles sounded much more essential in the moments leading up to the race, but now that it’s not happening, it’s just another thing to push past on my way to the finish line.
I miss the second intersection where my supporters — my dear sister and another friend of mine — are supposed to be waiting, and again it doesn’t seem to matter. I appreciate that they’re here and I would love to see them, but at this point I’ve got blinders on and all I can think about is the finish line. I just need this to end.
We reach the bottom of San Vicente and make the turn onto Ocean. The coast is beautiful to my right and I expect that I’ll see the finish line within seconds. But I don’t. My mind buzzes with discombobulation.
Where is the finish line? Why why why why can’t I see the finish line? This is not okay I looked at the maps and they said it would be here and I need to see the finish line — and then finally I do. It glistens up ahead, the most beautiful piece of inflated orange plastic I’ve ever seen (and having graduated from Princeton, I’ve seen a lot of orange plastic).
I want to sprint to have a strong finish, but I don’t feel it in me. Instead I keep ticking along, strong and steady, resolute. I raise my arms and try to smile as I cross the finish line, still unable to believe that its over. The announcer congratulates us and a volunteer drapes a medal around my neck. I seek out a bottle of water and a cooling blanket and sink against a wall.
A pair of fellow racers congratulate me and I return the favor. I mumble that it was my first marathon and they smile.
“Never gonna do it again, huh?” they ask.
“Well, I’m training for an Ironman…” I reply.
They raise their eyebrows.
“Eventually…” I add.
And that is the plan eventually, but first I’ll give myself a few more races to learn this delicate art of “pacing” and “strategizing” and going into my races with a “plan.” This past year has been about new experiences, setting goals, and ultimately getting through it all. Now I’m ready to race. They say that one person starts the marathon and another person finishes it. I suppose they’re right.