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Frank McCourt’s big plans to be tested in Monday marathon

Frank McCourt has big plans. He wants to take his latest purchase, one of L.A.'s great institutions, and revive it, give it new shine, have it stand cheek-to-cheek with the big monuments in Boston and New York.

Only this isn’t about balls and strikes, Manny and the World Series. It’s about the Los Angeles Marathon, the glorious-but-bunged-up jewel which, after months of wrangling, will commence its 24th running on Monday morning. (Yes, Monday. More on that shortly.)

In case you didn’t know, late last year the energetic and sometimes controversial Dodgers owner bought the L.A. Marathon from a Chicago company that had mismanaged matters so badly the race’s future was reportedly in peril. Debts were owed. Bills weren’t being paid on time. Neither, sometimes, were the winning runners.

Undaunted, McCourt described the race as an untapped civic asset, brimming with potential. But just as when he took over the then-ailing Dodgers in 2004 -- recall, before this latest on-field success, the flurry of general managers, field managers and bad contracts -- owning L.A.'s marathon hasn’t exactly been a jog in the park.

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For starters, there’s the thorny issue of when the race should be run. The marathon had long been held on the first Sunday in March, when the weather is usually cool and helpful. But as part of the ownership transfer, L.A. City Hall bent to religious leaders who viewed 20,000 runners blocking off Sunday streets -- and hindering access to churches -- much as they view a Biblical plague of locusts.

Thus came a commandment: There shall be no marathon on a Sunday.

When this Monday, Memorial Day, became the only option, the running community rose in fury. Temperatures in May, they smartly argued at City Hall, tend to be much higher than in March and February. The combination of heat and smog wouldn’t just lead to slower times, it could be deadly.

Luckily, the weather is cooperating -- forecasts say Memorial Day will be partly cloudy. And despite its shortcomings, the marathon has staying power because of its populist nature: its backbone has long been the everyday runners who’ve turned the race into a celebration of common struggle and diversity.

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“We’re going to have a great race,” McCourt assured. “You know, we didn’t get involved in this to create controversy. We did it to take something great about the city and make it better. We have one strong preference: make the runners happy.”

So, next time around, the date gets pushed back?

McCourt reminded that a move won’t be possible unless L.A. City Hall allows it. A subcommittee recently approved moving the date, but now the City Council as a whole must give its nod.

In the meantime, the Dodgers’ owner said he’s strongly backing a change. “We very much want to make it on a Sunday in March because that’s what the runners want,” he said. “This needs to be decided soon. We don’t want to be on pins and needles.”

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A March date, McCourt contends, also jibes well with the calendar for the world’s elite marathoners, who race sparingly because each 26.2 mile contest brutally taxes body and soul.

The L.A. Marathon typically has a good field, but the world’s top-10 tend to stay away. As an example, in Ryan Hall and Kara Goucher, America for the first time in years has a pair of marathoners capable of winning the biggest of marathons. Both had top-three finishes in Boston. Both live on the West Coast. Neither will run L.A. this year.

McCourt says he believes he can begin attracting the Halls and Gouchers by improving how the event is managed -- no more late-arriving payments to top athletes, for starters -- and by seriously tweaking the course.

The marathon is firmly entrenched within L.A. city limits, clinging to mid-city and downtown. Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, the beach? None of this is to be found on a course that evolved as it has partly because this is a fractured region of municipalities that too rarely cooperate, and often don’t want a part of anything grand.

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Just as with the pitiful transit system, “Not in my backyard” has been a rallying cry, leaving the L.A. Marathon stranded in the hot, smoggy gloaming.

Despite this, McCourt was adamant about what he’s aiming for: “We would love to see the marathon start at Dodger Stadium and finish at the ocean,” he said. “From the stadium to the sea. . . . The vision is to incorporate the great icons of L.A. -- Hollywood, Beverly Hills, the ocean -- so that people from all over the world want to come and run a race that is totally unique. We want this to be a once in a lifetime race you’ll never forget.”

I reminded him of the difficulty. Nobody wants to close down a single street in this car-addicted place, no matter the day.

“We’re working quietly, behind the scenes,” he assured, not going further, leaving me to infer he has the ear of the stick-in-the-muds. “It’ll come.”

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Monday is the big race. If the weather holds, no doubt it will be a civic beauty, warts and all. But it can be better. With sunshine and few hills and the lure of Tinseltown’s pixie dust, there’s no reason it can’t rise to the level of Boston and New York, the marathon monuments.

“It’ll come,” assures McCourt.

As with the Dodgers, we’ll hold him to his word.

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kurt.streeter@latimes.com


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