It’s a race against time — and traffic

A few weeks ago, I read that the L.A. Marathon, which takes place Sunday, had set up this year's course to show off many of Greater Los Angeles' best-known landmarks. Starting at Dodger Stadium and ending at the Santa Monica Pier, it takes participants past Olvera Street, City Hall and Grauman's Chinese Theatre as well as onto the Sunset Strip and Rodeo Drive.

Marathon spokesman Peter Abraham said the idea, conceived in 2008, took nine months to bring together, but now he was certain organizers had created an "inspiring route" that had become a destination marathon. Proof of this, he said, was not only that the marathon was filled to its 25,000-entrant capacity but that about 20% of those running will come from outside the area, including runners from Japan, England and Canada.

It was all very nice, but as anyone from Los Angeles could have told Abraham, he and his crew had missed one big landmark. The landmark we are known for more than all the others: L.A. traffic.

Marathon runners will run down vacant stretches of blacktop protected by police and race officials who will practically lead them by the hand up and down the streets that we die on a little every morning and afternoon.

I decided to see if I could drive the marathon course in my car — street for street, turn for turn — during weekday morning rush hour, in a time faster than elite runners could run it on race day. Abraham told me those runners will finish the course in about 2 hours 8 minutes and that he thought I didn't stand a chance, adding that organizers had considered minting a T-shirt that read: "It's faster to run it than drive it."

Challenge accepted.

And so Thursday, March 11, at 7:35 a.m., I embarked from Dodger Stadium in my car with a street-by-street map of the course and Dave Wielenga, acting as navigator.

Wielenga is a former president of the L.A. Track Writers Assn., when there was such an organization, and a distance runner who has finished his own L.A. Marathon.

Asked if the hills around Dodger Stadium would be a problem at the start of the race, Wielenga says being forced to slow down at the start could actually help. "You know, starting too fast is also a big problem," he says. "You're excited at the start, but you'll really feel it somewhere in the race. In some weird way, this could slow people down, give them some sense about going out."

Fifteen minutes in we are already at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels — that's the five-mile mark — which means were on a three-minute-per-mile pace.

We turn onto Temple and start an uphill grade that will no doubt test runners' hearts, lungs and knees. "That's a little steeper of a hill than will be fun at that point," Wielenga says. "That'll be the first place that'll tell you your conditioning. The people in better condition will struggle but know they're in good shape. But if you're not in good shape, this will really tax you."

We turn onto Sunset Boulevard and feel sorry for the out-of-towners who no doubt believe glamour awaits them; what they will get is fast-food joints, coin-operated laundries and vacant retail space. But any disappointment the runners will have felt when initially getting on Sunset will disappear when they swoop around toward Maltman Avenue and get a panoramic view of the Hollywood sign and Griffith Park Observatory. This is what race spokesman Abraham was talking about when he used the word "inspiring."

At the half-hour mark we're where Sunset meets Hollywood Boulevard. We pass through Little Armenia, which begins at New Hampshire, and Thai Town, which begins at Normandie.

Soon we're on the Sunset Strip, looking for San Vicente. Dave says he likes this kind of point-to-point run "because it makes you feel like you're making progress." He says that when he ran the L.A. Marathon, the course was a rather nondescript trek from Universal City to downtown. "Of course," he said, "at some point, no matter what's around you, every marathon just becomes about finishing."

We pass the Beverly Hills sign (about 17 miles into the course) at the one-hour mark; my arriving at the pier well ahead of 2:08 seems assured.

Just needed to find San Vicente Boulevard.

At this point, Dave says: "We must have missed San Vicente."

We had missed our turn. We are now somewhere behind UCLA. I turn the car around while Dave reminds me that I'd pledged not to stop my race clock for anything and that getting lost "was part of driving in L.A. traffic." Runners sometimes miss turns too, right?

I race back, find San Vicente and head toward Beverly Hills. The debacle adds 20 minutes to our time. Suddenly I know about not caring about the scenery. At 1 hour 30 minutes we are just turning onto Rodeo Drive. I am weaving in and out of lanes. Performing California stops. At 1:45, we're at 21 miles and on a nondescript stretch of Sawtelle Boulevard.

"This," Dave says about running a marathon, "is where regret kicks in. Regret that you even started."

I know exactly what he's talking about.

Soon we are turning into the West L.A. Veterans Affairs facility and my heart lightens. According to the map, this is the last landmark before the finish line. Then I learn that the course winds over every inch of the place. The minutes pass.

Finally, we find the exit. Dave says the hospital's many speed bumps are going to prove troublesome for a lot of runners whose strides will be much shorter at this point in the race.

Soon we're going downhill on San Vicente. Abraham predicts whoever gets to this stretch first on race day will end up winning. "Yeah, the elites will love it," he says, "but if you're struggling, if your muscles are hurting, you'll have lost the ability to cushion yourself, making this kind of a weird pleasure-torture."

I am hauling. Despite the buses, I finally reach Ocean Boulevard. Less than a mile from the end, I almost make the disastrous decision to turn right, but correct myself and go left. I gun it, get caught behind another bus, gun it and see the finish line — Santa Monica Boulevard!

And that's when the light turns red. Sitting there, I'm not certain of my time; my navigator has gone quiet.

The light turns, I gun it again and I finish.

I look at Dave.

"Two hours … two minutes 19 seconds."

Yes, the good news is that I did the 26.2-mile course in 2:02:19, a good six minutes faster than the probable winner Sunday (though probably half an hour or so slower than the wheelchair winner).

The bad news is that it took two hours and two minutes to go 26 miles in L.A.

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