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Palm Sunday

How One L.A. Marathoner Got Blisters in the Most Unusual Place

March 07, 2004|Woody Woodburn | Woody Woodburn is a freelance writer based in Ventura.

The late, great Times sports columnist Jim Murray wrote before the inaugural L.A. Marathon that marathon running is great if you're a zebra, or trying to get away from a forest fire, or if you just robbed a bank. Or if "you're not going to need your feet for a while."

Sore feet are what many of the 20,000-plus runners in today's L.A. Marathon XIX will long remember after they finish the race's 26.2 miles. For days and even weeks afterward, many will walk gingerly around home and office as if they're barefoot on glowing coals.

My experience is different. For me, running in the L.A. Marathon is great if you're not going to need your hands for a while.

What the runner in bib No. 21,037 remembers most about his sub-4-hour run of the L.A. Marathon in 2002 is how sore his hands got. I have run about a dozen marathons, but none compare with this one. It was an unforgettable Hands Across America celebration.

Make that Hands Across Downtown, Koreatown and Little Ethiopia. Twenty-six-point-two miles of Hands Across L.A.

Twenty-six-point-two miles of high-fives, low-fives, left-fives and right-fives. Dry-fives and wet-fives, sticky-fives and slippery-fives. Male-fives and female-fives, 4-year-old-fives and 65-fives. White-fives, black-fives and every-color-fives.

My personal Palm Sunday, if you will, began less than a mile into the race. Running along the left-hand curb, I saw a trio of young spectators holding out their small palms as they cheered the jogging gridlock of naked-legged humanity. I reached out instinctively and shared the common currency of all sports -- high-fives -- with the three strangers. Slap! Slap! Slap!

You know what? It felt good. I mean, really good. They smiled and so did I.

A block later, I saw another kid with his hand out.

Slap!

What began innocently on a warm and sunny Southern California March morning quickly snowballed. I started looking for more hands to high-five. Even after the throng of runners thinned, I did not move to the flatter center of the road but stayed near the curb. Near the crowd. Near the outstretched palms.

SlapSlapSlap!

I slapped palms with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, or at least with kids wearing replica jerseys of their Laker heroes.

I slapped palms with what looked like a Hells Angel, and with an Anaheim Angel fan.

I slapped palms with Elvis and with Elvira.

I slapped palms with a minister in front of a church, with a singer from a gospel choir and with a Jamaican drummer.

I slapped palms with a girl waving a Mexican flag and a woman wearing an American flag.

I kid you not, I even high-fived--make that high-pawed--a white poodle that a young girl was holding.

I slapped palms with volunteers handing out water, handing out Gatorade, handing out energy gel packets at miles 10 and 18, and handing out beer shots in tiny paper cups at mile 21. I personally passed up Miller Time, because by now I was staggering like I was failing a field sobriety test.

Along Wilshire Boulevard's Miracle Mile, the high-fives from spectators so lifted my spirits that I picked up my pace, which by this stage in the race had become as slow as Barry Bonds' home-run trot. When I slapped palms with what appeared to be an entire class of elementary school kids, it sounded like Tom Sawyer happily raking a stick across a picket fence: SlapSlapSlapSlapSlapSlap.

I slapped palms that were sticky from handing out orange slices and others that were gooey with Vaseline, which race workers were handing out in globs to help runners fight late-race blisters and chafing. Even these oozy-fives felt wonderful.

In the final few miles, I slapped hands with a bunch of liars who told me, "You look strong!" and "You look great!" even though by then I resembled a dead man walking. I slapped palms with stranger after stranger, yet every high-five seemed like a friend's.

And it wasn't just spectators who extended their hands. I slapped the padded leather-gloved palms of a couple of wheelchair racers. I shared high-fives with runners who encouraged me as I passed them, and--much more often, I must admit--with those whom I encouraged as they blew past me. I high-fived the lady who unlaced my right shoe at the finish line to remove the computer timing chip, and gave her a second high-five after she retied my shoelaces because my legs were cramping and I couldn't do it myself.

The pretty woman who put the finisher's medal around my neck? I put some skin on her palm too. And I also planted a wet one on an even prettier woman, my wife, at the finish line--a sweaty high-five, that is. I'm guessing I slapped, on average, 10 high-fives per mile. Maybe double that. Probably 500 high-fives over the course of the marathon. A personal record to be sure. A high-five career high.

By the end, I had slapped palms with the City of Angels. With men and women, young and old. With African Americans and Korean Americans and Mexican Americans and Native Americans. With all kinds and colors of Americans. As the renowned running essayist George Sheehan once wrote: "Pain knows no color; exhaustion has no creed.... Fatigue and discomfort and shortness of breath make all of us brothers."

High-fives know no creed or color either, not in a race that finishes one block from Hope Street.

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