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L.A. Marathon hits the wall

November 26, 2008|Tina Dupuy | Tina Dupuy is a writer, comedian and runner in Los Angeles.

The inspiration for long-distance runners is the Greek messenger Pheidippides, who legend has it ran the 25 miles from the plains of Marathon to Athens in 490 BC to announce the Greeks' victory over Persia, and then immediately dropped dead.

This is the model of my sport of choice. You think sky divers are twisted? Please.

For cities, marathons are a thing of pride. Just ask someone in Boston what they think of their super-exclusive marathon (the world's oldest). The people of Chicago -- even those who don't own running shoes -- will talk about how their marathon, with its quick flat course, sells out at 45,000 runners every year. In New York, the whole city gets together, and its marathon is like a six-hour-long parade.

Los Angeles holds a special place in modern marathon history, especially among women. It was in Los Angeles in 1984 that women were first allowed to officially compete in an Olympic marathon. Joan Benoit of the United States ran through the glass ceiling to the gold with a time of 2:24:52.

So what's going on with L.A.'s marathon today? Since the first one in 1986, the route has changed a few times -- and not always for the better. It has had three owners in just the last six years. One was Devine Racing Management, which paid some of its winners so late in 2006 that some elite runners boycotted the following year's race.

Dodgers owner Frank McCourt and his company, LA Marathon, took it over last year. A local guy. A sports guy. Great. New owner, new ideas, better marathon, I figured. Right? Maybe not.

The race is usually run in late February, early March. With the sale to McCourt, the race was moved to Mondays, with next year's on Feb. 16, Presidents' Day. That was better for the race. The ideal temperature for a marathon is about 50 degrees; the hotter it is, the slower your time. Slower times mean fewer people coming to L.A. to participate. But now LA Marathon has proposed moving the race to -- wait for it -- Memorial Day, the last Monday in May. A month that is on average about 10 degrees hotter than February. Why?

The decision to move the race to Mondays in February was in response to complaints from religious leaders that the road closures and congestion made it difficult for their congregations to attend services on Sunday. LA Marathon President Russ Pillar said the switch to May was because many employers don't observe Presidents' Day, so fewer runners and volunteers would have been able to participate.

But there's a reason cities in hot climates have their races in the winter months. Honolulu and Las Vegas have theirs in December. Big-city races want to attract the broadest number of runners, and the best course with the best weather is the best bet.

Maybe McCourt is used to baseball fans being mad at him, yet runners aren't as easily miffed. But suggesting moving the major race in the city by three months has sure done it.

"It's not considered a 'marathoner's marathon,' it's an event," said Long Beach podiatrist John Pagliano, who has run 111 marathons. (For the record: I've traded in cars that had less miles on them.) And a move to what in L.A. is essentially a summer day will not make it a layman's marathon either.

This date change is like moving a minimally popular television to Friday night. It's a death rattle. It's about to be canceled for ratings.

A woman in my running group put it best when she heard that the race might be moving to May -- with a line that can double as a first reaction and an epitaph: "Great. First we don't have a football team, and now we don't have a marathon."

This annual experience, which has grown to more than 20,000 runners, is the only major sports event in Los Angeles where, for a small fee, anyone can compete. It's the only non-natural disaster that brings us together as a city.

And right now it looks like it's in trouble.

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