Scott Bowden vs. Gorilla Monsoon: L.A. Marathon 2011
Seems it never rains in Southern California / Seems I’ve often heard that kind of talk before / It never rains in California / But girl, don’t they warn you / It pours, man, it pours
—singer/songwriter Albert Hammond’s “It Never Rains in Southern California”
An as I tossed and turned in bed during my restless night preceding the 2011 L.A. Marathon, a series of numbers ran out of control in my head as if stuck on a treadmill without an OFF switch.
My 2010 L.A. Marathon time: 5 hours, 22 minutes, 23 seconds—which I considered monumental until I made the mistake of getting a year’s subscription to Runner’s World, where I read that Oprah Winfrey crossed the finish line about 50 minutes before me in her first attempt at 26.2 miles. More recent, one of the Chilean miners who’d been trapped underground, near death for 33 days, finished only about 20 minutes after my time during his run of the 2010 New York Marathon. Most of the magazine’s readers considered any time over 5 hours pretty shabby.
My desired finish-time goal for the 2011 L.A. event: Under 5 hours, which would be nearly 23 minutes faster on the same route a year ago.
Number of friends/family who will be monitoring my progress—or lack thereof—on their cell phones via a tracking device on my race bib: 25
Days until I could walk without a limp following the 2010 L.A. marathon: 5
Marathons, half-marathons, 10Ks and 5Ks I’d planned to run in preparation for the 2011 L.A. Marathon to ease the punishment on my body: 12 (1 for each month, methodically tapering off in descending order of distance)
Marathons, half-marathons, 10Ks and 5Ks I’d actually run since 2010: 0
Pounds I wanted to lose following my 2010 effort, thereby making me better, faster, stronger: 20 lbs
Actual pounds lost since lone 2010 marathon: 5 lbs
Training-mile average leading up to the 2010 race: 10 minutes, 55 seconds
Training-mile average leading up to the 2011 competition: 9 minutes, 25 seconds
Days injured (e.g., the dreaded “runner’s knee”) since 2010 marathon: 0
Those last three stats comforted me heading into March 21, my second consecutive year of the scenic 26.2-mile run starting at Dodger Stadium, passing several legendary Hollywood landmarks, and ending near the Santa Monica Pier overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Throughout my training the last 12 months, I was certainly faster per mile than my “rookie” runs the same time last year. Since fall 2010, I was confident that I’d become wiser about my training methods—with the exception of the Santa Monica street sign I embarrassingly collided with face-first a mile into my initial run in the darkness after the end of Daylight Saving Time in October 2010. It was the kind of ridiculous mishap that would have garnered 3-million hits online if some passerby had recorded it on their iPhone and posted it on YouTube. Amazingly, my adrenaline kicked in shortly after shattering my ego and nearly my cheekbones on that evening: I ran 7 more miles with a 9-minute, 47-second average. Other than a severely bruised ego and kneecap, I didn’t feel a thing—until the next morning when I tried to get out of bed.
Over the next five months, any slight twinge of pain indicating runner’s knee, inflammation from the hip band down to the shin, which greets you with the subtlety of an ice pick striking your knee, brought an immediate halt to my training. This was in sharp contrast to 18 months ago, with my ego dictating that I gut out any slight discomfort, thereby worsening the inflammation in the process. Turns out this injury is common among newbie runners in their 30s, especially after picking up their mileage and/or speed—or even merely breaking in new shoes.
A gait consultation (an examination of my running mechanics) in the weeks after the 2010 L.A. marathon revealed that my right foot shifted outward naturally, especially after endorphins kicked in or during down-hills picking up steam after a long upward climb, putting unnecessary stress and pressure on my knee. I soon became a student of a more methodical running shuffle, which some may associate with the elderly walking a golf course, while I prefer to liken it to the graceful Muhammad Ali. Perhaps most important, I learned from experience that when in doubt, slow down, and slightly shuffle my feet straight ahead lightly, one front directly in front of the other, greatly reducing the likelihood of injury. I perfected this practice while running in minus-zero degree temps on snow- and ice-covered roads while visiting my wife’s family in England over Christmas.
And I’d certainly become much more cognizant of my feet, knees and posture while running—things a child never thinks about playing sports into adolescence—but necessary schools of thought as 40 creeps up on you like an uninvited guest who refuses to leave.
I celebrated my fourth decade on this planet on April 30. With the 2011 L.A. Marathon falling weeks earlier, I had something to prove to myself in the days leading up to this milestone—as if beating my previous time by more than 20 minutes would somehow compensate for the increasing number of gray hairs sprouting up as if on cue for my 40th birthday.
On March 20, the night before I was to run my second marathon, I sat flabbergasted in front of my TV as a local weatherman, appropriately named Dallas Raines, spoke of yet another daunting number for me to obsess about as I prepared to go to bed after devouring after a carb-filled pasta dinner: a forecast calling for a 100% chance of rain all day during the marathon and late into the evening.
Even during the city’s typical “rainy season,” which consists of 10 days of precipitation on and off in February, early-morning showers give way to somewhat sunny skies by the afternoon. But 100% chance of rain? C’mon, really? I’d never seen such a forecast since moving to sunny Southern California in 1998 following the end of El Niño. Then again, February had been relatively dry this year—in hindsight, Mother Nature must have biding her time.
On race day, my fellow runners obviously share the same denial about the impending weather, with many arriving in their usual shorts and T-shirt at dawn to grab a comfortable box seat in Dodger Stadium, near our starting point. As a strong, cool wind sweeps over the stadium, I try to keep in mind three weeks ago when I was running in a sudden downpour but still finished my designated 6-miler with borderline bravado as I bellowed to a passing U.S. Postal carrier, “Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow…!” Surely, I can handle a little rain. Plus, I reason, an occasional drizzle might be refreshing, keeping me cool, especially as I head toward the homestretch—last year, it felt like my entire body was on fire and might combust at that point.
As my friend Rob and I position our way into the massive herd of more than 25,000 runners near the start line around 7:15 a.m., ominous dark clouds command the sky, almost like a natural-disaster movie in production. Just as Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” starts playing over the P.A. repeatedly, Rob observes a slight, brief ray of sunlight breaking through the blackness, and he quickly removes his thin sweatshirt and tosses it aside for charity, saying, “Y’know, I don’t think were gonna get much rain at all.” I don’t share my buddy’s optimism—my Under Armour wick-moisture jacket is staying on. After all, it’s not every day that Dallas Raines calls for heavy rain.
Less than a mile into our run, a cold drizzle starts to fall, quickly turning into steady, thick raindrops. I look over at Rob and mutter a Bill Murray line from the movie Caddyshack: “I don’t think the heavy stuff’s gonna come down for a while now.” Little do I realize at the time just how accurate that statement is.
I shrug off the rain but my thoughts keep drifting back to Sunday a week ago, when I enjoyed sunny, blue skies on a beautiful day for an easy 6-miler. This thought alone gives me hope for a sun-filled finish at the beach after the rain subsides. Like most weathermen–including Memphis meteorologist/longtime wrestling announcer Dave Brown–Dallas Raines has been wrong before.
Rob, a far more experienced—and thinner—runner, leaves me behind around mile 2. I will not see him—or the sun for that matter—again that day. As my buddy disappears into the distance, the rain hits with blinding force. Unlike last year when I took in the sights and sounds as I ran uphill toward Sunset Blvd., the downpour makes me focus on directly putting one foot in front of the other to keep going
By the time I reach the mostly flat surface of Sunset, despite being drenched and cold, I can’t help but feel inspired by the volunteers and spectators who have braved the elements to cheer on the runners and provide us with carb-filled snacks and water. The crowd’s numbers are definitely down from last year but the weather has made them even more vocal as they seem to find some inspiration from us as well for being just crazy enough to continue running in what turns out be one of the rainiest days in Los Angeles in 25 years.
I approach the famed Chateau Marmont hotel, which over the years has been the center of Hollywood controversies involving the likes of Greta Garbo, Howard Hughes, James Dean, Led Zeppelin, Elizabeth Taylor, John Belushi (who overdosed in one of the bungalows) and, more recently, train-wrecks Brittney Spears and Lindsay Lohan. I had recently read a book on Hollywood history, so I’m lost in thought when a familiar voice calling my name snaps me out my daze. It’s my friend Kathy, who’s been forced to sit out this year’s race because of injury. Days earlier, she had explained to me over the phone that she was in tears because she was unable to run but vowed to be near the landmark hotel with provisions to support her running friends. At this point, the rain is nearly unbearable, and I almost break down and ask Kathy if she’s parked nearby so she can give me a ride to my warm home mere blocks away. Instead, she hugs me and gives me some slices of pineapple, which I devour.
Knowing how Kathy is heartbroken that she can’t run—though I think I would have gladly traded places with her at that moment—seeing her ignites newfound enthusiasm as I press on toward West Hollywood, whose colorful, eclectic residents always host a raucous party on race day. This year is no exception, as men in Speedos and drag queens gyrate and sing like there was no tomorrow as “It’s Raining Men” roars over a tent-covered PA. I can’t help but laugh.
A volunteer is pouring fresh espresso shots from a nearby Starbucks (actually, a Starbucks is nearby virtually anywhere in L.A.), which seems like a great idea to warm up. However, the sudden injection of the warm java rattles my body and leaves me coughing for the next two blocks. I will rely on my stash of goodies fastened to my body—almonds, electrolyte gels/chews and chocolate-covered espresso beans—the rest of the way.
As we runners head toward Beverly Hills, some of the streets are flooded to the point that it almost feels like crossing a stream. My New Balance shoes feel—and probably smell—like cans of packed tuna with water.
The wind gusts, which will reach nearly 35 mph by day’s end, are picking up on a steady uphill that I know ends up on San Vicente Blvd., where I’d done countless runs after work to envision the last 6 miles of the marathon. But today, this stormy, almost blurry stretch of cafes and other businesses almost seems unfamiliar as the unrelenting rain continues to pound my body.
Back in Memphis, my father is pacing his house, as he continues to receive updates of my ever-slowing progress, which indicates that at my current pace, I might finish in 4 hours, 59 minutes—a mere 60 seconds before my desired goal. Throughout the day, I think that my dad wants this for me more than I do.
One of the few digital clocks on the course on the final 3-mile stretch reads 4 hours, 30 minutes, 32 seconds. I’ll have to kick it into high gear to reach my goal time. In the past, I’d heard from several runners that they consider the last few miles of a marathon as the “moment of truth,” i.e., the amount of fuel they had left in the tank to pass as many runners as possible to close the race. Amazingly enough, as I dizzily calculate my chances of finishing under 5 hours, the wind gusts strike again, this time accompanied by pellets of hail bombarding the running field around me. A group of total strangers on the same pace as me look at each other in disbelief, as if to say, “What the f***?!”
Mixed with the precipitation, slight tears begin to fill my eyes as I realize that I’m likely to miss my desired mark by a few minutes. Marathons have a way of stirring up intense emotions, and I can’t help but feel a little sorry for myself, yet I still muster as much remaining strength as I can to pass approximately 400 runners over the last few miles (conversely, about 90 runners surged past me).
I didn’t dare use my iPod in these conditions, so instead I’m muttering Cake’s “Going the Distance” to myself like a crazy person–and at this point I do indeed feel insane. (Yeah, sorta cheesy, but I’ll be damned if this didn’t light a fire under my freezing ass.)
Fuel burning fast on an empty tank
Reckless and wild they pour through the turns
Their prowess is potent and secretly stern
No trophy, no flowers, no flashbulbs, no wine
He’s haunted by something he cannot define
Bowel-shaking earthquakes of doubt and remorse
Assail him, impale him with monster-truck force
But in his mind he’s still driving, still making the grade
He’s going the distance
As I reach Ocean Avenue, with the finish line in sight about a mile away, palm trees rock violently from side to side like Jimi Hendrix, as if they’re about to be ripped into the heavens or sucked into hell.
As I get closer to the finish, I see the oversized clock tick past 5 hours, hitting me with the force of a Mankind steel-chair shot in the WWF’s Attitude Era. I run like a man possessed, pulling down the proverbial strap a la Jerry Lawler making his Superman comeback, now furious that I had gradually succumbed to the elements and failed to accomplish my goal.
The clock reads 05:03:27—waves of disappointment crash against me seemingly in time with the angry surf of the Pacific. Around me, it’s the most heartbreaking finish-line area I’ve ever seen, with several runners receiving immediate medical attention for hyperthermia. Solemn bystanders carry umbrellas, which shake and crumble from the winds like dandelions, with several nearly poking me in the eye as I search for my wife.
In the distance, I can hear Hayley scream my name, along with the words, “You did it! You beat 5 hours! I don’t know how you did it, but you did it, babe!” Puzzled momentarily, I quickly realize that the clocks along the route started precisely as the thousands of other runners ahead of me slowly crossed the start line. By the time I reached the start and activated the tracking device on my race-number bib, nearly four minutes had elapsed. My actual finish time: 04:58:52! I beat 5 hours by 1 minute, 8 seconds. Whew! More like, “Woooooo!”
Back home, my dad breathes a sigh a relief and calls to congratulate me; I receive nearly a dozen texts from friends tracking me who realize how much beating that 5-hour mark means to me. I want to speak to each and every one of them but right now I have more important things to attend to—namely, a large BBQ-chicken pizza.
Overall, I finished in 9,052th place out of 19,900 finishers; nearly 6,000 runners dropped out as the day progressed.
People have since asked me about that day and whether I’d have run the event knowing just how overwhelming the rain would be. I can’t say in all certainty that I would do it all over again, but I’m happy that I ran through that experience. Besides, runners love telling “war stories.” I’m sure years from now, when I vividly recall the events of that marathon, I’m sure my friends and family will possibly think I’m exaggerating the rain and wind gusts I endured—much like the classic tale of your parents walking miles to school knee-deep in snow. But I’ll know that it’s all true—every rain-soaked step of the way.