Sunday, March 15, 2015

30th Los Angeles Marathon

10 days before this year's Los Angeles Marathon, I started to worry.  The initial weather forecast suggested we would be running this year under record heat.  As with most of our local forecasts, I took this with a grain of salt.  But as race day neared, the forecast high never dropped.  The event organizers took the unprecedented step of shifting the start time of the entire race earlier by a doubt a shuffle of massive proportions for a sold out event that has grown to expect 26,000 runners crossing through multiple cities before finishing in Santa Monica.  They warned us we should not strive for personal bests, expect to run a thirty minutes to an hour slower than usual. They stated the course would be even better stocked with water, Gatorade, aid, and cooling stations.  Reality began to set in.

When I arrived at the LA Convention Center to pick up my race packet on Saturday morning, my worst fears were all but confirmed.  It was hot.  At 9am.  Even with the early start time under ideal conditions, I figured I would finish by 10:35am at the earliest (which would not have been my PR on this course).  Here is a breakdown I sent to family and close friends so they could anticipate where and when they might be able to find me on the course:
  • Start (Dodger Stadium - Los Angeles): 6:55am (68 degrees)
  • Mile 8 (Los Feliz - Sunset & Myra Ave): 8:01 (73)
  • Halfway (West Hollywood - Sunset...approx. Laugh Factory): 8:43 (68-74)
  • Mile 22 (Brentwood - San Vicente...approx Whole Foods Market): 9:59 (65)
  • Finish (Santa Monica - Ocean and California): 10:35 (80-84)
Even with these forecast temperatures, Sunday was expected to be mostly cloudy.  I couldn't even hope for the marine layer to salvage this race.

Race day arrives.  I wake up at exactly 3:30am as planned, getting roughly 7 hours of sleep.  I chase down a bagel with cream cheese with a latte and gear up quickly since I had set everything aside the night before.  Valerie drives me to the Artesia Transit Center so I can catch the Silver Line bus to Union Station as I did the last time I ran this race, but, despite having done this before, I am a little worried.  I picked 5:30am as my shuttle departure time when I signed up for the race, which long predated the half-an-hour shift in race time.  I also did not realize that the earliest Metro bus arrives at the station after my requested shuttle is scheduled to depart for Dodger Stadium.  I also forgot to grab a bottle of water to bring with me to the start of the race (fortunately Valerie had one in the car).

I reach Union Station at 5:40am.  I try to cut the straightest path through the station to where the shuttles were located in 2013, detouring briefly for a much needed pitstop.  I am making a huge assumption that the shuttles will be where I expect them to be.  There are no signs posted anywhere telling runners where to go.  I follow a bunch of runners headed in the same direction.  We reach the shuttles and no one stops me from boarding the next one to depart.  By 5:53am, we are en route to the stadium.

When the shuttle approaches Dodger Stadium, its gets stuck in traffic before reaching the ramp to the parking lot.  I could have sworn that shuttles previously entered the stadium by an exclusive entrance that completely avoided such traffic.  Now we must wait for officers to direct traffic through the intersection...which includes pausing for a large number of cars leaving the lot.  Once on the ramp, shuttles eventually get their own lane, but getting to that lane took valuable time.

I step off the shuttle at 6:08am and proceed through the parking lot.  The race starts in 47 minutes, but the start corrals close in 22.  I must move quickly.   The lines at the first set of port-a-potties are really long, so I keep walking.  To enter the corrals, I must proceed all the way around the entire starting area, so I might have a better chance with the restrooms inside Dodger Stadium.  Big mistake!  The restrooms are up multiple flights of stairs.  The first two have long lines...I cannot risk proceeding further around the stadium.  I head back down through growing crowds.  I pass by the pre-race food area hoping to grab some water, but there is a long line there too.  I hear an announcement about corrals closing soon, so I continue to my corral.  I remove my hat as someone starts singing "God Bless America" ahead of the wheelchair race start.  I encounter a mob trying to enter my corral.  Ugh.

I step into my corral at 6:30am...they must have extended the cutoff since there are a lot of people still entering.  I should be relieved, but I am still very aware that I might need to go sooner than later (if I hadn't gone at Union Station, I would be in a whole world of hurt right about now).  I also have a slight headache, perhaps due to stress, more likely a side-effect of the unusually early waking hour (only a week after losing one).  My throat is dry...I really wish I had a bottle of water with me (especially to chase down my pre-race Clif Shot).  My stomach bothers me, but butterflies usually hit before a race...and today's anticipated heat has me far more nervous than usual.

About the heat, the morning temperature is really nice.  There is no need for garbage bags or removable sleeves on a morning like this.  The sun rises behind us, there are clouds overhead.  I am surrounded by an estimated 26,000 runners, many of whom merely want to survive this race as much I do.  Once again I remove my hat for The National Anthem.

Last week I made the mistake of not checking that my phone's GPS was enabled prior to starting Runkeeper, so I double check that the app is good to go and my music is playing before securing the phone in my SPIbelt (I rely upon the app's auto-pause feature to start recording the data once the race begins).  Knowing that my Garmin watch battery does not last much longer than 4 hours, I have been using the app as a backup...and wait until well after the elite women start to enable my watch's GPS.

Finally our race gets underway.  As with some of my previous races, I have an issue hitting the start button exactly when I cross the start line, but I am able to get the watch started only a few seconds after.  Unlike my previous L.A. Marathons, I intentionally do not try to work my way through the initial crowd.  Time we spend in the stadium lot is better served as a warm up.  As soon as we make our way past the start line spectators, a number of runners start bolting towards the left side of the course to pee.  I am not that desperate, but I certainly can empathize (in retrospect, it may have been the best time to go).  I do not bother to reach race pace until we start the descent and leave the stadium.

On the descent, I actually hit my half marathon race pace and I carry it on to Sunset Blvd.  My race strategy has always been to pick pace targets based on training results, a pace I try to maintain on flat sections.  I never restrict my pace on downhill portions, so I do not mind going a bit faster than my marathon pace even though I know I should be conserving for later.  More runners leave the course when we come across the first set of port-a-potties, but there is a wait.  I am not that desperate yet, but now realize I will likely need to go before the end of this race.

I am a bit irked that there is no mile 1 water station.  I could have sworn there would be one.  My throat is still dry and I have Clif Shot residue in my mouth.  I must wait until I am in Chinatown, into the second mile, before I can wet my whistle.  I grab a Gatorade, but was hoping for water.  Not the flavor I like, but I will drink anything when I am desperate.  As I toss the cup aside, I see people handing out water.  I wonder if subsequent stations will consistently have Gatorade first, water second.  I do plan to take liquids from every station today, even if I do not feel like I need it.

I see a set of port-a-potties ahead of the third mile marker...and most appear vacant.  Though I have finally settled into my race pace, I stop...and take longer than I expect.  I must have needed to go more than I realized.   Thankfully, it is early enough in the marathon that my legs did not tighten up, and since the course is still downhill trending through this section of downtown, I easily get back on race pace.

Suddenly, I catch a whiff of steamed rice as I pass by the Japanese Village Mall in Little Tokyo.  Oh look, Shin-Sen-Gumi has a location here!  Now all I can think about is sushi and ramen.  And döner kebabs.  I really need to visit when I am not running so I can try the restaurants in this part of town.

At this point, the course begins a longish upward trending stretch.  For some reason, it feels like it is takes longer to get to 1st street...the first real hill.  I look forward to the pounding sound of the Taiko drums because it means I am close to the top of the course's steepest incline...and will soon be leaving downtown.  As usual, I let my pace drop below my target, but not too far below.  The course has many rolling sections and I can make up for some of the lost time on the dips.

There is relatively little drama until after I pass through Echo Park and turn on Sunset Blvd.  The official 3:45 pace group catches up with me as I slow to take on fluids.  I thought I was still well within the pace window of a 3:40 finish, especially since heat has not yet played a factor in the race.  I start falling behind as the course continues to climb towards Hollywood Blvd, but I manage to catch and pass them on a slightly downhill stretch.  They catch me again as I slow to grab water during the next climb, but I pass them again on Hollywood Blvd since much of it is downhill trending.

For some reason, the run through Hollywood feels longer than usual.  It takes ages to reach the Pantages, Hollywood and Highland, the Chinese Theater. Last time I breezed through this stretch.  My legs are losing their spark by the time the course turns down Orange Drive.  The 3:45 pace group passes me one last time.  Even with the descent I cannot keep up with them any more.  I just do not have it in me.

Speaking about oranges, I should mention that, in addition to liquids and my usual Clif Shots, I have been consuming a good number of orange slices offered along the course.  Are marathon oranges a special variety?  They always taste so damned good, but they, along with Gatorade, Shots, and sweat make my hands really why would spectators, complete strangers, want to give high fives to us runners?

My pace slows into the nine minute per mile range on the flat stretch of Sunset Blvd and into the tens as I approach the Strip.  I am not sure why I cannot get my legs to turn over faster.  I am not in any real pain.  That slight headache that has not gone away.  My lower back and abdomen are a bit tight, but not in a way that bothers me or appears to be affecting my running form.  I am still breathing comfortably.  I am not hot.

I cross the halfway mark around 1:52, which, on normal days, would still give me a good shot at a 3:40 - 3:45 finish, but the anticipated heat factor has not yet come into play.  My unexpected loss of pep has diminished my enthusiasm, but seeing my friends Pete and Shannon during the next downhill stretch gives me a boost back into the eight minute per mile range...a  boost which fades as I reach Santa Monica Blvd.

The sun is out as the course starts climbing into Beverly Hills.  For the first Los Angeles Marathon, I start doubting whether I can finish.  Though I still do not feel that the heat is all that bad, I wonder if it explains my complete lack of oomph.  My legs simply do not want to run.  I am not in pain...if anything, my joints haven't felt this free of pain during a marathon in years.  My muscles are not burning.  I am not winded.  As I pass through the water station on Burton Way, I take Gatorade, but I am not sure I can keep it down.  I toss it aside and grab water instead.  Finally someone hands me a bag filled with ice.  Putting the bag against my neck feels really good.  One of the things I appreciated during my Maui Marathon meltdown were towels dipped in ice water...I am surprised there have not been any offered here.  Just then, I see volunteers handing out coconut water.  I grab a bottle.

As the road continues to curve towards Rodeo Drive, I find a shady spot beside a excuse to stop and let the ice work its magic.  Aside from the necessary pit stop I made earlier this morning, the last time I came to a complete stop on the stadium to sea course was at a water station during my final ascent on San Vicente in 2013.  Stopping this early in the race is a really bad sign.  I spot a course photographer and start walking again.

After finishing the bottle of coconut water, I start running again.  Rodeo Drive is a slightly downhill jaunt, so I get back into the nine minute per mile range, but then lose it as soon as I turn on to Wilshire.  Mental games are kicking in as I start feeling the heat.  I try telling myself I am already 17 miles into this race.  But then I remember how much I hate the long slow incline of Santa Monica Blvd that follows...and how the VA Hospital has been my wall.  Less than 10 miles to go.  Can I do this on a day like today when I feel the way I do?

I nearly stop at two of the water stations along Santa Monica Blvd, but somehow manage to complete the shade-free stretch averaging a ten-to-eleven minute per mile pace.  Making my way through the VA Hospital does not seem to be any more of a challenge, but that may be because I have already hit my wall.

My past two LA Marathons have taught me to look forward to reaching Brentwood.  I anticipate the enthusiasm of spectators, the cool sea breeze, the final and familiar descent towards the Santa Monica Pier and finish line.  Today the heat overwhelms, largely because this was one of the few areas that had actually been forecast to be significantly cooler than surrounding areas.  I am mentally and emotionally defeated.  I am feeling so low that I actually do not hope to see Pete, Shannon, Valerie, all who planned to intercept me somewhere along here.  I start fearing how I will react if Christophe meets me on the course and tries to encourage me to pick up my pace.  I just want this thing over.  Why does the ascent on San Vicente seem longer each time I run here?  Why does the descent not feel like a descent?  The 4:15 pace group passes me.  Batman passes me.  When the hell do I turn on to Ocean Blvd?

As I make the final turn on Ocean Blvd, I start pouring every last bit of energy I have into the final stretch.  I want this thing to end.  Now.  Batman is right in front of me.  The 4:15 pace group is still within sights. Can I catch them?  Why cannot I see that damned finish line yet?  Did I start pushing too early?  My legs are burning.  I am burning.  Someone put me out of my misery!

I lost track of Batman.  I pass the 4:15 pace group.  Somehow I am back to my race pace.  The end is in sight.  With a little extra effort, I can cross the finish before the clock strikes 4:15...and I do.  Holy.  I cannot believe this torture test is actually over.  Why is someone holding my arm and walking with me?  Do I look like I am about to pass out or something?  I am a bit woozy when I get my medal, but I do not think I need assistance progressing any further.  I grab my phone and stop the timer.  Valerie is trying to reach me.  She is stuck in traffic trying to park.  She did not see me finish.

I grab post race snacks, but for some reason do not feel compelled to eat them.  I do sip the water.  I eagerly take an ice water dipped towel...only the second towel offered...and place it around my neck.  I pause briefly for my official finisher photo, but keep on my feet.  Valerie contacts me again.  She has parked, but, since I took longer to finish and she has to be somewhere soon, she does not have time to hang out in Santa Monica while I recover.  She wants to meet me closer to where she parked than try to find me in the sea of people surrounding the reunion area.  I can barely keep my eyes I have been awake way too long past my bedtime...but I continue towards the parking lots on 2nd street.

Valerie spots me before I see her.  Supposedly the car is not far, but it seems miles away.  We reach the lot on 4th street, but the elevator is several floors up.  I don't know why, but I agree to follow her up the stairs.  The car is on level 4.  Ugh.  Once I reach the car, I crash on the seat.  I do not want to move again.  Ever.

I should have known something was wrong when we reached our lunch destination and I could barely stomach the thought of eating any food.  I had not even touched my post-race haul.  I order a burger, but pass on any sides.  The burger tastes good, but I eat it far more slowly than I usually would.  I do drink a lot of soda.

Since Valerie is where she needs to be, I take the keys from Valerie and drive myself home.  I am really tired now...a little light headed...but I reach home safely.  I pause for five minutes before I even attempt to get out of the car. My head is throbbing.  It hurts quite a bit more as I lean forward, so I pause again before standing up.   I decide to untie my shoelaces while I am sitting in the car.

As I step out of the car, I am much more aware of how hot it is.  Or how hot I am.  My legs are stiff.  Due to my headache, I decide I should not bend over to take off my shoes with my hands.  I nearly get a cramp trying to use one foot to pull the shoe off the other.

I hit the shower.  The temperature of the water bothers me.  Staying on my feet bothers me.  Keeping my eyes open bothers me.  After drying off, I take my temperature.  102.  Uh oh.

I down a coconut water and hit the bed.  As good as it feels to lie down, I just cannot find a position where my head does not hurt.  I fade in and out of consciousness.  I keep drinking fluids.  Judging by my pee, I do not appear to be dehydrated.  A few hours later, I take my temperature again.  104.

Something is obviously wrong or has been wrong with me since the day began.


Here's how my expectations collided with the unexpected reality of heat plus possible virus:
  • Mile 8 (Los Feliz - Sunset & Myra Ave): estimate 8:01, reality 8:03
  • Halfway (West Hollywood - Sunset...approx. Laugh Factory): estimate 8:43, reality 8:49
  • Mile 22 (Brentwood - San Vicente...approx Whole Foods Market): estimate 9:59, reality 10:14
  • Finish (Santa Monica - Ocean and California): estimate 10:35 (80-84), reality 11:10
If I factor how long it took to cross the start line, I was pretty close to my targeted pace until I hit Hollywood Blvd.  Even then, I was only off my half marathon target by four minutes.  Unofficially, I finished this race with a 4:14:09...still within my expectations given the anticipated heat index.  I am not displeased with my results.  After all, this was a day that saw 36 people hospitalized and many more, including American favorite Ryan Hall, simply dropped out of the race early.  In retrospect, I probably should have stopped in Beverly Hills.  My body was crying out, but my impaired mental state prevented me from knowing the right action to take.  I should feel lucky that I survived my 7th marathon.

I have completed the L.A. Marathon three tenth the number that the event's 178 amazing legacy runners have accomplished.  I passed a number of these individuals during this race, each time wondering how they have managed to run this every single year for thirty straight years without getting sick, suffering injury, or succumbing to the weather.
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