I had just dragged ass into the JW Marriott in downtown Los Angeles—race headquarters for the Olympic Marathon Trials—and got in the elevator with Des Linden. She is one of, if not the, favorites in today’s race to determine the Rio team. Linden came up to my shoulder, the size of many 10-year-olds, but thinner, and was warmly swaddled in top o’ the line Brooks gear—jacket, wicking shirt, track pants, kicks—despite, or maybe because of L.A. temps that are the talk of the moment: mid-to-upper 80s, striking dread in the hearts of marathoners.
By the time I’d crossed the lobby, tiny, overdressed people who could slice apples with their cheekbones and deflect coins with their sculpted buttocks became passé. Oh look, there’s another. Press conferences passed in similar fashion. It’s awful how quickly one can become inured to the pathos of single-minded athletes running thousands of miles, thousands, very fast, and not going out for beers for weeks at a time. And being religious about stretching. You know, this is the cream of the marathoning crop in the US—it would be weird if the population in the Marriott wasn’t uniformly efficient, and feeling very confident about their 130-mile weeks of training. Nonetheless, I felt a little bad about my jaded condition. It’s just that it’s so force fed. Meb, Dathan, Shalane, sacrifice, training, dialed-fucking-in.
As always at these events, it’s the things that are missing, or the things you see by accident, or the topics that are not on the press conference schedule, that are most interesting.
Take, for example, holding a marathon in traffic-clogged downtown L.A. The four-lap, six-mile route running mostly back-and-forth along Figueroa in the fragrant shadow of the 10 will, of course, be cleared of traffic during Saturday’s race. But what marathoners like to do, even the days before a race, is to go for a three- or four-mile jog. What’s missing in downtown L.A. is a place to jog—there are no paths or green spaces, every surface is cement, and one has to stop at every intersection. Problem-solving runners circled the block six or ten times, and ran up and down the car-free ⅛-mile stretch next to the Grammy Awards’ red carpet tents.
Who decided to have an important marathon in downtown L.A.? Max Siegel did.
The fact that downtown L.A. is spectacularly runner-unfriendly might be one reason a committee appointed by USA Track & Field in 2013 to review bids from cities seeking to host the Marathon Trials voted unanimously to hold the event in Houston, not LA. Ignoring the committee’s recommendation, USATF chief executive Max Siegel awarded the bid to L.A. According to Race Results Weekly’s David Monti, “Under USATF Regulation 18, Siegel has the power to select the sites for USA Championships, but it was unclear if he could select Olympic Trials venues in the same manner.”
Though the unilateral decision caused a kerfuffle in the running community, USATF is a dictatorship—there is really no recourse for redress, so it’s worth noting that the problems runners are encountering now are due to an autocratic decision made by USATF top brass. As I ran on the Marriott’s treadmill, that decision ate at my vitals, so next time I saw her, I asked USATF Public Affairs Officer Jill Geer to explain again why they’d chosen L.A. over Houston, the city that had successfully held the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials.
“Oh gosh, we talked about that for months and months,” said Geer, reminding me that I was belaboring a dead horse. She suffered me anyway. The reasons, she said, Siegel went with L.A. were that it was a new market, a bigger TV market than Houston, and the potential for warm weather would select the best runners to compete in steamy Rio de Janeiro. L.A. would be a bigger, better platform for promoting the sport on NBC’s first-ever live telecast of the event, she said.
Those are good reasons, so I didn’t even bring up the fact that when the bids were submitted, L.A. offered $100,000 less in prize money to the runners than Houston. This again seemed kind of runner unfriendly, so in the intervening years, L.A. bumped their prize structure. If only USATF could be as image-conscious as L.A. At any rate, that’s why there’s this marathon in possibly the most runner-unfriendly environment imaginable.
Then, oh my gosh, there’s the heat. No one has stopped talking about it since I got here. The thing is, it’s a dry heat here in L.A., and there’s a huge range between morning and mid-day. At 7 a.m. it’s around 60 degrees, perfect for running, but by 11 a.m., it spikes to about 82. The men’s race starts at 10:06 a.m. and the women’s at 10:22, with most finishers crossing the line between 12:15 and 1:15, the hottest part of the day. One wonders why USATF officials, in the interest of runners’ performance and comfort, wouldn’t move the race earlier.
Well stupid, it’s TV. That’s what everyone told me—they can’t move it earlier because of TV. I was perplexed by this non-answer because there’s technology and things I see on my TV aren’t always happening in real life. But I’m six kinds of ignorant, so I asked Geer why USATF doesn’t just move the race start earlier. Again, she had pity on my specialness, and explained that NBC has other shit planned for the 7 to 9 a.m. time slot.
I kept tape delays to myself, and pondered them in my heart. Normally, the temp at which marathons are cancelled is 82 degrees, but because there are other factors—dew point, humidity, stuff—the 87 degrees registered in LA today at 1 p.m. was okay because it was a dry heat. If it was actually dangerous to runners, Geer said, they would of course, reassess. She reiterated that they are seeking the best hot weather runners for Rio.
Something else that’s not on the press conference schedule, that’s notably missing in the media frenzy here in L.A., is Galen Rupp. This place is sick with top runners. I encountered Kara Goucher in the lobby, Des Linden in the elevator, Meb next to some modern art—literally every runner who’s ever had their name on the LetsRun message board is here and available for fan selfies. Except for Galen Rupp. Alberto Salazar’s opus and probably America’s best distance runner, Rupp decided only a few weeks ago to make his marathon debut at this Olympic Marathon Trials. He qualified, as if on a lark, by running a 1:01:20 half-marathon in December 2015, well under the 1:05 standard.
Rupp was a silver medalist in the 2012 Olympic 10,000 meters, and holds the American record for 10,000 meters at 26:44. Needless to say, his entry in the Olympic Marathon Trials and his debut at the distance is one of the biggest factors in the race. He’s a player, maybe the player, in this race, but guess what? He refused to appear at press conferences, and is without question the only top runner I haven’t seen running around the block at the Marriott. Strange? I’ll tell you strange.
A reporter asked Meb Keflezighi and Shalane Flanagan what advice they would give to marathon virgin Rupp. Reporters were asking other top runners to fill in for Rupp, to imagine what he must be thinking. Only a precious child of Nike/Alberto Salazar could pull this kind of specialness, and get away with it. But that’s what happens when Nike is the sugar-daddy of USATF.
That’s why one must look for the things that are missing, the things that are not projected on the side of a building. It’s the things you don’t see that are most interesting.
photo credit: Getty Images