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Running in L.A.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rising at the crack of dawn on a Sunday to watch television is not on most people’s agenda, but then there is hardly anything normal about a marathon, much less watching it for three hours on TV.

The sixth running of the Los Angeles Marathon will again be televised on KCOP. And, once again, many viewers will be baffled by the arcane terminology of running and miss the elements that can make this classic distance race a compelling and dramatic struggle of athlete against the elements.

It’s tough to discern the significant from the irrelevant in the info-blitz that often defines televised marathon coverage. In an effort to clarify, here are a few things to look for if you watch all, or even some, of the 26 miles and 385 yards.

The Start

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Organized chaos. There are 20,000 runners straining to get to the front, dangerously pushing forward.

In theory, the runners are “seeded” according to time; in this way the fastest runners will be placed closer to the starting line and the slowest runners should be at the back of the pack. In practice, here’s what happens: Slower runners frequently fib about their best times and are placed among faster runners, getting in the way and clogging the course.

One curious aspect of the Los Angeles Marathon is its “celebrity runners"--soap opera actors, sitcom actresses and others are placed right up front with the world-class runners. Better for television, but not for the elite runners.

Bandits

These are the runners who jump in the race after it starts, without having paid the $25 entry fee. Some step onto the course in the first mile and run the whole way, others join in late in the race, apparently to have the distinction of crossing the finish line.

The most infamous bandit has to be Rosie Ruiz, the apparent women’s winner of the 1980 Boston Marathon. Ruiz quite literally came from nowhere to stagger across the finish line at Boston. Even though Ruiz was completely unknown, as the first woman across the line she was crowned the winner.

It eventually was revealed that Ruiz used various forms of transportation, including the subway, to traverse the course.

A favorite bandit stunt is jumping in the race and running among the leaders for a while. By the time television commentators have scrambled to identify the runner, he or she usually has dropped out, having had a moment in the limelight.

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Splits

Television announcers frequently speak of “splits,” as if the runners were also performing cheerleading exercises. What they are talking about is the pace at which the lead athletes are running each mile. Based on the mile splits, it is possible to project how fast the runners will finish the marathon.

In the men’s race, look for miles splits of 4 minutes 57 seconds. That will translate into a 2:10 marathon, a good, world-class time. A split at five minutes and it’s a slow race.

Announcers may calculate from the splits that a runner is “running at world-record pace,” a pronouncement which may or may not hold up. Don’t get too excited; pace changes.

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The Hills

Boston’s famed Heartbreak Hill is actually a series of three hills and are dreaded not so much for their steepness as for their coming late in the race, about mile 21.

The Los Angeles course is deceptive. While there is no one huge hill, the course is undulating and challenging. The highest point comes at seven miles, at Sunset Boulevard and North Hill Street. Watch for it: The incline comes early enough in the race so that runners have the energy to mount it, but it’s also a point where some of the leaders make a move.

The Weather

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The weather for the L.A. Marathon is traditionally lovely ... for spectators. Marathon runners compete best in temperatures in the 50s and under overcast or even drizzly skies.

Often the temperature at the 9 a.m. start, in the low 60s, is acceptable but later on rises to a dangerous level. The better runners are off the course in less than three hours and escape the worst heat. However, the back of the pack or novice runners are still pounding it out five and six hours after the start. Thus, the runners who can least handle the heat are the very ones who must struggle through it.

The Aid Stations

There is an aid station every mile along the course, as much to amuse the runners as to refresh them. Volunteers at the stations will hand out about 30,800 gallons of water to the runners, who can be seen jogging by and snatching the paper cups, often spilling more than saving. These stations are crucial to the well-being of the runners. It used to be thought that drinking water along the route caused cramps. Now we know that a lack of water can lead to cramps.

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The Wall

In a marathon, The Wall is the place where a runner’s body runs out of fuel; specifically, he has depleted his glycogen stores. In other words, it’s the point where a marathoner crashes and burns.

This usually happens at 21 miles. Watch the race dynamics here. The elite runners will not, of course, be wilting, but they will be feeling the strain of having pushed their bodies to the limit. This is often a time when the leader is “picked off” by a runner coming from behind.

Makes for good television.

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The Sixth Annual Los Angeles Marathon airs Sunday at 8 a.m.-1 p.m. on KCOP (repeated at 7 p.m.).


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