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Friday, March 19, 2010
Marathon goes Hollywood after overhaul

By Ramona Shelburne
ESPNLosAngeles.com

The Los Angeles Marathon is still 26.2 miles long.

That's about all this year's marathon has in common with last year's, or any other of the 24 Los Angeles Marathons.

From start to finish, concept to execution, dream to daylight on race day this Sunday morning, everything is different.

Santa Monica Pier
The marathon ends at the Santa Monica Pier this year, completing the "stadium-to-sea" tour.

Except the length -- that part is non-negotiable.

Why the complete overhaul?

"It just wasn't inspiring running through light industrial areas near downtown," said Peter Abraham, the race's creative director. "As a runner, you want to feel like you went on a journey."

So instead of a circular loop around downtown, as the course has been designed in the past, this year's race will start at Dodger Stadium -- as an ode to the race's new owner, Dodgers owner Frank McCourt -- and finish at the Santa Monica Pier.

The 26.2 miles in between are designed as though the lead race car should be a red double-decker tourist sightseeing bus.

"We wanted to hit the icons of Los Angeles. Downtown, Hollywood, Rodeo Drive, the Sunset Strip," Abraham said. "And we wanted to finish at the beach, because in all the great running events, you need a great finish, and I can't think of a better finish than at the beach, where people can jump into the water afterwards."

The guiding vision behind all this belongs to McCourt, an avid runner who purchased the race in September 2008.

"It was abundantly clear when we started to look at the marathon that the success of the race would be based on a new route, the so-called stadium-to-sea route, and that possibility is what made this so attractive," McCourt said.

"Our goal is to make this a world-class, internationally recognized event, and I believe that on Sunday, people will see that we're well on our way to realizing that vision."

Vision and execution were two very different issues, though. Instead of dealing with only the municipal agencies in the City of Los Angeles -- fire department, police departments, engineering department, etc. -- the race now passes through five municipalities: Los Angeles, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, the federal government property at the Veterans Administration in West Los Angeles, and Santa Monica.

It's hard enough to get all of these people on the same conference call, let alone the same page when it comes to organizing a 25,000-person marathon, but that was the task at hand and it's been done.

"The coordination effort has been monumental," race director Nick Curl said. "There have been meetings with five different agencies in each one, and each has their own staffs.

"There were so many meetings that had to be held. So many people that had to be educated. There is nothing that we are doing in 2010 that remotely resembles what we did in 2009."

So far the response has been positive. After attracting a mostly static number of entrants (between 17,000 and 20,000) over the years, this year's race has already sold out (25,000).

The next test will come Sunday when all those runners hit the streets, and all those streets will be closed.

Abraham thinks that their traffic-control plans won't be all that disruptive, but no amount of thinking ever predicted Los Angeles traffic patterns. (If anyone can correct me in that statement, please e-mail me ASAP with your secret. I promise not to tell anyone.)

"I don't think it's going to be too bad," Abraham said. "The first half of the route, we'll be out of there in two and a half hours, by 10 a.m. or so. The longest closures will be at the finish line in Santa Monica, but we made sure that we won't block Wilshire Boulevard, so I think that will help."

What's clear is that the organizers stayed true to their vision throughout the redesign process. From a marketing standpoint, their vision for the new course makes all the sense in the world.

Wesley Korir
Wesley Korir also won the Los Angeles marathon in 2009.

Think about it: When people come to visit you from out of town, where do you take them to give them that L.A. feel? Rodeo Drive, Olvera Street, down the Sunset Strip. We all have our own little touches, right? I usually point out the corner on Hollywood and Vine and say, "That's where Richard Gere picked up Julia Roberts in 'Pretty Woman' and the Viper Room on Sunset where River Phoenix died." If we're passing through Los Feliz, I might point out The Derby bar from "Swingers." People love that stuff.

But is that L.A.? The real L.A.?

Yes, we are Hollywood and celebrity and glamour. But we're also Canter's Deli and Little Ethiopia and Koreatown.

Ethnic neighborhoods and so many different people, all driving around in our cars with the windows rolled up and fighting the same traffic, but basking in the same 72-degree sunshine about 330 days a year.

I asked Abraham about the creative choice, to emphasize, say, passing by Capitol Records in Hollywood over running up Fairfax to pass by the shops in Little Ethiopia as an ode to the great distance runners from that country.

"We definitely talked about Little Ethiopia," he said. "But that would've introduced another hill into the race, and you just can't hit every cool area in Los Angeles. We would've loved to [have] gone through there, and areas like Koreatown and Leimert Park, but when you've got a 26.2-mile string, there's only so many places you can pass through."

Perhaps the real conclusion is that we live in a city that's too large and complex and layered to define neatly, in one sentence, or along one 26.2-mile-long string.

We all simply have visions of it. This one is cool, and easy on the eyes, after 26 miles of pavement.

Ramona Shelburne is a writer and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.