Already nervous enough about how my body would react to 26.2 miles of physical punishment, I now had to endure torrential rains that bored burning pellets into my face, flash flooding that turned some of the course into fordable creeks, and winds that blew leaves and branches into the closed streets like cruel confetti.
It was awesome.
As a way to see the city, the LA Marathon, which takes place again on Sunday, is unmatched. When else will you have a chance to run screaming down Rodeo Drive? Or randomly see your old coworkers dressed in Hawaiian shirts, shouting at you from an Echo Park sidewalk?
But the marathon is also the most life-affirming way to fall in love with LA. Or perhaps, as I’ve needed more and more, a way to fall back in love with LA.
The soggy neon parade that swished through LA’s streets the Sunday morning I ran was easily the most diverse group I’d ever found myself a part of; a true multigenerational, crosscultural divide. The rain—the great leveler—rendered us even more alike than you’d expect.
Nearly everyone wore garbage bags that covered their Lululemon or dollar-store gear; later, we became an army of marching, foil-wrapped hot dogs wearing the marathon-branded space blankets handed out at the higher miles. (Some of these, rather ironically, read “Who’s ready for a swim?,” a message clearly conceived at some ad agency brainstorm during drier days.)
Together, we pushed towards the finish line, trampling a sea of empty Gatorade cups into a pulpy white trail behind us.
I admit I wasn’t really interested in running the marathon myself as part of some athletic bucket list. I loved the sense of civic camaraderie I’d feel when I headed to the course on early Sunday mornings to cheer on LA’s marathoners. I wanted to see Los Angeles from this perspective, with tens of thousands of my neighbors waving back at me.
The year I ran, due to the storm, the crowds cheering us on were smaller—which made those people who did come out that much more incredible.
The volunteers were, of course, great, holding out cups of water that soon were overflowing with rainfall. The musicians, god bless them, powered on even as they had to compete with the thunder. But what almost brought me and my running partner to tears were the random people who had set up relief stations along the side of the road.
The family who were using their feet to hold down a pop-up tent that billowed in the wind like an ascending hot air balloon over a spread of candy. The guy in the bright orange turban who smiled as he sliced navel oranges into segments. The kids who had made signs for no one in particular, their magic marker letters bleeding into type more befitting a horror film. The man slowly waving an American flag out of his East Hollywood apartment.
These were people who you could tell didn’t have much to spare themselves, but had made sure to park themselves on the curb with a cooler of bottled water and a giant bag of pretzels that would inevitably turn to mush.
It felt like the whole city was rooting for me. And I was rooting for LA.
As I neared the end of the race, where the residents of Brentwood passed out whole Clif bars and words of encouragement from beneath their blown-inside-out umbrellas, I realized that they were the people I really should have been congratulating. We were busy and self-absorbed, we had our races to finish, our physical challenges to surmount; they sacrificed a day when the city had ordered its citizens to stay inside, just to make us feel like it had been worthwhile.
If the marathon seems like an impossible LA goal, consider that you don’t have to train religiously or run the whole thing—I certainly didn’t—and that there are plenty of people walking it at their own pace. (There’s also an unsanctioned 3 a.m. group bike ride down the closed streets the morning before the race, but you didn’t hear that from me.)
Of course, you don’t have to run the LA Marathon to experience what a special day it is for the city. My favorite place to watch is the Red Line-accessible intersection of Hollywood and Vine as the sound of the crowd thunders down the canyon of buildings along the Walk of Fame. The day kicks off with an incredible wheelchair and handcycle race which is worth getting up early to see. Then you can grab breakfast at the Hollywood Farmers Market, which will still happen this Sunday, even with the street closures.
You’ll be rewarded with a feeling that’s easy to Instagram but hard to describe. During my run, it was spelled out for me at mile 13, in a quote plastered to a Sunset Strip storefront. It was from Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, who fought for equity and inclusion at a time when women were still not allowed to enter the race: “If you are losing faith in human nature, watch a marathon.”