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Marathon shift brings anger

November 11, 2008|Greg Johnson | Johnson is a Times staff writer.

The reaction among distance runners to Monday's announcement that the Los Angeles Marathon date is being shifted to Memorial Day beginning next year was fast and, in many cases, furious.

Many runners echoed the concerns of Lou Briones, 60, of Los Angeles. He is one of 248 runners who have competed in each of the 23 previous races that were run on Sundays in early March, earning the nickname "Legacy Lou."

"It's a huge blow to me personally, and, I think, to a lot of other people who plan their marathons and triathlons a year in advance," Briones said. "Sure, being a 'legacy runner' is important to me and a lot of other runners. But the race begins to lose its luster when they do something like this.

"I can't do it all, so I'm going to have to really look at this change very carefully."

Briones was preparing an e-mail to other legacy runners to gather feedback about the new race date, which falls on May 25 next year.

"I don't want to run a marathon simply to maintain a legacy," Briones said.

Rumors have been circulating for weeks among those interested in the L.A. Marathon about a possible date change.

Many runners already were upset because, in September, LA Marathon LLC, which has acquired rights to operate the marathon, agreed to a city demand that the race be moved from its traditional Sunday in early March date to the Monday Presidents' Day holiday that will fall on Feb. 16 next year.

That calendar change was designed to address complaints from religious leaders, who blamed race-day road closures and traffic congestion for making it difficult for their congregations to get to church. Several ministers attended a City Council meeting in September when the issue was discussed and applauded the decision to switch to a Monday race.

When LA Marathon LLC President Russ Pillar discussed the latest new race date during a Monday morning telephone interview, he said the goal was to create the best possible race for runners, the thousands of race-day volunteers, charities that use the race for fundraising and his company's corporate partners.

After studying the Presidents' Day date, Pillar said, it quickly became apparent that many people wouldn't be able to run or volunteer because a relatively high number of employers don't observe the holiday. At that point, LA Marathon LLC, which is funded by Dodgers owner Frank McCourt, began studying other options.

Potential dates are limited, Pillar said, because the city contract limits the race day to a holiday Monday.

By Monday night, Pillar acknowledged that he had been hearing from runners who are upset by the switch to a Memorial Day race. He said the complaints are balanced out by responses from other runners who "are planning to participate now who couldn't when the race was to be held on Presidents' Day."

"In all, we're confident in our ability to host a better event for all constituencies on Memorial Day and look forward to doing so," Pillar said.

Of the nearly 100 runners who contacted The Times to talk about the new race date, all but a handful were in opposition.

Runners said that it is likely to be too hot in late May to safely run a marathon in Los Angeles. Others said that the shift from mid-February to late May could wreak havoc with training regimens.

"You can't maintain peak training for that long," said Bill Lockton, president of L.A. Leggers, a club of 1,300 local runners.

"The other problem is that Memorial Day is a big family day. People are going on vacations, having barbecues."

Los Angeles resident Henry LeBlanc, who has run the marathon in recent years with his girlfriend, echoed those concerns last week as rumors of a Memorial Day race began to build in the running community.

"We're already up to 12 or 13 miles and we're shooting for the February date," LeBlanc said. "But if it goes to Memorial Day, it's going to be very difficult to continue training for another three months."

By Monday afternoon, LeBlanc said that he was inclined to skip the L.A. Marathon and instead run somewhere else.

The 50 official L.A. Marathon charities that rely upon the race to raise about $1.5 million in donations annually also voiced concern over the Memorial Day race date.

"I would characterize the official L.A. Marathon charities group as being highly concerned about a date change," said John N. Heathcliff, director of development for Public Counsel, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit. "We want what is best for the city, the race and the runners. And we'll do our best to make this work out.

"But there's no way that this could be considered good news for the charities. We're worried that our donations could fall by a third to a half because Memorial Day really is a family day and people are concentrating on proms, picnics and travel. And, given the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is increasingly a day for veterans."

The new date also could cause scheduling problems for athletes who compete in several marathons each year. The Memorial Day date, for example, bumps up against the popular San Diego Rock 'n' Roll Marathon, which will be staged a week later.

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greg.johnson@latimes.com

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