The Long Beach Marathon Had SOLE

Pre-Dawn Warm-ups at the Long Beach Marathon

Steve Mackel Leads Pre-Race Warm-Ups

Most of my time at sporting events is spent solidly underground. I go incognito, posing as a simple-minded sports fan – which come to think of it, hasn’t been too hard to get into character for. Recently though, I chose to blow my cover and accept an invitation to go behind the scenes and into the domain of the athletes.

When Steve Mackel, the co-founder of SOLE Runners, an L.A.-based running club, offered me the opportunity to observe his group as they prepared for and took part in the Long Beach Marathon, I was intrigued. When I received the special wristband that got me into the private Runners Club area of the event’s sprawling build-out, I was pleased. And when I found out that there would be a generous post-race spread of free food…need I go on?

SOLE stands for Seeking Out Life Experiences, and this particular running club focuses a good deal of its energy on introducing beginners to both the physical and psychic benefits of long-distance running. Steve and fellow coaching guru Gary Smith conduct step-by-step training programs designed to gradually prepare even the most novice of runners for conquering marathons and half-marathons.

The group training sessions that occur at the crack of dawn each Saturday morning are the program’s heart and…well, soul. By the time a marathon for which the group is training takes place, each runner has been imbued with both a quiet confidence and a communal bond. It’s little wonder that “first-timers” in particular flock to SOLE Runners.

This particular graduating class of SOLE Runners had been running together and nurturing each other’s aspirations for months in preparation for the Long Beach Marathon – the first in a series of major SoCal running events that culminates in the Los Angeles Marathon. For this close-knit group gathering in the pre-dawn hours, the training clock had ticked down to GoTime.

The city of Long Beach was wide awake by 5:30 on this Sunday morning. One of the things that Steve had stressed during SOLE Runner’s final preparation meeting was this – whatever you do, stay off the 710 freeway! And sure enough, as early as 4:30 AM, this main artery leading down from L.A. and points north was backed up with sheer volume for well over a mile.

I know this because, benefitting from my insider’s intelligence, I observed the sea of taillights as I purposely overshot the freeway entrance on my way to a much more inviting Long Beach Boulevard. Even still, when made it to the downtown area, I positively crawled through city streets on my way to the smartest online buy I’d ever made – my personal pre-purchased parking lot space. In terms of ingenuity, I’d put this somewhere between Noise-Cancelling Headphones and Fire.

I sincerely have no idea how those who had not pre-purchased parking ever made it to the race. Don’t get me wrong – this was not for a lack of event organization. This was just indicative of the number of people for whom it was vitally important to be in the Long Beach Marina area before sunrise.

The field was estimated at 2,500 bicyclists, 11,500 half-marathoners, 6,500 marathoners and untold numbers of people taking part in the “Run Forrest Run” 5k fun run/walk. Add to that the event organizers, volunteers and spectators, and you had a not-so-small city, fully open for business well before dawn.

Runners Club Row At Sunrise

If you’ve ever played a team sport and experienced the unconditional support that envelops the locker room just before a game, imagine that dynamic and multiply it by 20,000 – because that’s how many teammates you have prior to the beginning of a marathon. And that spirit was amplified even more on the small patch of lawn where Steve led the SOLE Runners through pre-race stretching. They were primed.

The cyclist portion of this extended team went off at 6:00 sharp, and for at least half the route they rode only in the light cast by street lamps and their own bike lights. They were followed at 6:15 by the marathon walkers. And then the sea of humanity began to swell toward the starting line in waves – literally and figuratively.

Bikes Come Through 10K Checkpoint

There were far more people running than could be accommodated by a single starting command, so runners went off in waves – eight of them according to my count. To “assign” wave numbers, people were simply asked when they registered to estimate how long it would take for them to run their event. It was then up to them on race morning to join the wave number that was posted as being appropriate for that pace. It was a marathon full of self-starters, if you will excuse the obvious redundancy.

Faster runners went out first and slowest went last. And if you wound up in the wrong wave, it really didn’t matter – each individual’s time was captured by the electronic pulse sent out by the strip that each runner wore on the laces of their shoes. With 5 to 10 minute breaks between wave starts (depending on the size of the wave), it took more than 45 minutes to get every competitor across the starting line.

As successive waves progressed toward their start, the mood that accompanied each one evolved. The first two were quiet, focused, and goal-oriented – all business. The next few tended to consist of people that had run marathons before, but who today were out simply to enjoy the event. They knew exactly what to expect, and were very high-spirited, which allowed the race announcer to work the crowd expertly to pass the time.

The last two waves were heavily made up of first-timers. They were lively as well, but a lot of it was nervous energy, for every one of them was wondering…“can I do this?”

What unified all of the waves was an atmosphere thick with pride. As you might expect, it was easily visible on the faces of the runners. But it was the friends and loved ones of the runners that were simply bursting with it. Everyone in attendance had a keen awareness of what it took for the runners to reach this stage of preparedness for tackling a personal challenge, whether that challenge was to qualify for the Boston Marathon – or simply to cross the finish line upright.

People strained to pick out the face of their favorite runner from the literally thousands that streamed by, and when the visual connection was made, both runner and onlooker were buoyed by it. And this was at the beginning of the race!

To be concluded in next post…

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