VIEWPOINT: Two on the road: Reminiscences of the LA Marathon

Standing in the cold parking lot of Dodger Stadium under pre-dawn skies that threatened rain, my husband and I listened to the announcer’s voice: “Welcome to the 2012 Los Angeles Marathon! Today you will run or walk 26.2 miles, and I guarantee that after this experience, you will never be the same again.”

Then Randy Newman’s inspirational song, “I Love LA,” blasted from the speakers, igniting the euphoria of the 27,000 plus participants. The LA Marathon route—advertised as a run from “the stadium to the sea”—began at Dodger Stadium and ended near the Santa Monica Pier.

My husband, Steven Steinsapir, and I had started training three months earlier. Writing in our planning notebook, we figured out a schedule over omelets at Claremont’s Village Grille, and began our training on the sidewalks of the Village, the track at Pomona College and the trails of the Wilderness Park.

As we trained, two miles became five, and five miles stretched into seven. In the eight weeks that followed, our 10-mile jaunts increased to 13. We trained almost every evening and relished getting to know our “inner athletes,” who had come out inconsistently to bike and hike. We decided to walk the marathon, thanks to our friend Wyatt Somrek, who told us the LA Marathon allowed walkers. In his late 70s, Wyatt had walked it with his daughter four times and on each occasion, he finished in under eight hours. We affectionately called him “Coach,” because he gave us advice and encouragement as we trained. 

As the morning advanced, the wheelchair, handcycle, elite women and elite men had begun, while we waited in our large group to start the race. I scanned the crowd, smiling at the brightly-colored sportswear on the sleek bodies of the athletes around us. At this time, my husband and I were both just over 50, and the majority of the participants were half our age, though we did see quite a few fit seniors in their 60s and 70s sprinkled among the crowd.

We were walking for the Claremont charity Shoes That Fit. There were groups running for the LGBTQ community, autism, Down syndrome and numerous other groups. This environment of athletes proudly championing their causes was enlightening; it was a vivid example of southern California at its best. The collective excitement of the thousands of participants who came from all over the United States was palpable. Yet, there was a sense of peace among this crush of humanity. I believe it was due to the Zen-like focus of the athletes, as each individual concentrated on his or her race strategy.

About 10 feet from us, I noticed a man who looked to be in his 20s with a long Velcro strap around his arm, which was connected to the arm of a woman about his age. On both sides of his red t-shirt in bold, black letters was printed, “Blind Runner.” It was challenging enough for a sighted person to complete a marathon, but this man would be running the entire route by trusting the voice of his coach. Tears of admiration stung at my eyes, and I wondered how long he had trained for the momentous event.

The announcement was made for our group to begin. The energy of the participants was released, and thousands of pairs of carefully tied running shoes moved like a colorful ocean wave all flowing in the same direction—a beautiful mass of humanity all seeking the same goal.

Steven and I spent the first two miles warming up and getting into pace with one another, when we saw a trail of hundreds of jackets, vests and t-shirts that had been hastily shed by previous athletes as their bodies heated up from running. We then ascended the steep Grand Avenue to the sound of Taiko drummers. I basked in the thunder of the drums and suddenly understood why, throughout history, armies used drummers to help soldiers keep pace and find solace in the drum’s primordial heartbeat.

An unexpected pleasure was walking near the architecture, which allowed us time to appreciate the textures of the marble, steel and glass that make up the relatively few tall buildings of downtown Los Angeles. Hailing from Covina and Glendora, and then moving even farther east to Claremont, has always kept me almost 30 miles from LA. Those 20-plus miles offers a vibrant swath of cultures, mindsets and environments. I was now able to appreciate the buildings in the City of Angels from the empty streets in the quiet, early-morning hours with no traffic to detract from the experience.

As we left downtown, we were relegated to walking on the sidewalks, because street barricades were being removed. Traffic lights had to be obeyed, which significantly slowed our progress. Passing through Silver Lake, with its collection of hip sidewalk cafes and boutiques, reminded me of the Claremont Village. The smells from the cafes, and the vibe in the neighborhood, with its posters announcing community events, matched Claremont’s civic pride and sense of activism.

Along the route, people in homes and businesses hung out signs of encouragement. My favorite was at a furniture store in West Hollywood. On a long, yellow banner in the front window, someone hand lettered, “If you are losing faith in human nature, watch a marathon.” My favorite picture from the event is of Steven standing in front of that banner. 

Because neither Steven or I had experience with performing publicly, the cheering and clapping had a deep effect on us. We were empowered when small crowds clapped as we passed. I remember an enthusiastic homeless man sitting on a curb yelling, “You are my heroes!” as we walked past. I had an instant connection with these strangers. It was almost a sacred experience to have strangers welcoming us as though we were part of a tribe.

The halfway point at mile 13.1 was in the heart Hollywood near Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, and we were now feeling twangs of pain in our feet and limbs. The realization that we had another 13.1 miles to walk to cross the finish line was daunting, but when the urge to quit came upon me, I thought of Shoes that Fit and the money we had collected from friends, family and our church congregation. I knew I had to finish the race.

The wide, smooth sidewalks in Beverly Hills were a stark contrast to the dangerous sidewalks we had endured earlier in the day on the outskirts of downtown LA. With the halfway point a few miles behind us, my husband and I made the mistake of sitting down for just 15 minutes at a Starbucks near Rodeo Drive. We should not have done this. Sitting had terminated our even walking pace and caused stiffness in our limbs. By the time we entered the grounds of the Veterans Hospital in Westwood, we had been walking for eight hours.

Despite our careful planning, we both developed blisters and needed to reapply larger moleskin patches to our heels and toes. As we removed our shoes, I was in an altered state. I compared the marathon to life and then to marriage as, over time, each partner is made aware of one another’s weaknesses and strengths. The team effort we developed over the several months of training had become a third entity of our marriage. It was similar to the team we became when our son, Andrew, was born and we both took care of him. Because of this renewed sense of unity, when our tempers flared or one of us became discouraged during the 11.5 hour walk, we talked it over and encouraged one another to keep moving forward.

As the early afternoon turned to 5 p.m., we approached Santa Monica, the last city along the route. The temperature had dropped significantly, bringing with it strong winds. Steven limp-walked next to me on the sidewalk as we glanced over at the beautiful homes of Santa Monica. This was lush suburbia with the Pacific Ocean just a few miles away, the physical embodiment of the iconic southern California lifestyle.

While moving from one beautiful block of houses to another, we talked about our pain. Steven made a joke; he had kept his sense of humor throughout the day. My legs felt wooden, and the nerves of my feet were on fire. The blazingly hot blister on the back of my left heel—although it had been covered again with a larger moleskin patch—radiated pain with every step. We had completed other difficult hikes, such as the Grand Canyon a few summers earlier, but this was the most physically grueling experience of my life.

As we turned the corner from San Vicente Boulevard onto Ocean Avenue, the rain that had been threatening to fall all day began. The wind increased to 30 miles an hour, with a wind-chill factor of 42 degrees, and blew against us as we squinted to see the finish line in the distance. 

We walked against the wind, feeling like two middle-aged actors in a “they can do it” sports movie. Loyal LA Marathon volunteers, who had been keeping track of the last walkers, rode by announcing there were medals waiting for us and to keep moving. But the wind was pressing against us, forcing us from our goal.

In my imagination, the medals dangled in front of us, motivating us to move forward, but with the wind as an invisible enemy, our pace had become a stiff and staggering walk. Mentally and spiritually I searched for inspiration, and then the image of the blind runner flooded my consciousness. He and his coach had finished hours earlier, almost everyone had finished the race by now. We and a few other determined individuals behind us were the last ones lurching in the wind and rain toward the finish line. As I limped along, instead of concentrating on how my feet hurt, I thought about the blind runner. He had heard the Taiko drummers. Had the music given him the incentive to keep going? What kind of time had he made? What other races had he run?

Then I thought about the words “blind runner,” and the metaphor shouted at me. Theoretically, aren’t we all blind runners? As we proceed with our lives, none of us knows what our futures hold on the paths we take. And for a short time, thinking about this inspirational athlete took away my pain.

The finish line took over an hour to reach. That last mile was the hardest. The winds continued pushing us from the finish line, while our faces endured the stinging rain the wind aimed at us. Shivering, sore and exhausted, we finally arrived at the finish line together. My husband gallantly let me cross first, and a shivering but smiling volunteer put the heavy medals around our necks.

We were not the same people who started the race. Throughout the day, we met fierce parts of our characters that had been dormant. The event was so exhilarating, we walked the LA Marathon again in 2013, though it took us a full 12 hours to finish.

When I face obstacles or challenges, such as difficult classes in grad school, completing my master’s thesis, presenting at conferences or having my short stories rejected by publishers, I remind myself of what my husband and I accomplished—twice. In the face of doubt or fear, I remind myself, “You walked the LA Marathon twice. You can do this!” When this fails to spur me on, I remember the athlete in the red t-shirt with its bold, black printing identifying him as a blind runner, and I reach out to borrow his courage.

—Donna Phillips


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