The race begins at Dodger Stadium.
I line up in the parking lot just behind the right field fence, perhaps 150 yards past where Kirk Gibson’s home run landed in the 1988 World Series, his iconic fistpump rounding second forever imprinted in my childhood lore, and at ten minutes to eight o’clock in the morning I cross the start line, just as the first of an endless assault of raindrops began falling on us.
I am running the Los Angeles Marathon. My first marathon ever. I swear it’s my last. It’s just something I have to do once.
They should have given out medals for simply not going insane battling traffic to get there. Before six am we were trapped in a lane of traffic moving 3 miles an hour, and had three miles to go. I saw people getting out of their car and running for it. I considered that option, and possibly climbing the hill through Elysian Park. The green digital glow of the clock was taunting and mocking. “Ha. Ha. You spent hundreds of dollars and trained for hundreds of hours and now you’re not going to see through this little, stupid mission of yours due to traffic. 6:58 am, less than a half hour to the start and you’re nowhere close! Sucker”
I was anxious, and riding high on a Cliff Sugar shot and orange juice and a muscle bar, and the car felt like a cage of irony, so I took out all that animal energy on my girlfriend by snapping about stupid stuff like her wanting a sip of my Vitamin Water. What the fuck is Vitamin Water anyway? Of course, I apologize, but still, I could tell, I was itching to get out of that car and up to the starting line.
Needless to say, we made it, just perfectly. She drove up the hill to the stadium and I kissed her goodbye and jumped out, promising to see her in Santa Monica, in four hours, give or take an hour.
Right before we got there we heard on the radio they were delaying the start twenty minutes or so, so that was a help.
I had just enough time to make for the porta-potties, a popular place just then, stretch my leg muscle, listen to Mayor Villargosia dedicate a Moment of Silence to the victims in Japan, then join the moving sea of runners taking off for the long 26.2 miles ahead of us.
The course is a beauty. The weather is less so. Let’s just say that Mother Nature is going to be a bitch to us today. The dark gray clouds are ominous as cellos in horror flicks. They begin leaking, lightly as first as we descend the hill and wrap around for Chinatown. Happy shouts accompany us. I am feeling good, no aches, no initial shortness of breath, I was hopped up on all this sugar and it was doing its job, fueling my body to think its capable of this foolishness.
Musicians beat drums as we zigzag through Chinatown, running under pagodas and the two mile marker. The rain was still just mildly there, it was kinda nice, it gave it atmosphere. It was a friendly drizzle.
Next came Little Tokyo with its sushi spots and funky, brightly-colored toy stores, and signs of concern for their homelands and it was touching to say the least. Many people were running with messages on their shirts about the tragedy, raising money or just showing that their hearts go out.
When you break down that common adage — your heart going out — it’s the most logical and elegant way to explain sympathy, empathy, compassion: letting — or allowing — or rather compelled by the horrible heartache, your heart flees from your body, and from its usual everyday heart-concerns, namely ME, YOU, OURSELVES; it flies to,– your heart, remember — flies to the side of somebody far away, feeling their sorrow and their pain. Your heart just goes out.
This kind of thought is what happens when I’m running, my mind just starts working on a different level, call it a runner’s high, call it zeroing in, call it the adrenaline rush, or whatever, but when you’re pounding the concrete and concentrating on your breathing you can get the most random, sublime, grand epiphanies and then you realize that when you try to stop thinking, a thought always pops up out of nowhere… where does it pop up from? If you’re thinking about not thinking? There’s some part of your brain that isn’t yours, you suppose, and smile to yourself, wondering if everybody else is smiling weirdly to themselves because they’re enjoying the run, or having thoughts like yours. Hmm.
Next up is Echo Park Lake. The fountain is shooting its water into the air and it’s raining strongly now, moving on from atmosphere to annoying, like a bully that isn’t a threat to you but is pesky as hell. This park used to be more dangerous than it is now, but it’s still no place you want to linger too long next to at night, but now, with the streets closed off and the rain and all my fellow runners on this quixotic mission with me, it’s a heartwarming sight.
From all the good energy and exertion I feel woozy and drunk. Then I crest a hill and realize I’m on Sunset near the Echo and I must just be experiencing disembodied ghosts of drunken nights past coming to root me on, patting me on the shoulder and slapping my butt! Here we go.
We’re cruising down through Sunset Junction. Hipsters are rooting us on from covered doorways, or from under umbrellas, their mustaches dripping onto their chins. It’s really coming down. Puddles are a common occurrence. I’m soaked. There’s no escaping it. I’m going to be wet for the next four hours. I grin like a bulldog. This is the closest I’ll ever come to being in the army.
I’m on a good pace, paying mindful attention to my breathing, where I’m landing on my foot, making my way across this city like a running machine. The course continues onto Hollywood Boulecard once it splits off from Sunset. We enter Los Feliz, pass a Fatburger. It makes me hungry. I make the decision to grab a burger once this is all over. Something about eating animal flesh right now is giving me motivation. Sorry cows. I’m coming to eat you.
My friends are waiting for me somewhere near here. I hear a shout and there they are, whooping and hollering. I run over and share high-fives and hugs and mug for the camera and am off again. I’m in perpetual motion. Nothing but the end of land can stop me. We’re running west, into the raging storm and lashing rain. Are we all mad?
As if to answer my question we’re now passing the Kodak Theater, home to the Oscars, running where that iconic red carpet — the upholstery of American myth — is unfurled for the royal affair once a year. The Walk of Fame stars are glittering, wet and slick. They keep time with me, passing one by one with every footfall.
I have one thing on my mind and that’s seeing my girlfriend. She’s waiting for me somewhere near mile 15, the perfect pick-me-up for the last stretch of run. We take Sunset for awhile until we turn left and then a right on Santa Monica and I hear her call my name and descry her on the curb and run over to her. We hug and kiss and she tells me she’s proud of me and it’s like ten sugar shots — I feel such a rush! I tell her I’m feeling good and strong, wet and cold, but really alive, and she beams and kisses me again and I don’t want to leave, but I kiss her one more time and pull away, jogging off with the other runners, momentum pulling me towards the surf. A giant tectonic magnet.
There are drag queens and Chippendale dancers at the corner of Santa Monica and Doheny. I can’t help but to chuckle at the sight. Classic WeHo. We turn and wind our way through Beverly Hills, the streets suddenly in much better condition, you could almost eat off them. The storefronts harbor bumptious mink coats and silk scarves that cost more than a year’s rent.
After seeing my girlfriend — and closing in on 18 miles — I’m inflated, my spirit is bursting with feel good energy. It’s practically narcotic. I’m a molotov cocktail of awesomeness.
I squeeze some pain relief gel from its aluminum wrapping and rub it over my knees. It’s supposed to be instantaneous but I don’t feel any differently. My hands are frozen and incredibly inefficient at digging through my pockets for one lone aspirin I stored there earlier. I don’t come up with it. I turn the pocket inside and out and still nothing. It must have fallen out earlier and this discourages me but I shake it off. I have that pain gel going for me.
I can do it without the aspirin. But fuck I really wish I hadn’t lost it.
There’s one last big hill on Santa Monica Blvd as it passes by Century City, like a cruel joke it rises before me but I keep my pace, not running fast, but running consistently, it seems I’m passing more people than being passed. I take the hill with some amount of stride. I pass the second Charlie Sheen ‘Winning!’ sign. There are lots of water stations, and first aid tents, and a place where they’re spraying some kind of pain relief. It takes a couple minutes to cover my legs, I get antsy but once applied that blast of chemical restoration gives me a rush of confidence. I am now treated by all that corporate America can produce to aid this deliberate damage to my body. Aspirin, gels, and sprays. Oranges. Gatorade. Water. I’m properly fueled and lubed. I’m science in motion.
My blue L.A cap is soaked, a much darker color than before I started four hours ago but it’s still keeping the water out of my face, that and being easy to spot at a distance its only jobs.
Sepulveda approaches. I’ve looked forward to this moment, staring at the map of the course, knowing that from here it’s not really that far to the beach, another six miles at most, for months. The streets are a mess but I’m feeling strong. I keep expecting that dreaded wall to happen but I don’t feel it. I think it’s from the aspirin and the pain gel and the spray and the visualizing success for days and adrenaline, or perhaps even the rain, but there’s all sorts of people bent over or pulled off to the side, people who look more in shape than me, but I’m cruising along smoothly I have to say.. I’m a fucking yacht, baby.
I hear the thundering sounds of the band before we turn and see them rocking out underneath the 4905 freeway. The acoustics muffled and hazy and infused with asphalt. The band is visibly having a blast, smiling and playing their instruments with sincere passion — unfortunately they suck.
The course is now on the VA grounds and there are people passing out cups of Natural Ice, more widely known as Nasty Ice. They shout that we’re almost there and we deserve a beer. I wonder what I ever did to them to give me Nasty Ice right now? What cruel crime deserves this torture?
Somebody is shouting to my right. I turn to see a Drill Seargant in camos berating a dimunitive girl that had clearly grown tired and was walking slowly down the road, screaming in her face, “There’s no walking on the VA grounds!!!” She immediately hops to an awkward trot and takes off, jolted forward by the United States Military. I laugh. It’s a riot. Life is funny.
San Vincente is the home stretch. I know it well, having trained my longer runs down it. It’s pouring. I’m sopping wet like a drenched kitty on the Internet. Some inane slogan over my image.
Mile 23 is where my knees truly start to protest, eloquently so, but still I run. I am passing people right and left. I want to beat five hours. For the first time I care about my time. The Finish Line is now a formality. That feels like both success, but also, in a weird way, disappointment. I won’t have the suspense now in struggling the last couple of miles, of having to reaching down into my gut to finish while heroic music plays in the background. There will be no Rocky Balboa ending. I’ll just do it in a normal fashion, tired but not broken.
Finally we hit Ocean and have just a couple of blocks to go. Oh, are they long blocks! I don’t want to stop running. I summon all my energy to do this stretch as fast and I can. It’s grueling. All I can think about is ‘keep running’ and eating that burger. Finally I see the Finish Line in the distance and there is nothing left to do but to cross it. The end result of almost a year of training, planning, thinking about this moment. I don’t want to become a runner. I don’t care about that. I want to finish this. That’s all. I want to cross the finish line. This is the essence of the race. Of everything. Getting to this moment.
I throw my hands in the air as I pass under the clock and the photographers snap my picture. I’m not sure exactly what to feel. Proud. But also foolish. A general feeling of ‘now what?’
I go and collect my medal, water, snacks and the mylar blanket to stay warm, needed now more than ever. I’m shivering. The wind is starting to blow harder. It’s hard to walk. A crowd of spectators and well-wishers block the way. I start to feel really cold. My body is now in rest mode and is clenching up. My teeth begin chattering like a drunken, epileptic piano player.
There’s an area set aside, what the call the finish line festival, where you can meet up with your families, get coffee, check your time, all that stuff. It’s a mud pit. The wind is howling. Knocking over signs. The rain is coming into the tents sideways. There’s no shelter. Standing around, my legs start to stiffen up. This is harder than those 26.2 miles. Standing here. Freezing. Miserable. I’ve never seen such an untimely attack of weather, it’s a mini Southern California monsoon.
I borrow a man’s cell phone and devise a plan with my girlfriend to meet her a couple of blocks up. There’s no parking and she’s had to circle, looking for a spot. Fuck it I say and head out, thanking the man for saving my life. I can barely walk. I’ve never been so sore and so cold. I can barely hold on to the little blanket, basically a long ribbon of thin and smooth aluminum paper, but it’s a lifesaver. I’m being very dramatic. I cut through the mall and the shoppers look at me with concern. My jaw is making a racket. The drunken epileptic is now enraged and has Hulk-like muscles and is swinging the piano around, smashing it against the walls. Chattering times ten.
I get to the corner but don’t see her. I wait. A man starts to talk to me about running the marathon as we take cover from the rain in a doorway. He’s a bit odd but kind. He tells me he has thought about doing it but couldn’t. That’s what everyone says. ‘I admire it, I would like to do it, but I could never do it.’
He’s the last person I want to talk to right now, to be honest, but it’s not an insult because that’s pretty much everybody but my girlfriend, Barak Obama, or possibly Tom Waits. But if Tom Waits started a yarn with me I would stick around in this downpour for awhile. But I seriously, can’t wait for her to pull up. t’s hard to ignore someone who just ran a marathon, I suppose. Can’t blame the guy for that.
It’s torture. I long for her arrival with every electron in every atom of my body. Neutrons too. And then there she is! IN A WARM CAR. What a sight! What a fucking joy!
I say goodbye to the man and hobble across the street towards the car and my beautiful, smiling girlfriend; towards warmth, comfort and love; towards a future of doing things. It’s a great feeling, better than the Finish Line even.
It’s what you’d call toasty in the car. The heater is all the way up. I instantly feel renewed. I give her a kiss and an embrace and she hands me my bag of fresh clothes. I take off my wet shirt and begin to change.
And that’s where I say goodbye.