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L.A. Marathon goes on despite coronavirus fears: Masks, sanitizer and humor amid the water bottles

Los Angeles Marathon 2020
A runner with a mask was among participants at Sunday’s L.A. Marathon.
(Patrick T. Fallon/For The Times)

The spread of the new coronavirus has sparked anxiety, panic buying and preventive measures.

But for participants in the 35th Los Angeles Marathon on Sunday, it was mostly a punchline.

“Run like someone with the coronavirus is behind you!”

Runner after runner laughed as Jessica Schroeter waved a sign with that message just past Mile 12, at Sunset Boulevard and La Brea Avenue.

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Schroeter had left San Juan Capistrano at 4 a.m. to cheer on her husband, Eric, who was running his first marathon. He ran with their 13-year-old daughter, Kelly, who was competing in her second marathon.

Schroeter knew this was the point in the race when runners got tired — that long, flat stretch when it hits you that there are still 14 miles to go, when a bit of humor might give them a boost.

Here is a breakdown of some of the Los Angeles Marathon’s ups and downs, essential reading for both first-time marathoners, aspiring record-breakers and vicarious runners.

“Right now, with coronavirus, you’re either taking it super serious and buying all the toilet paper at Costco, or you’re laughing it off,” she said. “It’s definitely not something to ignore, but you don’t need to lock yourself up in the house over this.”

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There was no doubt she was going to show up to cheer. With her younger son and the children’s grandparents in tow, the only time the coronavirus seriously crossed their minds was when they dropped off their runners at Dodger Stadium early Sunday and saw so many people squeezed together at the start line.

There are now 14 cases of COVID-19 in Los Angeles County, none of them contracted by the virus spreading within the region.

Despite the cancellation of large events in Northern California and other states, officials said they didn’t see enough of a public health threat to cancel the marathon.

One L.A. City Council member on Friday questioned the decision to run the race. “This is a big popular event, but I remain concerned & don’t think it’s worth the risk,” Councilman Mike Bonin wrote on Twitter.

Instead, health officials recommended that sick spectators stay home and that those who attended stay six feet away from others who weren’t family or friends.

Runners were advised to wash their hands before the race and not to shake hands with other participants or the public. Hand sanitizer was also available for runners along the course.

“I think the public has been pretty educated on what to do — wash your hands; stay home if you’re sick,” said Lenore Schroeter, who was not about to miss seeing her granddaughter run a marathon. “We believe in the power of prayer, and we have lots of people praying for this marathon and every runner out there today.”

Look, she said: The rain stayed home and the city is once again united on a day meant to celebrate strength.

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“God made it a beautiful day.”

Puffy clouds and crisp, spring-like air made for a great day to run.

As Catherine Borek saw it, the marathon was too important to Los Angeles to stay home, knowing she could take basic precautions to avoid infection.

“I’m not going to lick people’s hands,” she said, “but I’m also not going to not show up.”

Borek, who teaches English and drama at Dominguez High School in Compton, has run this route three times, but she came Sunday as a spectator, cheering runners near the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Vermont Avenue, around the eight-mile mark. She remembers it as a “brutal point” where the fatigue has set in and the remaining mileage can seem insurmountable.

Cheering from the crowd, and music — drums, especially — are crucial, she said. Nearby, a school choir belted rock tunes and a deejay blasted reggaeton. A police officer sat in his cruiser, warning on the car’s loudspeaker that he’d be issuing “walking violations” to any offending marathoners. “No walking,” he announced. “If you walk, you will be ticketed.”

“This is too brilliant,” Borek said of the entire scene, too great to stay home out of fear of a virus. “Our strength is in our calm. Our anxiety is more dangerous. The stress is more dangerous.”

Besides, she added, gesturing to the runners streaming by, “this is about the healthiest swath of people you can find in Los Angeles.”

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Some marathon supporters took extra precautions when giving out high-fives to runners streaming by.

Joey Ta of the Midnight Runners, a weekly running club that works out in Venice Beach, sanitized his hands after high-fiving one of the club’s marathon participants as he ran past Mile 20.

“Last I checked, he doesn’t have the coronavirus,” Ta joked.

Still, Ta had asked members of his group to sanitize their hands after any high-fives. It was important, he said, “to make sure our group is safe.”

At about 9 a.m., several dozen people waited on the corner of Sepulveda and Santa Monica boulevards to cheer on two runners who had flown in from Japan.

Nancy Perdomo, 56, who runs the Culver City Sister City Committee, a nonprofit that focuses on building friendships and cultural understanding with other countries, had worried at first that their delegation from the city of Kaizuka, in Japan’s Osaka prefecture, would not be able to travel because of the coronavirus outbreak.

“Our concern was the trip here — being on the plane,” she said.

But in the end, the runners made it to Los Angeles in good shape. As 25-year-old Koichi Murakami ran past Mile 20 with a wide smile, the group rang bells and waved a large banner with the words “Riding the wave to victory” in Japanese.

Frank Luna, shaking a cowbell just shy of the nine-mile mark in Los Feliz, assessed his risk of infection by the number of cases so far.

“I get it; it’s out there,” he said. “But we’ve had, what, one person die in California? I think I have a better chance of winning the lotto multiple times than getting it, and it’s pretty damn hard to win the lotto.”


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