Sunday, April 10, 2016

My Sub-Elite Life with an Elite Girlfriend: LA Marathon, 2015


This is the first in a series of entries on my life as a sub-elite runner with an elite girlfriend. My partner is a talented, respected distance runner on the elite marathon and ultra-marathon scene. I am not. Here are some stories of life chasing after her coattails.

LA Marathon, 2015.


Caitlin and I arrived at LAX the afternoon before the race. We sit in traffic for ninety minutes, crawling through the Friday commute. Our driver, sent by the race organizers, is friendly. Caitlin is part of the elite field for LA, which provides certain amenities for its invited athletes. If I did not date Caitlin, I would currently be in a cab, paying a nickel a minute for this awful drive through Inglewood. Instead, the driver offers me a bottle of water: “I have Powerade too, if you need some electrolytes.” Let me be very clear, I have exploited my elite girlfriend. I have milked the perks. I have cooled down with Meb Keflezighi and Deena Kastor. I have filched coffee from hospitality suites. I have played the voyeur at the Olympic Trials. I have sat behind Kara Goucher and Dathan Ritzenhein at pre-race meetings, silently freaking my shit out. I am an imposter—a phony, hiding behind a skinny mien and over-sized quadriceps.

As I mentioned, Caitlin is part of the elite field for the race, which is serving as the marathon championships for the USATF. I am not part of the elite field. But I have been training like a madman, hoping to crack 2:25 for the first time. I am fit. I am ready. I have 1,500 recently minted miles in my legs, aerobic currency I hope to cash in this weekend. My sinews are steel springs. I am ready to scald dogs and race Satan himself through Brentwood. But first I need to find my bib race number.

Caitlin’s race number is in the race hotel in downtown, where we are staying. The hotel is dated; it was once a grand building that hosted the celebrities of the last century. Now the molding is cracking around the edges and in the corners; eggshell paint is lifting off the walls; chandeliers twinkle bluntly in memory of the excesses of a bygone age. We find Caitlin’s bib easily enough at the hospitality suite, which takes up an entire floor of the hotel. But this is distance running, so the floor feels empty and weirdly like a music video set from the 1990s. I help her fill up her water bottles that will be arranged conveniently on the course. Several semi-famous professional runners are also in the suite, filling up their bottles. I will not have pre-filled water bottles. I will drink from those waxy cups offered on course. This is fine. I have come to accept these little inequalities. Running is one of the last meritocratic institutions in American society, and my previous marathon efforts do not measure up for a national championship. So it goes.

But, I do need to find my bib race number. I am told non-elite bibs are at the Staples Center, nearly two miles from the hotel. “You’ll have to wrestle with the masses and all the other normals,” a race official says cheerfully. I laugh and thank the man, secretly praying he passes a kidney stone tonight. A heat wave has settled over Los Angeles and it is over ninety degrees outside. I spring for a cab. Arriving at the Staples Center, I try to figure out a way to cut through the race expo. I do not want to try on shoes, or eat free samples of Cliffbars. I do not want to take selfies in front of the marathon “selfie-wall.” I want my bib, which I find without too much duress.

The marathon expo, sponsored by an infomercial blender company.

I struggle to get a cab for the return trip since I’m competing with hundreds of others at the expo. I walk a few blocks away from the Staples Center and manage to snag a taxi in the thinning crowd. I get back. Caitlin and I eat dinner, and we go to bed early for the race morning.

The morning of the race, as we snap on our various polyester garments, we look over our travel plans. As an elite athlete, Caitlin will be shuttled from the hotel over to the start line with the other invited runners. The printed marathon program for the masses, myself included, mentions buses that will pick up runners from a few spots around downtown. Our friend Linn shared a room with us last night. She is also racing and, like me, she does not warrant an elite shuttle ride to the start at Dodger’s Stadium. She and I walk the several blocks to the bus pickup.

Dozens of LA Metro buses have been commandeered to ferry runners up to the stadium. Lynn and I line up at the stop, behind other runners waiting. It is 5:30am, but ungodly warm. The night has done little to cool off the air. We are loaded up onto a bus. The driver shouts, “We need to fill to capacity! Every seat! Up until standing room only!” Linn and I enter the bus as the seats fill up. Some sort of high school training group take all the seats. (What insane PE teacher has suggested high school kids run a marathon?), Linn and I are forced to stand. The bus is literally 4000 feet away from the starting line, but the driver makes the mistake of getting on the freeway. We sit in traffic. Lynn and I make idle chatter in the hot stagnant bus air, but it’s hard to hear because the school kids are loud and excited.

After fifteen minutes, I decide I should try to get off my feet and sit down in the bus’s exit stairwell. I immediately regret the decision. I have sat in something wet and greasy. I shift positions and try to wipe the damp off my butt. Oh, gross. I hazard a sniff. Thankfully it is probably just a mix of soda and dirt, but I pick up slight scents of urine. Someone peed on this bus once.

My phone starts buzzing in my jacket pocket. Caitlin is calling. 
“Hi,” I say, over the screams of the high school students.
“Woah,” Caitlin responds to the din. “Where are you?”
“I’m still on the metro bus with Linn. Where are you?”
“Oh, ok,” she says. “I’m in the Ketel One Lounge.”  Christ. Here I am, sitting on the floor of a public bus, surrounded by giddy fifteen-year-olds, my hands covered in God-knows-what, and my girlfriend is in a stadium VIP room sponsored by a vodka company.

Well. So it goes.

Caitlin wants to know if I am interested in warming up with her; but at this point the bus lurches into movement, sparking off another round of chattering by the high school group. I lose cell signal. We finally roll into the stadium parking lot. We unload off the bus. I never connect with Caitlin before the start, and I lose Linn after we queue up for separate bathrooms. I take in my surroundings.

LA is a hellish place in the best of times. But this morning seems particularly apocalyptic. There is an acid taste in the air. Santa Ana winds are supplementing the LA basin’s usual quota of monoxide by blowing a dry dust across southern California. It is 80 degrees at 7am. Herds of people are being corralled via fencing and blow horn instructions into various holding areas. It is like a disaster film, but with a lot more Lycra. “So, this is how the world ends,” I think as I take off on my warm-up.

The air tasted like Bladerunner.
The race has hired an event management squad for the specific purpose of preventing people from peeing in the bushes around the stadium. One threatens to take my race number if I hazard a piss in a collection of shrubs. Lacking time to wait again in the port-a-jon line, I pee in a bottle and then empty it into a potted plant near the starting line. My hands are now most certainly covered in urine. I hope, with no small amount of envy, that Caitlin enjoys the Ketel One Lounge and its flushing toilets. I see her as the female elites are ushered to the starting line. The elite women are sent off fifteen minutes before the rest of us. It’s one of those staggered affairs like in Boston. Eventually, I find myself in the third row back from the start line. I am already thirsty and wondering at which mile the first aid station is located. The gun goes off.

I run terribly. Most people do, given the temperature and toxic air quality. I run conservatively, realizing early on that 2:25 is most certainly not in the cards today. But by the sixteen-mile mark, despite a pace that felt pedestrian two weeks ago, the wheels are most certainly falling off. I suffer through. Otherwise I have no idea how else I’ll get back to our hotel.

What a tough day. But as I approach the finish line, I am struck by the sudden thought that I should try to pass a set of runners a dozen yards ahead of me. I doubt I am anywhere near the money payout; but won’t I feel like an ass-hat if it turns out I missed out on a bit of cash because I was lazy in the last 250 meters? So, I lean into the last little stretch and out-kick the group. Victory! Yet, as I cross the line, I look over at my opponents. I realize the group contained Sarah Hall, who is suffering quite badly from heat stroke. She has collapsed on the asphalt, legs seizing in cramps. Damn it. Now I feel like the ass-hat that kicked down a nice lady suffering from heat exhaustion.

What. A. Bastard.

I hang out in the finish corral as other finishers arrive in ones and twos. I passed Caitlin (who had started earlier with the elite women) in Beverly Hills, and she arrives at the finish in short order. She has suffered in the heat as well. It is a bad day for both of us. After a quick recap of our morning-thus-far, we are again separated. Caitlin is loaded onto the elite charter bus. I hear someone offering beer and lattes in the elite/VIP mix zone around the bus. I am left in the finish corral, pondering how to get myself back to downtown LA from Santa Monica.

There are rumors of a shuttle bus that will ferry finishers back to the start. But none of the volunteers seem to know where those buses meet. I wander around, asking anyone who seems to be affiliated with the race. Does the shuttle even exist? Moneyless, succumbing to despair, and wondering whether Uber drivers accept payment in sexual favors, I happen upon a policeman. “Oh yeah,” he says, scratching his beard. “I think I saw a whole bunch of school buses lined up behind the mall.” Victory.

Off I go, dehydrated, quads shot from running on desiccated muscles. I cut through the mall, cutting quite the figure as I limp through Nordstrom’s in my sweat-soaked singlet and racing shorts. I take off my race number, content with being just a weirdo, as opposed to the particular kind of weirdo who shops for menswear immediately after a marathon. “Have you seen any school buses?” I ask a vendor selling Dippin' Dots near the mall’s exit. He doesn’t know about any shuttles, but gives me a free sample.
"Dippin' Dots! Because who needs food when you can eat a high school chemistry experiment?"
Eventually, I find my way to the Santa Monica City Hall, where there is a line of school buses, nearly a mile from the finish line (or four department stores depending on how you reckon the distance). “At last! I’m saved!” I drag my dehydrated body onto the school bus; the driver graciously unwinds the door with a smile. I drop myself onto the beautifully fake leather of the plastic seats—the first moment off my feet since the grimy Metrobus stairwell. Again, I take solace in another small victory. Then we sit. And sit. And sit. 

You see, I am well ahead of the bell-curve of the race’s participants, and this bus is not going to move until it is filled to capacity. After twenty minutes, a second runner finally enters the bus. Holy pancakes. I am going to die.

I am incredibly hungry. I eat the half of a banana I picked up in the finish corral. I have already eaten the free wooden spoonful of Dip-n-Dots. Some time later, we reach a critical mass of bodies that the driver deems suitable for departure. Someone, also suffering from dehydration, throws up in the back of the bus.

I am thirsty. I am tired. I am sad. I will, for some reason, irrationally do something like this again. The bus cranks loudly into life. We lurch forward, up onto the 10. So we beat on against the traffic, our butts against the pleather seats, borne back ceaselessly into the past.