AFTER months of training, buckets of sweat and countless tasteless energy bars, they're ready -- or hope they are.
More than 26,000 runners, walkers and wheelchair athletes will take to the streets Sunday as the Los Angeles Marathon kicks off its 23rd year with a 26.2-mile race through Hollywood, Koreatown, Boyle Heights, downtown and points in between. Many of those chugging along will be first-timers who have loaded up on carbs, checked the batteries in their iPods and prayed for cool weather and overcast skies.
Some have studied the course and read up on the vagaries of race day. But nothing compares with hearing from those who have gone before. These five L.A. Marathon runners have been through it all -- achieving personal records, hitting the wall, throwing up, getting drenched and battling an almost overwhelming urge to give up. Here, they offer tales of their best and worst races, reveal this year's marathon strategies, give advice for newbies on how to make it past the finish line -- and divulge their own personal quirks.
Pete Banuelos, 52
Number of L.A. Marathons run: 5
Best race: I ran the first Orange County Marathon in 2004, and it was the first time I ran in under four hours. They told us it might rain, and I don't even know when it started pouring -- I think in the last couple of miles. I had hoped to make it under four hours, and here I am, I see the finish line, and I felt so much joy crossing it. You'd have thought I won the Olympics -- that's what it felt like. Also, I've always thrown up at the end of every single marathon, except for that one. I think I was more relaxed. I wasn't thinking about my pace.
Worst race: It was last year's L.A. Marathon. Right off the bat, there's the uphill and then the downhill, and for some reason it really killed me. I think I ran the race too fast in the beginning. Also, all of our training had been done in cool weather, and it was terribly hot on race day.
Strategy this year: This year I'm really going to keep the right pace, slow it down, and not go too fast. And I'm going to wait until I'm completely tired before I start walking -- if I have to. I'm hoping I won't.
Advice for newbies: You're either going to be so excited or worried that you're not going to sleep the night before the race. So get a good night's sleep Friday night. You'll be OK as long as you've had that good night of sleep. Even if you're restless Saturday night, that Friday night sleep will carry you on through.
Pre-race ritual: I read that having pancakes before a race is good, so I did that for the first time before I ran an 18-miler and I felt so much different from when I ate the tiny snacks I used to have. So now I've got to have three pancakes and some sort of fruit. When I do the L.A. Marathon, you have to be there so early that I have to go to a Denny's that's open 24 hours.
Alice Perlowski, 31
cardiology fellow at UCLA
Number of L.A. Marathons run: 3
Best race: Last year's L.A. Marathon was my fastest time, 3:22, and that was nice. It qualified me for New York. I was very relaxed the whole time and really ran well. It was probably a combination of things. Like any endurance sport, some days you feel great and could go another 20 miles and some days you can barely make it.
Worst race: Last year, I ran the New York marathon, and I had raised money for charity. Unfortunately I got the stomach flu . . . I couldn't eat anything for a week before the marathon, so I went into it feeling poorly. But I had raised so much money and I really wanted to do it. It was mind over matter and determination. I prepare really well for everything in life. When I got to the 20-mile mark I said to myself, you've done this a million times before. You can get through anything if you're in a positive frame of mind.
Strategy this year: I'm probably going to run the way I normally do: stay relaxed and try to enjoy the weather and make the best of it. I'd like to qualify for New York. I usually don't even look very closely at the course -- I have a general idea, but I don't obsess over the topography. I deal with it as it comes. I learned that in Boston. The hills there are just killer, and if you sit there and try to memorize every hill, you'll end up feeling more tired.
Advice for newbies: If people are planning on watching you, you should go over in detail the timing of when you're going to be passing by a certain point. For example, tell them you're running a 10-minute mile pace so they'll know when to be there. My husband maps out everything before race day to make sure he can see me at certain places.
Pre-race ritual: I have my little routine: The Thursday or Friday before the race, I get a massage to work out any knots and get my legs flushed out, get the blood flowing to the muscles. The day before the race, I always run four miles, much less than I normally would do, but enough so that I can keep my legs warm and stretched out. I also always try to get a nap to make up for any sleep deficit over the week. Any sleep deprivation makes my performance poor.
Dawn Vonderheide, 52
Number of L.A. Marathons run: 11
Best race: It was the Boston Marathon in 2006. I was training to break 3:45. The weather was good, and this was my third time running it, so I knew what I was getting into. I was running, and all of a sudden I realized I was going to break my previous time. I had no plan; I was just going to run. There was no pressure; I was just going to enjoy it. I did a personal record that day of 3:44.
Worst race: I ran the Grandma's Marathon in Duluth [Minn.] in 2005. It was bad because I put too much pressure on myself. It was supposed to be a good course, and I traveled across the country for it, but it was warmer than I expected, and I remember that I was really putting myself down. It took all the fun out of it. I had that moment where I said, "Get over yourself; don't be so damn proud." After I got through that period, I felt better.
Strategy this year: I'm a pace leader, and my group is about a 9:30 pace. We'll probably run the first part about 9:20, 9:25, slightly faster, to take advantage of gravity. The second half will be a little slower, about 9:35, 9:45, because fatigue is starting to set in. Then we've got that little hill going up Olympic [Boulevard] then you're flying down the hill again. That's where everybody cramps up -- that hill has to be respected. So we're not going to run it fast. Then we'll go down Flower and enjoy the parade. And then we'll get that . . . medal.
Advice for newbies: On my first few marathons, I was so excited by the crowds and I was high-fiving all the kids. It takes a lot of energy to high-five everyone. Enjoy the crowds, but run in the center of the road so you don't have that temptation to high-five.
Pre-race ritual: I run with $26.20 in my fanny pack. Three or four years ago, I found $26 on the ground when I was running one day, and I couldn't find the owner. People said I should play the lottery, but I said no, I'm going to keep this -- a marathon is 26.2 miles, so I put the 20 cents in. That's when I started doing better races. Also, sometimes there's food for sale after a race and you need money. At one marathon I did, all the food [provided for the runners] had been eaten by the half-marathoners, so the only food available was from the vendors. I bought a round of food for people -- Cokes and potato chips.
Lou Briones, 60
retired; former Boeing test lab supervisor
Number of L.A. Marathons run: 22 (Briones is a "legacy runner," having run all prior 22 marathons.)
Best race: In the 10th L.A. Marathon, I ran my personal best of 3:10. I had been training with weights and had hired a coach who had put me on a diet -- I lost five or six pounds. It made a huge difference. It was also misting the entire race, which was ideal for a fast run. I really pushed it and I felt comfortable, like I was flying.
Worst race: It was the 15th L.A. Marathon. That year, the marathon committee decided to do something special for the legacy runners and let us start in the front behind the elite runners. We appreciated the effort, but we had to get there extra early. There was torrential rain, and we were huddled in storefronts trying to stay warm and dry. It was horrible -- we were freezing cold and drenched. I also made the mistake of wearing a complete rain suit with pants and a jacket with a hood. It seemed to help a little in the beginning, but once the race started, the material stuck to my legs and hampered my running. Then I started sweating, so I was overheating on the inside and cold on the outside. It was a slosh-fest.
Strategy this year: My goal is to run 3:30. The first mile and a half is pretty steep, and last year I probably ran it too quickly. It's a rookie mistake, but you're feeling good, and Randy Newman is singing "I Love L.A.," and everybody's excited, and the adrenaline's flowing like crazy, and it's hard to stick to a pace. I also ran fast downhill last year, and I'm going to try not to do that. I'm going to try to hold an eight-minute pace as much as I can. If it's a warm day, I'll forget about the 3:30 and concentrate on breaking four hours again. I'll wait until I get to mile 20, and if I have any energy I'll try to pick it up a little.
Advice for newbies: I take a small, 8-ounce bottle of energy drink with me to the starting corral. I get there very early so I don't have to fight through the crush of people, and find the spot where I want to be. Then I try to relax, stretch, talk to people. About 10 or 15 minutes before the race, I'll start drinking it, and have it in my hand when the race starts. Then I can run right past that first water station, which gets very crowded.
Pre-race ritual: I try to visualize the race. I pre-run the race in my head -- it's like programming yourself to do something, so by race day you feel like you've done it. There are no surprises. I go through it step by step in my mind, what my pace is going to be on a particular part of the course.
Radell Hutchen, 45
Number of L.A. Marathons run: 4
Best race: In last year's Marine Corps Marathon, I ran 3:11 and qualified for Boston, which I'd been trying to do for a while. I had such a good summer of training -- I used all the resources in L.A. and used the city as my own gym -- I ran on the trails in Griffith Park. I think it paid off. I pushed myself a lot. The weather in D.C. was perfect -- a little cloudy, and I felt it that day on the starting line that this was going to be a good day. What's intriguing about the marathon is that it's not just about how hard you train, but it takes everything to come together.
Worst race: I ran the Chicago Marathon in 2005, and the last six to eight miles were pretty bad. People talk about that course as being great because it's flat and fast. But I think if you run a flat course, you have the same pounding, mile after mile. At mile 17 I felt terrific, but by the time I was at mile 20, my lower back was killing me and the bottoms of my feet were numb. There were people cheering and saying, "Only three more miles!" and I wanted to strangle them. I was thinking, "I can't run another 100 feet." I had this overwhelming feeling that my body wanted to stop, but I knew if I had stopped, I wouldn't have gotten up.
Strategy this year: I'm going to try to save more this year for the hills at the end, around mile 20. . . . I wish I could do something about those long stretches by downtown that are flat and hot, in the industrial areas. Going through there is hard, but you just need to hang on. It almost sucks the life out of you. I'll be satisfied with a time of 3:15 or 3:20, but if it's hot, I may have to add five minutes to that. I really want to come out with no major injuries and good, solid training for Boston.
Advice for newbies: A lot of times you'll get to the final miles and you don't feel like you can finish. If you can get to mile 22, there's so much energy from the crowd that you'll be able to finish. When you start to have doubts, have faith in your training. If you're fit enough to get to 22 miles, then you can finish. L.A. has great crowd support.
Pre-race ritual: I won't eat at restaurants two days before the marathon. I'm afraid of any kind of freak food poisoning. It's never happened to me, but I've heard about it happening to other people. When I travel [for a marathon] I'll go to a grocery store and get fresh things and make a sandwich. I also don't eat a big meal the night before the race -- I'll do that two nights before. Otherwise I'll feel way too full the next day.