Road Races

Opinion: Why is the LA Marathon Not (Yet) a Must-Do Race?

After years of trying to be something it is not, the LA Marathon has finally become a flawless, world-class event. Now it needs to find its own magic.

Against all the odds, the 35th Los Angeles marathon took place on March 8. It again showed enormous potential, but, in my opinion, failed at delivering anything more than a perfectly well-executed mass footrace. Why can’t the LA marathon become like New York, Chicago or Boston, or even Honolulu—a race to remember, an event people travel to from all over the world? This town has so much to offer! What prevents it from producing a unique marathon experience?

In 2017, I raced LA for the first time. Shannon Farar-Griefer introduced me to the event. She’s a local badass mother of 3, fighting MS with heart and guts. Witnessing her struggle to breathe for 26 miles gave me the chills. We finished and had a great time. There were no glitches. It was all orchestrated perfectly. But aside from Shannon pushing her body beyond any reasonable human limits, there was no magic. In 2018 I ran it again, but nothing changed my mind: LA was smooth and operationally perfect, but it lacked spark. I believed LA could put on a better marathon.

Julie and Gaël LA Marathon 2020 / photo: Lacerations

In March, I attended the event for the third time. My friend Julie and I were both thrilled to run together in that city we love, even though, because of Coronavirus, I’m not sure it was a great idea. Many places in the world, particularly Italy, South Korea, Japan as well as China, were understandably pissed and mourning. Still, Los Angeles, somehow, like New York in November 2001, was running a marathon! To quote 1997 Steve Jobs, we all felt like we were “the crazy ones, the rebels, the troublemakers.” It was legal and sure felt good. To this day, we have no regrets and no Coronavirus either. Eric Garcetti, mayor of Los Angeles, generously offered those miles to us, and we took them. Thank you, Eric!

“We got lots of positive feedback; it was a beautiful day, we had fast running, all the kind of things you want in a marathon,” a confident Murphy Reinschreiber, COO at The McCourt Foundation, told me post-race. The McCourt Foundation is the event company behind the organization of the LA Marathon, which, technically, is own by the city of Los Angeles. The McCourt Foundation, which merged with Conqur Endurance Group this year on January 1, also produces the Pasadena half-marathon & 5K at the Rose Bowl, a race with 12,000 runners.

Reinschreiber has a point. Sure, everything he says is correct. LA marathon is pretty flawless. But it’s still missing the spice, the VIP, the crowd and the craziness that will make all the difference.

The Course Shines

The free bus system, going from parking lots by the finish in Santa Monica to the start at Dodger Stadium, is sound. And for more than 27 000 registered runners this year (around 20 900 finished, which is a record), it sure must be hard to manage. LA did an extraordinary great job on that!

Once you reach the starting line, if you like baseball, you’re more than happy to get some time inside Dodger’s temple. It’s enormous, and they always allow you to explore most of it freely. Except for this year. That’s the Coronavirus’s fault. Oh, and there’s a lot of real bathrooms there too.

LA MARATHON COURSE

Unlike the New York marathon, which brilliantly paralyzes some of the most significant streets and avenues of the busiest town in the country, the Los Angeles marathon course eludes most disturbances to its residents. It lounges on the north side of LA, avoids most of downtown, penetrates West Hollywood, curves in Beverly Hills, and finishes along the ocean in sunny Santa Monica.

This part of town is beautiful, posh and peaceful. But, as a result, the first 12–15 miles of the race has barely any crowds at all. “One of the reasons for that is because we start at 6:30 am when other races start at more civil hours for spectators,” rightly argues Reinschreiber.

Fortunately, by the time you reach West LA, especially if you’re slow like Julie and I were, people have woken up, and you can catch them walking their dogs or getting their happy post-breakfast strolls in. There is a little bit of a crowd there, but it’s still nothing in comparison to NYC, Chicago, or Boston.

Bottom line: The course is not a drawback. Quite the contrary; roads and avenues are big, neighborhoods are iconic, and landmarks are plentiful: Capitol Records Tower, Hollywood Walk of Fame, Chateau Marmont, Whisky A Go Go, Rodeo Drive….you name it! Start a full marathon at Dodger Stadium and finish by the Santa Monica Pier—it could hardly get any better.

The Infrastructure is Flawless

In 2018, for my second LA, I ran entirely on my own. I remember seeing on Hollywood Boulevard some of the happiest volunteers I have ever meet in my life, a group from a close-by Sikh temple. Early in the race, I was struggling, but their energy changed my day.

They were here again this year. So were the lines of big Japanese Taiko drums in Little Tokyo, as well as an incredibly talented kid’s choir (I have honestly never seen anything like this ever before), and some great hip-hop and metal neighborhood bands (better than in Brooklyn during NYC marathon if you can believe that).

LA Marathon finish
Photo by RWB Multimedia for LA Marathon 2020

The food? Oh, well, apart from the fact that everybody’s hand was touching everybody’s hand and it’s a miracle we didn’t all get Coronavirus-sick from that, the aid station food was varied, colorful, engaging and came in vast quantities.

By now, you’re thinking: “What else does this guy want?” Wait. Have I told you yet about the disappearance of the USC and UCLA cheerleaders team’s rivalry? Back in 2017, they used to compete on each side of the street to get the most runners’ electric high fives. I didn’t see any of that this year. And where did the local high-schools marching bands go?

“Several things were missing this year due to the Coronavirus situation,” I was told. Fair enough.

Bottom line: The race organizers know what they’re doing. If you’re hungry, they’ll feed you. If you’re into music, they’ll find a way to make you dance. And if you become so desperate that a kind word will get you back on track, their volunteers will give you more love than you ever dreamed of. So relax. And enjoy the show. Right? Hang on, not so fast.

What else do I want?

I’ll tell you what I want. I want Charlie Sheen to conduct this! And I’m only half kidding. This town is the film capital of the world, one of the most glamorous and hype city we, humans, have. LA is sunny and over the top. California is also the wealthiest and most advanced state of all the country.

So what did I expect? Really? I expected this event to be more intense, louder, and crazier. Running the Los Angeles marathon should be like going to the most innovative of all adult rides at Disneyland.

We can’t expect the fastest Africans to break a record here and bring a reputation to this race like they do in Berlin or London. The course is too hilly. “We don’t have a legal course,” confirms Reinschreiber again, humbly pointing out that his organization came off track a few years back when it assumed the corporate goal of becoming a World Major, focusing too much on building an elite field.

No Major in LA then? Who cares! We want to see werewolves dancing on the sidewalks, zombies distributing bloody candies—any gross monster would do. What about Blade Runner-type clean energy robots from Tesla handing us organic food, or drones delivering Biofreeze pain relief spray for any sore muscles you want? And what about Hugh Hefner’s playmates competing with a modernized Village People team for the loudest West Hollywood sidewalk?

Charlie Sheen? Well, Charlie can very well be there and do whatever the hell he wants. That would be winning! Bring the UCLA & USC cheerleader competition back, please. And why not pay struggling unknown actors to dress as classic Hollywood stars like James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brandon, Audrey Hepburn, Jack Nicholson?

photo: LA Marathon

Maybe spice it up with a famous local band or two: How about the Beach Boys revisited by, say…kids? Or nuns? Of course, the Red Hot Chili Peppers or the Metallica guys would do just fine since those boys all came out of the greater Los Angeles area. So did Pink, by the way. Bring her in!

“That’s everybody’s solution to every problem in LA really,” says Reinschreiber, ruining my happy and naive mood. “Get a couple of celebrities! The reality is that it’s enormously difficult to get those guys involved. We do find out that there are quite a few well-known people who run the marathon every year, but they don’t want anybody to know that they’re running.” Fine!

As I see it, increasing LA’s community attachment to the race is a solution. Bring the real people to the streets, the locals, the students, the families, their pets, etc. It will elevate the local pride—and may even persuade those Hollywood celebrities to want to be seen as participating in the race instead of hiding from their fans.

“It’s only been since 2017 that we’ve been in pursuit of becoming the best Los Angeles marathon that we can be,” says Reinschreiber.

Listen Murph’, you’re there, Sir. You’ve achieved that! No question about it. Now it’s time for you to embrace your own identity, introduce the LA spark, and the LA cheekiness that will differentiate your event from all the other big town footraces across the world. LA stands out. The city of Los Angeles is about something more than just another megalopolis. And its marathon is about something more than another flawless 26.2.

I’m excited to see how LA blossoms into its full potential. I’ll be back next March—and you should join too. Hopefully, Murphy Reinschreiber and The McCourt Foundation will let me in and it will be the party the city deserves.

Gaël Couturier is a French journalist who recently moved to Los Angeles. He’s an avid marathoner (8 NYC, 6 Paris, 4 Médoc, 3 LA and 1 Honolulu marathon in Iraq during the war), and has finished countless ultras (including 4-times UTMB and 7 Marathon Des Sables), not to mention 17 Ironman triathlon nonsense.