Fast Times in So. Cal. – City of Angels Half Marathon

runmapThere are a lot of things I’ve never done. I won’t go into detail except to say that visiting Los Angeles and running a major road race are two of them. Fortunately, my work schedule took me to Pasadena for a conference which coincided with the second annual City of Angels Half Marathon. Why not?

Saturday – Kevin and I arrived at LAX without incident but ran into problems from there on out. Sure we were on the company dime, but we thought we’d be good citizens and take public transit to get up to Pasadena to our respective hotels. First the every-half-hour bus took over an hour to show up. Then the Metro from Union Station had suffered some sort of power outage and we had to take a bus up to the first station which had power. Despite having power, this station lacked trains for a good twenty minutes more. When a train did arrive, some doors wouldn’t open while others wouldn’t close. (My suggestion that we just be careful not to fall out was not met with enthusiasm.) Finally in Pasadena, we had to hike about two miles with our luggage to our respective hotels where my non-smoking room had clearly been smoked in recently. Uggg! Travel is hell.

Sunday –¬†Fortunately, the logistics got a lot better from there. I rolled out of bed at four and made my way back to the Metro, fortunately, to a station a good deal closer to hotel than the one last night. This time, the 4:46 train showed up precisely on time and whisked me back down town in the predawn cold.

My first clue that the world of road racing is different from the trail runs I usually do was the fifty school busses lined up to take runners up to Griffith Park and the starting line. This and the phalanx of porta-potties along one side of the parking lot at the LA Zoo when we arrived a short time later suggested that a very large number of runners were expected. My race number was, inexplicably, #231, but I saw a number of people in the high 4000’s. At the moment, there weren’t many people and what action there was was huddled under the space heaters like Emperor penguins trying to keep warm in the Antarctic winter.

After an hour or two, the parking lot filled significantly with runners in various states of undress and the sun finally came up. I regretfuly stripped off my warmer layers and surrendered my drop bag to be shuttled down to the finish area. With great fanfare, we all walked over to the starting line and, after a particularly terrible rendition of the Star Spangled Banner through a megaphone, the gun was fired and off we went.

…at least in theory. We were a hundred yards back from the starting line and it took at least a minute to shuffle through to that point. Road racers tend to use chip timing (a small RF transmitter chip attached to your shoe that is picked up by sensor mats along the course), which is nice, since your personal clock doesn’t start until you personally cross the starting line. Even across the line, the way was blocked by shoals of sociable race-walkers proceeding seventeen abreast, big on sisterhood, but small on speed.

After a mile of dodging traffic, things finally settled down and I worked my way into a decent pace. My only previous half marathons were the Pikes Peak Ascents (2006,2007) where my best time is 3:32 and I was pretty sure I could beat that. My public goal for the race was a sub-2 hour finish, but my private goal of 1:45 seemed like it might be doable. I normally run a 9+ minute pace on the flats in Colorado but the combination of thick, sea-level air and competitive race atmosphere had me doing 8-minute splits today.

We wound through the park for four miles before heading down a dirt path between the freeway and a golf course. To my great surprise, a lot of people were stripping off their sweatshirts or jackets and just throwing them on the side of the road or off into the bushes. Perhaps they were coming back for them later… but I doubt it. The issue of disposable gear aside, trail runners definitely wouldn’t do something so callous.

At mile 5, we ran through a tunnel and ended up on the bike path between the freeway and the Los Angeles River. Normally, the “river” is a huge concrete ditch suitable for drag racing and remakes of “Grease” and “The Italian Job”, but there had been enough rain recently that there were actually rapids and waterfowl down there. Traffic had thinned out now and it was getting comfortable; warm and brilliantly sunny. I was still maintaining an 8-minute pace at the 10k point, but wondered if I could keep that up for another 10k. Numerous spectators cheered and there were water stops every mile or so.

We crossed the river, then crossed back on the Hyperion bridge and made our way up the hill toward Silver Lake. It was here that my mountain running training really came in handy. Various runners whom I had been pacing up to this point started to complain about the hills and fall behind. There were certainly hills, but none of them were particularly steep or long. The steepest was on Sunset Blvd at mile 9 or so. It was pretty long and steep, but a drum corps playing along the way provided all sorts of inspiration. We ran past Silver Lake through a really nice neighborhood full of palm trees, spectators on balconies, and people walking their dogs; then more city streets over to Echo Lake Park. This was the quintescential LA scene: a beautiful park with tall palm trees, a lake with fountain, geese, many tourists, and a spectacular view of the LA sky line.

I was definitely starting to feel it here and eagerly looked forward to the last couple mile markers. Someone mentioned that an 8-minute pace (which I was still maintaining) would mean a 1:43 finish. This was suitably “on the bubble” that it kept me running hard. With a mile or two to go, we crossed the freeway, went under some underpasses and traversed downtown streets for a while. Making a left turn, the route ran into a large tunnel which was cold and dim and seemed impossibly long. But there was a Taiko drumming group stationed at the other end and the reverberations of the big drums through the tunnel (as well as the growing crowd noise) was very motivating. I put on a final burst of speed, emerged from the sunlight, turned a corner and ran it in to the finish in 1:41:58.


Time: 1:41:58 (7:47 pace)
10k time: 50:19 (8:06 pace)
Overall: 347/3313 (10.5%)
Overall Men: 302/1654 (18.3%)
Men 35-39: 55/294 (18.7%)
Age Grade: 58.5% (698)
First place in the Tall, Pallid Men 35-39 category!

First place in the Tall, Pallid Men 35-39 category!

After getting my medal and grabbing a bottle of water, I wandered back along the course into the depths of the tunnel. The accoustics were good in there and a couple just-finished racers and I did quite a bit of yelling and clapping, enjoying that post-race euphoria that comes from a hard, fast run and a medal around the neck. At least that much is the same in both road and trail racing. After an hour of this, hoarse and sore-palmed, I wandered back up to the finish line and enjoyed the extensive post-race party. A really great latin band was playing, the sun was shining, the fountain spraying, and loads of tired, hungry people were gnoshing on post-race goodies. It was a very enjoyable scene.

I’m really glad I ended up running this race. It was a great way to see LA and kill some time before my conference started on Sunday evening. Road racers are wimps, but they sure are fast! I ran a full minute faster pace than I’ve run any long run (>10 miles). Placing in the top 20% is something I’ve never done before, either and I’ll put it down to the advantage to living in Boulder while most everyone else was local to Southern California. The winners were trully astonishing finishing in an hour and change at a just-barely-over-five-minute pace. Unbelievable! This was only the second running of the City of Angels and I hope it becomes a nationally-known Half.

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