Texas Hill Country
October 12, 2020
Woke up at 3:00 AM after no more than three hours of not-so-deep sleep. I didn’t feel hungry, but put away a kiwi and a granola bar. Walked the mile-and-a-half to the shuttle pickup with my hotel mates on empty streets. For whatever reason, the majority of the shuttles picked up at 4:00 AM, which got you to Dodger Stadium at 4:30, three hours before the marathon started. Why the race organizers want everyone to be there that early, I have no idea. Some of the shuttles left as early as 2:30, and a few left at 5:30. You had to reserve those in advance though, and I was too late. Here’s a thought: have a lot of shuttles, and have them all leave between 5:00 and 5:30, rather than staggering them, so we can all sleep a little later. Or have shuttles take you back to the start after the race as well, so you can choose between getting yourself to the start or finish. With 23,000 participants paying $180 each, this should be do-able.
Arrived at Dodger Stadium. 4:30 AM. Only three hours of doing nothing before the gun. Plopped down in a seat along the first base line. After about five minutes, a very loud woman shouted that the area we were sitting in was closed off. There was no partition, no rope, no sign. Any one of those would be better than someone yelling at you. I took a seat nearby and closed my eyes, hoping to get a catnap in while I waited. Every 30 seconds, she had to yell at someone else. There didn’t seem to be any particular reason we could sit in some sections, but not others. And she never made an effort to cordon off the area, just shouted at everyone that got near. I’m curious what the application for that job is like. I imagine it primarily focuses on how little experience you have finding solutions and how much experience you have being mean.
I was able to rest and relax, but not fall asleep. While I waited, I ate a complimentary bagel and banana, as well as the granola bar I brought. About 5:50, I got up just to throw away my banana peel. While I was up, I noticed the line for the bathroom was already long. I was gonna need it before the race started, so I figured I might as well get in line now. One hour later, I got my turn. There were only three toilets in the only bathroom we had access to (thanks to inexplicably not being allowed past the loud woman), and one of them didn’t have toilet paper, so we were down to two. Plenty of urinals, but that wasn’t what I needed. I got out of the bathroom at 7:00. The clothing check closed at 6:45. Was this why they wanted us there so early? Because they knew they have inadequate facilities?
Luckily, the clothing drop was still open when I got there, presumably because I wasn’t the only late one. I put down my highly caffeinated Clif Shot, my secret weapon against only three hours of sleep, and headed towards the start area, planning to stretch when I got there. For yet another inexplicable reason, they didn’t let anyone enter the start area until about five minutes before the gun. And they somehow expected us to sort ourselves by our expected pace. Needless to say, that generally didn’t happen. As someone warbled the Star-Spangled Banner and milked the ending, I attempted to nudge my way towards the front. I’m fully aware that it’s rude and I feel like a jerk doing it, but I think it’s much better to push past people before the race, rather than during. Way, way too many people line up at the front despite being average-or-worse runners. So as much as I hate being rude to those people, they also deserve it for being inconsiderate.
Two minutes before the gun, I started the GPS feature on my watch. It couldn’t get a reading. I was outside, not even close to any buildings or trees, and it didn’t get a reading in the two minutes before the gun. It wouldn’t be until about three miles into the race that it finally did. Somehow, when I accidentally bump my watch while I’m indoors, it gets a reading every time and drains the battery, but when I’m outside and ready to run, it takes forever. So I wouldn’t be able to record the whole race and wouldn’t be able to use my watch to pace myself. I’d just make sure and pay attention to the mile markers and the course clocks.
The gun started, and predictably, I had to slow-jog and push past the masses for the first half-mile. I hate doing it, but I hate having to do it more. As rude as it is to bump people on the run, I think it’s much more rude to be in someone’s way in the first place. If you’re not fast, don’t line up at the front. The real-life equivalent is when someone complains about the guy that's late, or tells someone to hurry up when they’re holding back the whole group, and invariably, it’s the messenger that’s always labelled the bad guy. But I’ve always considered that to be an order of magnitude less rude than the guy that’s actually late and forces everyone to wait on him.
After what seemed like a mere prelude, there was an aid station. They were supposed to be every mile. A mile can’t have gone by already, can it? They wouldn’t set up an aid station less than a mile into the race either, would they? I asked this aloud to someone near me, and yep, we’d gone a mile. No mile marker though. Wonderful. Not only is my watch not working, but the miles aren’t clearly marked.
Miles two and three had clear markers and clocks displaying the gun time, which I figured to be only about 10 seconds ahead of my chip time. I was running 6:00 miles. My general strategy was to run a 6:30 pace as long as I could and hold on. I didn’t even feel like I was trying very hard though. Just needed to mentally calm down.
It was only about a mile later that my stomach started turning. This was early. And it didn’t seem like a simple problem either. I’d probably need a toilet at some point.
I took my first drink at mile 5. The drinks were supposed to be clearly separated: water first, electrolyte second. From what I could tell, that rarely happened. Patterns were usually something like water-electrolyte-water, or electrolyte-water, or water-electrolyte-water-electrolyte. So you never knew what you were getting. An even more disturbing pattern was that the aid stations, which were supposed to be at every mile, were not at the mile markers. There was one about every mile, but you never knew when it was coming. And since the electrolyte drink was only at the odd miles, you had to try to remember what mile marker you last passed and figure out what the next station would have. And just to make matters worse, it didn’t appear that all of the odd-numbered stations had electrolytes at all. This is a problem when you made a plan ahead of time, and now you have no idea what to expect at any point.
At mile seven, I stopped to use the bathroom. Barely anything. Uh-oh. That meant this was going to be a problem throughout the race. I knew I was eating too much before the race, but since the race decided to go with a calorie-free electrolyte beverage, I felt like I would need extra calories before the race since it would be so difficult to get any during. I’m sure they made that decision based on the highest bidder. I wish they’d made that decision with the runners in mind instead.
I started running again, slower though, since my stomach was decreasingly pleased with me. By mile 10, I was in significant physical pain. I really wanted to just fart, and managed that a couple times, but that wasn’t gonna cut it. I just then realized that there had been very little crowd support so far. I wasn’t expecting anything like Boston, but there was so much buildup from the race’s own website and program, I figured it was gonna be significant. I gotta say, it was no better than Dallas or Austin, both of which have far less participants, over half of which are only doing a half-marathon. A few of the live bands made me smile, but the crowd support was sorry for such a big event in such a big town.
Starting at mile 10, I was looking for a port-o-potty. There was supposed to be one after every aid station, at every mile. Not only were the aid stations not at the mile markers, the port-o-potties also weren’t there, and they weren’t next to the aid stations either. Nothing about this race was organized. I’d say it was poorly organized, but that would imply that there was some semblance of organization. And the erratically-located port-o-potties didn’t appear once per mile. 2.5 miles after I started looking for one, I finally found one. The gap between port-o-potties was at least 1.5 miles bigger than advertised. While I was looking, I was sorely tempted to duck into a 7-11 or McDonald’s and use one there.
After using the port-o-potty, with much more success this time, I felt pretty good and picked up my pace. I got to the halfway point with a gun time of 1:27. That’s still pretty good! Even with two bathroom stops, that put me basically dead-on pace for my ultimate goal of 2:55, which would give me a sub-seed at the San Francisco Marathon (I would be able to line up directly behind the pros at the start line and not push past everyone like a jerk).
But it didn’t last. Only a couple miles later, I had to make another stop. All that food I ate before the race was probably not getting absorbed, so I was likely in caloric depletion. Nor had I eaten the peanut butter or Clif Shot I was carrying in my pocket, hoping not to add to my stomach problems. And I hadn’t had more than about an ounce of liquid this whole time either, since with my stomach problems, I only wanted to take in electrolyte drink, basically didn’t wanna have to do both water AND something else. But since I couldn’t figure out where it was, I didn’t have any. So I was probably dehydrated too.
I passed mile 15 and saw the clock reading 1:45. I came to a sad realization: 3:00 was still possible, but 2:55 wasn’t. I would have to be a jerk in San Francisco
My stomach felt less churning, but I didn’t feel much better somehow. My legs weren’t tired. I wasn’t out of breath. But I didn’t feel well. And then my stomach acted up again. Of all the things I ate that morning, for whatever reason, I kept blaming the bagel. It could've just as easily been the caffeinated Clif Shot, since I almost never have caffeine and it can have a laxative effect. I started looking for a port-o-potty again, and for the second time, I went more than a mile without finding one. I honestly started considering just moving over to the sidewalk and taking a crap there. If they won’t provide the toilets they said they would, that’s what they get
Found a port-o-potty just shy of mile 18 and used it. Not long after leaving, I realized I just wanted the race to end. Nothing to do but keep moving though. This was supposed to be the toughest part of the race; between miles 16 and 23 were a net uphill.
Between mile 20 and 21, I took what would be my last bathroom break. Leaving the port-o-potty, I felt good for the first time since somewhere around mile 4. Right about then, I crossed a sensor and saw some messages from my friends displayed on a giant screen. One in particular, written in a kind of inside joke quasi-code, made me laugh loudly and probably drew a lot of puzzlement from other runners and spectators. Then the course turned uphill, and other runners, now hitting the wall, slowed down as I kept going strong. Trail runs have made me tough on uphills, and I hadn’t had a chance to run hard and wear myself out yet, with the frequent breaks and my stomach slowing down my pace. All that combined sparked something in me, and I took off on the toughest miles of the course shot out of a cannon. 21 miles into a marathon, uphill, and I was at a 6:30 pace. Now that’s getting it done!
The previous two bathroom breaks and a bad pace for the last 8 miles had made breaking 3:00 impossible, but at mile 22, I realized that 3:05 was still within reach. This was the last chance for me to salvage an accomplishment for the day, a Boston-qualifying time. And even though I don’t necessarily plan on doing Boston again, knowing I could is something, and qualifying is a benchmark for a good runner. Where I was, a 7:00 pace might do it, but a 6:30 mile definitely would. I still had one mile to go before the course would turn back downhill and head to the beach. For the third time, spectators were calling it the last hill, but they were finally right. I did my best to pace up it, not wanting to burn myself out, but also not wanting to let myself slip too far behind. Arrived at mile 23 at a 6:45 pace. Not bad, but that might not cut it. It would probably have me finish in 3:05:something, but not under 3:05. And while Boston used to truncate the seconds off your qualifying time, I’m not sure the specifics these days. Better safe than sorry, so I kept my pace strong. And besides, if you can do better, is there any reason not to?
Over the last hill, I got to mile 24 holding a pace just under 6:30. Fan-freaking-tastic! Just keep it up for two more miles. Only problem was I was finally starting to feel tired. I did my best to ignore it. Mile 25 came and went. Same strong pace. Then the course reached the beach, turned left, and flattened. A little harder now, I had to earn that last mile or so. I knew I could’ve relaxed a little and probably done a 7:00 mile at that point, but I was worried that I would relax a little too much and miss 3:05 by something like 10 seconds, and I would hate myself for that. The crowd got thicker and louder, but I barely noticed. I just kept focusing straight ahead on the task at hand. When I could finally read the clock at the finish line and knew I’d reach at least one goal, I smiled. Crossed the finish line. Started walking. Immediately, my legs hurt like hell.
Crossed the finish line and got a medal put on. A volunteer, probably only about 16 years old, handed me a water bottle and started walking with me, probably some sort of standard to make sure runners are OK after the race. I gotta say, she was sweet and had a pleasant disposition. After a block or so, she turned around and headed back to the finish line.
For some reason, I was having trouble walking. Less than five minutes ago, I was churning out 6:30 miles, but now it was hard to walk. Go figure. After another minute or two of shuffling and groaning, I found Nick getting a massage. I stretched for a while, and just as I was done stretching, Nick’s finished up, and Adam had just arrived. We were all back together again, purely by chance. Adam and I stuck around to get massages ourselves, while Nick started back to the hotel to get the first shower.
Before getting a massage, some guy had to take your pulse and make sure you didn’t belong at the medical tent instead. He first took it from my wrist, gave a puzzled look, then took it again from my neck.
“That is low,” he exclaimed, looking at me with incredulity.
“My pulse is normally low, I think my resting pulse is 50...” I started
“Yeah, but you just ran a marathon!”
“Well, that was 15 minutes ago.”
A table opened up and I received an awesome massage. Almost half the time the guy was just pushing or pulling me into stretches. At one point, he lifted my leg straight up and started making circles.
“Relax your leg,” he told me.
“Yeah, that’s as relaxed as it’s gonna get.”
After 15-20 minutes (I had expected only about five), my turn was up, so I found Adam and we started walking back to the hotel together. About two miles. Should take about an hour. Adam was still wearing all his warm-ups, which he’d worn during the race, since he got in the line for the bathroom after I did and didn’t make it to the clothing drop in time. So while I thought running shorts and a tank top was just enough for the weather we had (which was perfect), Adam was wearing a short-sleeved shirt, a long-sleeved one over that, and long pants over his running shorts. He was lucky it didn’t warm up as expected, or that would’ve been completely miserable, rather than unnecessarily uncomfortable.
It was cool to walk along Venice Beach again, this time during the day, after seeing it the night before. After probably half an hour, Adam stopped in his tracks.
“Oh no,” he kept patting himself, like he was looking for his keys, “Shit! I left my pouch at the massage tables.”
“Oh man. What was in it?”
“My credit card, my ID....”
“Do you need me to drive you back when we get to the hotel?”
“No, I’ll turn around and go now.”
“....OK. Do you need me to pick you up at the finish?”
“No, I’ll be quick. Just go ahead and I’ll meet you at the hotel.”
We were already halfway to the hotel. It would probably take an hour and a half to walk all the way back to the finish line, then back to the hotel again. Nonetheless, I set off without him.
I headed on to the hotel alone. Nick was packing up his stuff. I told him we might need to pick up Adam, since I had little faith we’d be out before our 1:00 PM checkout otherwise (it was now about noon). I hopped in the shower, and as I was getting out, Adam came through the door.
“Wow. That was fast.”
“I told you I’d be quick!”
“Yeah, but.....damn.” I still have no idea how he covered that kind of ground that fast. Did he run?
Nick was catching a flight from LAX that night, so he walked back over to the Google office to hang out there for the rest of the day. Adam and I got in the car, navigated some more bad LA traffic, then had a nice, easy long drive back to Silicon Valley.
I had wanted to go out for St. Patrick’s Day, but couldn’t find anyone to go with, and I wanted to get to bed early after only getting three hours of sleep the night before. So I had a couple beers while wearing a green plastic leprechaun hat and called it a night.
Was I disappointed? Kinda. There is some amount of pride in the fact that just about everything went wrong, I had to stop for the bathroom five times, and I still finished in a Boston-qualifying time. But more than that, I’m glad that Boston improved their standards. Because I’m not so sure a performance like mine is deserving of a spot in the world’s most prestigious footrace. I’d like it if the cutoff time eventually got whittled down to 3:00, which would truly make that the ultimate mark of a good marathoner.
I don’t plan on running the LA Marathon again, and I don’t recommend it. The course is...OK...the organization is bad, the support is average, and the price is high. Not to mention you have to deal with driving in LA. Nothing made it stand out as good, and a whole lot of things stuck out as bad. I understand some of those come with the territory of an event that large, but I’ve done these before, and I don’t remember any other one being this bad.
It made me start thinking though, and this may signal the end of mega-marathons for me. I think for me, soccer was kind of like that first girl you had a crush on and made you realize that girls weren’t icky, and marathons were like your first love from back in high school that you went head over heels for, at the time. Bike touring and backpacking have been other great loves along the way. But now fully mature, I may have found my soul mate in trail running. Sure, I might catch up with my old flames and do a bike tour, or backpacking trip, or road marathon every now and then. But trail running and myself, I think we’re destined to be together.