Take another run at the marathon route
When you run for four hours straight, you have a lot of time to think -- and not just about your aching thigh muscles, your sore feet and the way the mile markers seem to be getting farther and farther apart.
While running the L.A. Marathon last month for the seventh time, I had to wonder -- again -- why organizers have mapped out a course so visually deadening when we live in a city filled with iconic sights.
I kept thinking about first-time visitors to Los Angeles who were running next to me. What were their impressions as they ran mostly through neighborhoods and business districts that could have been anywhere, with nondescript houses, convenience stores, strip malls, office buildings, chain-link fences and car lots?
The L.A. Marathon starts downtown at 6th and Figueroa streets and finishes nearby at 5th and Flower streets. From the start, the course -- bisected by the Santa Monica Freeway -- goes counterclockwise along Figueroa Street and Exposition, Martin Luther King Jr., Crenshaw, Venice, La Cienega and Pico boulevards. Approaching Mile 23, runners hit the visual wall: a three-mile stretch of ugly West Olympic Boulevard. You get the impression that organizers drew the course based on how easily a street could be closed off, not taking into account the experience of the runner.
Think of the alternatives: To take in some of the city’s more memorable sights, runners could start at Dodger Stadium, go through Chinatown, then up Sunset Boulevard to Hollywood, on to Beverly Hills and Westwood, and finishing at the beach in Santa Monica.
Or the route could capitalize on the city’s entertainment cachet, sending runners through Hollywood, with a dash down Rodeo Drive and along Melrose Avenue before ending up near Staples Center.
How about a historical tour? Runners could kick off in Boyle Heights, zip through Union Station, circle the Watts Towers and conclude with a dramatic Coliseum finish. Or we could just keep it simple with 26 miles of coastline.
Other cities have created ambitious courses highlighting their characters and history. The New York City Marathon begins on Staten Island, then runs through all five boroughs before winding up in Central Park.
Closer to home, San Francisco marathoners cross the Golden Gate Bridge and wind along the oceanfront and through Golden Gate Park before finishing near the South Beach Marina. Let’s face it: That beats West Olympic Boulevard.
The smaller Surf City Marathon in Huntington Beach sells out quickly each year because organizers know how to make the course alluring: almost never leave sight of the ocean.
Each of the courses is different, but they all reflect a sense that organizers deliberately chose routes to highlight their cities’ most appealing characteristics -- diversity, natural beauty, neighborhood charm, history. None of that is much evident running beside the fast-food outlets and car dealers along South Figueroa.
I understand that logistics are difficult, but if New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, London and other cities can design courses that thrill runners, so can L.A.
The number of L.A. Marathon participants has declined as race organizers in recent years have introduced one uninspired course after another (this year’s switch from March to May didn’t help either). About 14,000 people finished the marathon this year. In 2007, 20,230 runners completed it.
Down 7,000 runners in two years, race organizers have the perfect opportunity to change course one last time and give runners a marathon with a world-class view.