Team Parkinson at the 2010 LA Marathon

The Los Angeles Marathon reached a double milestone last weekend – celebrating its 25th running with a field of 25,000 runners for the first time. You might even say that it’s now a grown-up marathon trying to take its place among the big boys of marathon racing: Boston, New York, Chicago, London, and Amsterdam. After all, a big-time city like LA deserves a big time race. Like just about everything else in LA over the last quarter century, the race has grown and changed in character. What started in 1986 as a local affair to celebrate the home town success of the 1984 Olympics, has been bought and sold and bought again. The new marathon organization, like much of the town around it, is now owned by immigrants who have come to this city to enjoy its fair weather, to bask in its glitter, and to harvest its wealth. The race has been remade to match today’s expectations. What was a traditional loop through diverse old neighborhoods and Sunday morning gospel choirs has been abandoned for a downhill parade from one entertainment icon to another: Dodger Stadium to the Disney Center, Sunset Strip to Graumann’s Chinese Theater, Rodeo Drive to Santa Monica Beach. The aging race has been made new again.

The LA Marathon weekend is more than just a long race on Sunday morning.  Throughout the buying and selling of the race to its new owners, the Official Charities under the old organization worked diligently to maintain the integrity of the established connections supporting the people of Los Angeles. We lobbied LA City Council to maintain and improve the Official Charities program and continue the 5K run/walk because of the enormous benefit it provides those challenged athletes in our organizations, and the significant fundraising opportunity it provides.  Through the efforts of many charity organizations working together, we were able to make the 5K run/walk part of the new contract. Of course, the new organization had to put its own imprint on the event. The pre-race Expo felt the change as well.  This year both the Expo and the 5k were moved from their usual places downtown in or near the Convention Center to Dodger Stadium, and the 5K got moved from its usual time slot on marathon Sunday to Saturday morning before the second day of the Expo.  This presented some challenges to Team Parkinson, particularly in scheduling our Carbo-load dinner.  We decided to have our dinner on Saturday night as usual, and celebrate the success of the 5K while preparing ourselves for the next day’s marathon.

I have to say that the weakest part of the entire new set-up was the Expo.  The parking lot at Dodger Stadium is not a good location for an Expo serving 30,000-50,000 runners and their friends and even less friendly for those staffing the booths.  On set-up day there was no food or water available, no restrooms open, and no support personnel who knew what they were doing.  On the first day of the Expo, there was still no food or water available for staffers, and a definite lack of directions for runners and their guests. Traffic flow both into the stadium and around the venues was abysmal. And it didn’t get any better on Saturday morning for the 5K.  It may not have been easy, but eventually all our team members were able to find us and pick up their bibs and t-shirts, either on Friday or Saturday morning just before the 5K.

In spite of these challenges, the 5K run/walk was a big success for Team Parkinson. When the race finally got underway, there were close to 200 Team Parkinson members on course.  And they all finished.  The largest group within the team was Ackerberg Team, led by Lisette Ackerberg, who was also celebrating her birthday.  Her team was gigantic, with more than 70 members, and was the top fundraiser for this year with over $22,000. Several other teams were quite visible as well, including the Wong Family, Sarah’s 5K Training Team, Jakowec/Petzinger, Special K, and Team Martinez.

Some of the Team Parkinson faithful ran the 5K full out and finished well up in the standings, while others worked as hard as they could just to finish.  The course started at Dodger Stadium and looped around Elysian Park before finishing at the stadium once more.  The course was quite pretty, but there were no crowds of spectators, only one water station, and no rest rooms. And it was hilly!  Lisette Ackerberg was so tested by the course that she wrote a letter to Russ Pilar, President of the LA Marathon, complaining of the lack of consideration for the charities and other challenged athletes, who use the event for fundraising and motivation. Ability First, another large charity with more than 500 challenged athletes, actually withdrew from the 5K because they felt it put their team members at risk. I hope Russ is paying attention.  In any event, Lisette and her entire team did finish, and repaired to her tent afterward for a large birthday celebration. Happy 73rd birthday Lisette!

After the 5K, the Team Parkinson staff returned to the Expo for the second day and continued with meeting and greeting both new and returning athletes.  Our special thanks go to Chris Pearsall and Tara Horan from Solvay Pharmaceuticals who helped Carol Walton, Edna ball, Jennifer Bugnatto, Pam Waddell, Matthew Chezum, Terri Hamran, Thomas Beck, May May Ali, and Doug and Mimi MacGlashan staff the booth on Friday and/or Saturday. At the close of the expo, we all repaired to Taix’s Restaurant on Sunset just a mile away for our annual Carbo-load dinner.

This year’s dinner was a very special occasion, and due to the wonderful efforts of Justine Lassoff, came off without a hitch.  Edna, Carol and I are so appreciative of Justine’s quiet competence. She just gets things done – no drama, no help needed!  There were more than one hundred team members in attendance, and the food, the conversations, and even the speeches were excellent. Chris Pearsall gave a heartfelt explanation of Solvay’s participation, and Dr. Indu Subramanian explained how UCLA is using its Team Parkinson grant money to test new avenues of research, especially searching for clues to help in the early detection of PD.  The dinner was sponsored by the Norm Reeves Honda Superstore. Their generosity over the years has insured that no one from Team P goes hungry the night before the marathon.  Thanks to Lee and Rose Stacy, and Dave Connant for the vital support they provide the team.
Since I (your faithful narrator) have been asked to tell this story, I am going to take the liberty of suggesting you may want to review the remarks I made at dinner.  Here’s a link to my presentation.

The evening wrapped up with Carol Walton, that boundless source of energy and direction for Team Parkinson, announcing the success of our fundraising efforts, and my lovely wife Edna thanking all those who have made the Team so successful.  Edna did a great job of holding the emotional level to something bearable, in spite of the tremendous stress and pain we were feeling due to the sudden, unexpected death of a dear friend, Elaine Everson.  Elaine and her husband John are our children’s godparents.  I don’t know how Edna held it together, but she did it.

At the close of dinner, Doug MacGlashan, Thomas Beck and I headed off to the Wilshire Grand so we could be close to the stadium for the start of the marathon, while Edna, Matthew, Pam, Jennifer, Carol and others headed off to Santa Monica to prepare for the cheering station at mile 25.

I have said before that the whole concept of the LA marathon weekend had been remade in a new image; well, I, on the other hand, have aged without the benefit of being made new again. While the LA Marathon turned 25, I turned 65, and of the 25,000 runners in the race this year, fewer than 350 are men over 65. I think there’s a reason for that. It’s not the race that gets harder, it’s the training. To maintain that high level of fitness year after year, without backing off, is a real challenge. I have been fortunate to complete 13 of the last 14 editions of this race, missing just one with back spasms. But there are an elite group of runners who have managed it far longer than I.  These are the 237 individuals they call Legacy Runners. They have survived foul weather, extreme heat, injury and illness to finish the full 26.2 miles for 24 previous years in a row. Among these Legacy Runners there are now three who share an additional challenge with me: Parkinson’s disease.  This year’s race also included a newcomer with Parkinson’s, Shelby Diller, so Team Parkinson matched its previous high of 5 Parkies trying to go the distance. Fortunately, we all finished.

Tak Nikaido, Gary Miller, and Willard Krick are all Legacy runners who have been diagnosed with PD. Tak is the youngest and most recently diagnosed.  He’s 66 and finished his 25th LA in 7:28:57.  Gary is 68 and finished his race in 6:33:38. Willard is 72 and finished in 7:37:31. Willard had expected to beat last year’s time of 6:30, but couldn’t because he was suffering from an undiagnosed atrial fibrillation. The condition was discovered after the race. Thankfully, it’s treatable. These runners are truly an inspiration for me. I can hardly imagine going another ten years without a miss, but maybe I can borrow some of their courage and determination… it’s worth a try.

My race was about as confused as it could get.  I was struggling both physically and mentally. I knew I couldn’t stay comfortably with Doug or Thomas, because they were both in great shape.  Doug, my wonderful training partner and very loyal friend would have gladly sacrificed his own race to stay with me, but I needed some time to myself. Reluctantly, he pulled away and ran a very good race in 4:41:24. Congratulations, Doug, and thanks for understanding.  It was very difficult to focus on the race for several reasons, but primary among them was the recent death of my dear friend Elaine. The anger and grief I had been setting aside all week as I got ready for the marathon came crashing in on me somewhere around mile 6 or 7. It was like I’d literally run into a wall. I just broke down and cried while I ran.  I'm sure there were some very curious runners around me, but I don't remember seeing them, or even seeing the course for several miles. I remember climbing a hill to the Disney Center concert hall and making a turn onto Hollywood Boulevard…and I remember passing by Barnsdall Park and the Hollyhock House where Edna and I got married. John and Elaine Everson had been a big part of that day 37 years ago. It was about that point in the race that I completely lost it.  I do remember calling Edna and telling her I was going to walk a while, but I don’t remember anything else for the next several miles. Sometime well after the halfway point in the race, I pulled myself back together and decided to finish what I started. 

Fortunately around the 18-mile marker, I met up with the two most incredible doctors in the world, Dr. Mike Jakowec, and his wife Dr. Giselle Petzinger, who are PD researchers at USC and also run for Team Parkinson. They had been cruising along comfortably and stopped for a short potty break when I caught them. I suppose it was obvious that I wasn’t doing well, but they wouldn't let me fail, or fall too far behind.  They sacrificed their own race times to make sure I finished.   When I told them they should leave me and run their own race, they said, "No, we are a TEAM. We finish together."   God love them.
So, with the help of my teammates, I completed my 23rd marathon in 5 hours, 39 minutes, and 57 seconds. Not quite my personal worst, but close!  I am very tired, very sore, and very proud of my teammates and, frankly, anyone else who finished the LA Marathon.  I’m sure that eventually I’ll come to think of it as a wonderful experience.


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