Twenty-nine years ago, I wrote a column in this newspaper about running my first marathon, which also happened to be the first Los Angeles Marathon.
I can’t tell you what it said, because I can’t find a copy, which is really all you need to know about the staying power of any particular newspaper column, especially from the pre-digital age.
This week, I am closing the loop and writing a column about running my last marathon, which happened to be the 30th annual Los Angeles Marathon, staged last Sunday on a great course that took me and about 22,000 other runners from Dodger Stadium to Santa Monica.
In between the first L.A. race and this year’s event, I ran about six other marathons, including four L.A. Marathons.
I went to the starting line of Sunday’s race having already decided that it would be my last marathon. When I crossed the finish line four hours and 23 minutes later, I was sure I had made the right decision.
It was a good enough experience to remind me of why I have run so many of these races and just bad enough for me to conclude I don’t want to do it again.
There was far more good than bad. For most of the race I cruised along, reveling in the camaraderie of my fellow runners and the cheers of support from thousands of spectators along the course. At the start of the race, the organizers always play Randy Newman’s classic song, “I Love L.A,” and that tune really sets the tone for the day.
I grew up at the beach, but running the L.A. Marathon always reminds me that I am an L.A. guy. I can’t say it’s an overly beautiful city, or even well-planned, but if you have spent a lifetime in and around this metropolis, it’s hard not to love its diversity, audacity and irreverence.
Along the course, runners were spurred on by traditional Japanese drummers, classic rock bands and a troupe of Native American dancers among many other spectacles. I ran for a while near a guy wearing what appeared to be a full Aztec headdress.
My fellow participants were of all shapes, sizes, creeds and running styles. There is a wonderful visual democratization in a big marathon like L.A. that anyone can run. I think I am a fairly fit guy for my age, and yet I was passed many times by people who didn’t look like they had spent nearly as many years running as I have.
In a real “people’s race” like this, if the distance doesn’t humble you, your fellow runners will. What you learn is that looks are often deceiving, and – like all of life – forward motion, however you can achieve it, is ultimately more important than mechanics and aesthetics. Keep on going in any way you can keep on going.
It’s also important for the amateur to remember that running a marathon is an absurd thing to do. The spectators provided that perspective with some great signs. Some of my favorites:
“Worst Parade Ever”
“Chafing the Dream”
“Keep Going Total Stranger!”
“Why 26.2 miles? Because 26.3 would be crazy.”
In addition to laughs and encouragement, the crowds along the course provided runners with the precious resource of human kindness. While official race volunteers handed out cups of water and liquid electrolytes, regular folks offered every imaginable snack, from fruits and pretzels to licorice and even chili dogs.
My favorite moment of my race came in the last painful mile. My “cruising” ended at about mile 21. My legs started to cramp up, and my energy tank got down to near-empty. I took stretching breaks and tottered on until I could see the finish line about a quarter mile in the distance. It was so close and yet so far away. I dug deep and found my resolve and, more importantly, blood sugar both lacking.
And then, from out of nowhere, a man on the sideline stuck his hands out with an unimaginable treasure: a box of donuts.
I grabbed one and wolfed it down, profusely thanking the man through a mist of glazed crumbs. Several spectators chanted, “Donut man! Donut man! Donut man!”
I crossed the finish line with a renewed faith in humanity and Krispy Kreme, not necessarily in that order.
As I limped through the finish line area draped with my participatory medal, I reflected back on the race I had just run and the first one 29 years ago. I was struck by so many changes, and a few vital things that hadn’t.
I would be welcomed at home by the same woman I was newly in love with back in 1986, who would treat me like a conquering hero. I started the race with my twin brother, who was on the course with me three decades ago. (He beat me that first time, and he beat me Sunday, but he broke down toward the end this year, just like I did.)
Back in the day, my best friend ran with me. He didn’t make this year’s race because he’s busy raising little kids, but the blessings of technology let him run it vicariously. He tracked my progress online and texted me encouragement, and I texted him back thanks using my phone’s voice to text feature.
A longtime family friend and her daughter – who is also my goddaughter – ran the last seven miles of the race with me. I also got phone calls on the course from my two sons, both of whom were out of town. The first time I ran 26.2 miles I thought I knew the meaning of satisfaction. Raising two fine human beings into young adulthood gave me a whole new definition.
My father came out to support my brother and I from the sidelines, just as he did so many years ago. He is 83 now. He ran his first and only marathon, in L.A, when he was 58, on a day even hotter than Sunday. I ran part of that race with him and the memory reminds me that I will never be as tough as my old man.
All in all, it was a great day to call it a day as far as my unimpressive marathon career goes. I am at an age – 52 – where it’s very important to try some new experiences, but there’s also a need to know when to put a button on some old pursuits.
I put in a lot of time training for this marathon. What else could I have done with that time? Finally read “War and Peace”? Write that screenplay that’s been rattling around in my brain for a decade?
Better yet, volunteer for a good cause?
Those all sound more appealing than pounding the pavement for 26.2 miles.
Besides, I have done a little volunteering already, and you know what volunteers sometimes get?