L.A.'s marathon mix-up

For nearly all of the last 24 years, the first Sunday in March was marathon day in Los Angeles. Thousands of runners hit the pavement and more than a million spectators cheered them on in one of the city's few communal street-level events.

But today, nobody is running in L.A.

The blame -- or thanks, depending on your perspective -- goes to a coalition of South-Central and Mid-City churches that complained to the city about the disruption to their parishioners caused by a Sunday marathon. And so the event has been pushed back nearly three months to Memorial Day, in my view a terrible day for a marathon in L.A.

In championing their own needs, church leaders lost sight of the city's needs.

When marathons first began growing in popularity, they were held on parkland or in other out-of-the-way places. But then civic leaders began to see the value of drawing people out of their homes and into the public square to cheer others on. Marathons became community-building events, with runners acting as a moving portrait of urban connectivity, traversing race, class and neighborhood.

Of all the major marathons, Los Angeles has come closest to realizing this vision. Every major marathon has a personality, and L.A.'s has been one of the most democratic. It hasn't always attracted the fastest runners or the biggest names, but the race is accessible to anyone. Registrants can sign up until the day before the race, and unlike the more elitist races in Boston and New York, nearly all of the participants in L.A.'s marathon are home-grown, hailing from the county or other parts of California.

Almost every major marathon is run on a Sunday, the day people are most likely to have off work and be available to run or watch. Over the years, faith groups have raised concerns about the disruption to churches in many cities. Marathon organizers have responded by altering routes, pushing up start times or changing dates so as not to conflict with religious holidays.

But only in L.A. has pressure from religious leaders caused a marathon to be bumped from Sunday.

Why? Is L.A. that much more religious than other American cities? Are churches here that much more powerful than those elsewhere?

Partly, the decision was a matter of politics. In most cities, marathons are put on entirely by private entities. Here, the event is staged by a private group, but the city owns the Los Angeles Marathon name and seal, which gives the City Council more control over the terms of marathon contracts than in most other municipalities. And when One LA, a local arm of the Industrial Areas Foundation, lent its considerable muscle to the church effort, helping disparate African American, Latino and Korean churches along the 26.2-mile marathon route present a united front at City Hall, politicians listened.

Church leaders -- including the Rev. Clyde W. Oden Jr. of Bryant Temple AME, Samuel Chu of Immanuel Presbyterian and Father Richard Martini at Transfiguration Church -- had long been unhappy with the drop in attendance caused by road closures on marathon day. Last September, when ownership of the event was sold to Frank McCourt, owner of the L.A. Dodgers, they persuaded the City Council to stipulate that the marathon would be run on a holiday Monday as a condition of the new license.

When the City Council first approved the contract for McCourt's running company, called Going the Distance, it was proposed that the marathon would be held on Presidents Day. The marathon has to be held in the first half of the year because summer is too hot and fall is already booked by races in New York, Chicago and elsewhere.

But after talking with city agencies, McCourt learned that most of downtown is "open for business" on Presidents Day. The same goes for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. That left Memorial Day.

Ideal marathon temperatures are somewhere between the high 40s and low 50s. Temperatures on Memorial Day in Los Angeles can break triple digits. In 2007, the Chicago Marathon was called off after one man died and hundreds of other participants suffered heatstroke when temperatures hit the high 80s.

With several date changes, tens of thousands of residents out of town for the holiday and the specter of hot weather, the L.A. Marathon as a community-building event has lost more than a little luster.

Sara Catania teaches journalism at USC and writes Run On, a blog about training for the marathon, at laobserved.com.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times