Long before most Angelenos had shed their pajamas Sunday morning, the Los Angeles Marathon and its sweaty wave of 22,000 registered entrants was unfolding through disparate neighborhoods, from South-Central, the Fairfax district and Hancock Park to Koreatown.
The annual block party has become a reason to come downtown, an excuse to finally try the subway and, for the competitors, license to blissfully ignore traffic lights in full view of police.
Many racers find that novelty alone worth enduring 26.2 miles of asphalt.
Sunday’s 18th edition of the race began in downtown’s cool canyons with a sleepyhead city just beginning to stir. Sneaker-shod runners streamed up from subway platforms redolent of liniment. Spectators snapped lawn chairs into place along sidewalks. By the time the first wave of wheelchair racers had pumped their way over the course’s hills, the crowd, estimated at tens of thousands, was in full throat.
The race began near 6th and Figueroa, where strangely empty streets were given over to bicycles, walkers, wheelchairs and runners who shuffled past shuttered storefronts. Canny entrepreneurs filled the void, with vendors selling water, snacks and an array of toys to a captive crowd.
As always with marathons, this was the race that launched a thousand New Year’s resolutions. Countless runners had resolved to give up bad habits to help them in the race.
“I just quit smoking,” proclaimed runner Charlie Gray, 28, of Pomona, jogging in place at the pack’s rear guard, waiting to pass the starting line.
As the runners filed out of downtown, many family and friends retreated to the subway to take the Metro Red Line to Koreatown to follow the participants. Most of the trains were standing-room only. For many, it was an introduction to mass transit in Los Angeles, as the crowds struggled to understand the ticket machines and then get on the correct train.
“I’m completely lost,” said Grace Teng, 23, who was clutching an open bag of Gummi Bears she intended to offer runners. She had run in last year’s race -- when temperatures soared into the 80s -- and said that the sugary candy helped her finish.
Even as they engaged in one of sports most challenging feats, runners managed to wear odd costumes: the Coat Man in his full-length, lined denim coat and wing-tip shoes; a petite woman dressed as a sunflower, yellow petals crowning her head; the young woman with a “Stop the War!” bumper sticker wrapped around the crown of a baseball cap, a peace sign flag poking out of the top at a jaunty angle.
All manner of nonsense was tolerated in the pack. There were folks who chose to run backward, cell-phone addicts chatting to other cell-phone users elsewhere in the race and gum-snapping teenagers making it look easy.
Neighbors plan yearly parties around the race. Birthdays are spent hoofing it through the city. Runners have met, gotten married and celebrated anniversaries during the race. Divorces, no doubt, have resulted from trudging 26 unforgiving miles beside a suffering spouse.
Some ran for peace, to support the troops, to help find a cure for cancer, to raise money to send a needy child to camp.
There wasn’t just a marathon on Sunday. There was a bike tour and a wheelchair race. And a 5K run-walk, which 21-year-old Monique Goldwasser stubbornly finished. The former professional dancer from Israel was grievously injured when a bus driver plowed into a crowd in Tel Aviv. After 17 operations, Sunday was the first time Goldwasser had attempted to walk such a distance.
Not all motivations were high minded -- they also ran to settle grudges and bets and to satisfy stray barroom challenges.
Tamiko Ralston, 29, admitted to being at the race for less than noble reasons.
“It all started out of spite,” she said.
About a year and a half ago her husband, Joe, asked a friend to go out for a beer. The friend, named Chris, was in training for a marathon and had walked 14 miles that day. He declined, saying he was too tired.
“Then Joe said ‘Hey, it isn’t like you ran the 14 miles. It’s like walking in the mall,’ ” Tamiko remembered.
Chris shot back with “Hey, when was the last time you walked 14 miles?”
Seeking to one-up his friend, Joe trained for two months and ran his first marathon with a sign pinned on his shirt -- taunting his friend Chris. Now, Joe runs because he loves it.
Near the start of the race, Javase Grissom, 31, of Los Angeles, weaved around discarded sweatshirts and empty water bottles left by runners after watching her daughter, Tavea Bradford, begin her first marathon. Tavea, 12, ran with four other students from Audubon Middle School in Los Angeles as part of Students Run L.A., an after-school program.
“When she started middle school she wanted to join a bunch of activities,” Grissom said. “I told her if you join something, you stick with it.”
Grace Castro, 38, of Westminster, spent the entire race pushing a wheelchair with 11-year-old Kendall Milteer as a passenger and finished in 4 hours, 52 minutes -- much faster than many runners. Kendall has tuberous sclerosis.
“It was so exciting, he really got the crowd going for us,” said Castro. At the finish line, many runners didn’t even have the remaining strength to raise their arms in victory.
A few runners wept quietly and a handful of others were carried away on stretchers after briefly collapsing. One steadfast woman trotted through the finishing gate and kept on jogging, either unable or unwilling to stop.
Just past the finish line, one hardy group of volunteers had, as its sole task, the job of assisting suffering runners in taking off their shoes.
“I was almost dying but right now I feel excellent,” said Felipe Pina, 55, of Corona, who was running his first marathon. "[Just after] I finished I said no more marathons. Never again. But right now I’m ready for the next one.”
And the Winners ...
As for the runners in the front, Mark Yatich of Kenya ran past four of his countrymen to win the men’s race in 2 hours, 9 minutes and 52 seconds.
Among the women, 47-year-old Tatyana Pozdnyakova, from the Ukraine by way of Florida, won with a time of 2:29:40.
Pozdnyakova was so fixated on finishing that she went to the left of the finish-line tape. The break with tradition was quickly noted. Wranglers in the finish area ushered the exhausted winner back to “re-create” her triumph, and she dutifully burst through the ribbon with raised arms and an exultant, tired smile.
Times staff writer Julie Cart contributed to this report.