One Down, Two To Go! Reflections on the LA Marathon by Ian Thomson

An additional view of the 2011 LA Marathon:

I first heard about Ian Thomson’s ambitious plan through an email last November from his daughter Rachael. She said her father planned to run the 2011 LA, London and Edinburgh marathons in three consecutive months to raise money for the Parkinson’ Disease Society of the UK. She had purchased a copy of my book, Living Well, Running Hard, to give him as a Christmas present and wanted to know if I would also be running the 2011 LA Marathon. I promised her I would be running, and suggested that, since her dad was planning to run it anyway, he could join Team Parkinson for the event and attend our pre-race dinner.  In February, Ian wrote back to say he loved the book, and would be pleased to join us for dinner and the race.  He’s running and raising money to honour his mother who has had PD for several years.

Here’s his story of his LA experience:

John Ball

One Down, Two To Go! Reflections on the LA Marathon

Well, the first leg of the “3 Marathons in 3 Months” challenge in support of Parkinson’s Disease is over. A lot of people have asked how it went, and a lot of people have been so generous in their sponsorship that it would be ungrateful not to provide a little commentary on the experience.

Los Angeles in March – California sunshine, stunning course, perfect conditions………..what could go wrong? Well, I never do things easily so the answer is plenty, unfortunately. More of that later……….

Firstly, a bit of preamble. Sue and I flew out to LA on the Thursday in preparation for the LA Marathon on the Sunday. My objective – 26.2 miles in around 5 hours and 15 minutes, Sue’s objective – 26 shops in the same time frame! We had booked to stay in Santa Monica which is a beautiful town right on the beach (and cunningly where the Marathon was to finish) but imagine my disappointment – and Sue’s giddy excitement – when we discovered that, not only was it a fantastic place to be but also had 32 blocks of shops!! Nooooooooooooo……….!!

Friday was a day for sightseeing and the weather was gorgeous. We did one of the obligatory big-city bus tours which was really good in that we saw all the sights but it also covered a lot of the Marathon route so I was able to get a good ‘sighter’ for the weekend.

Saturday – again weather beautiful – was devoted to exploring Santa Monica in the morning, Sue performing plastic surgery on me (she now has control of the credit card!) and then heading to Dodger Stadium after lunch. Dodger Stadium (home of the LA Dodgers baseball team) was not only the start of Sunday’s race but also the location of the Marathon Expo where I had to register, get my race number and get a change to visit the many stalls devoted to all things running. After getting the number, buying a hat (boy, was that to come in useful on race day) and filling our bags with the many freebies being given away – everything from energy gels (never, ever try them unless you absolutely have to, or enjoy eating wallpaper paste) to chocolate bars to strange plastic spectator fans (?) – we headed downtown to one of our highlights of the trip.

Through my fundraising for Parkinson’s UK – and some detective work by my eldest Daughter – I had been in touch with an organisation called Team Parkinson in California. Basically, they are the major Parkinson’s fundraisers and research co-ordinators for that part of the World. It is run by an absolutely inspirational couple called John and Edna Ball who are just a joy to be with. John was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s over 25 years ago but, instead of letting it ruin his life, it really started him on a new one. He started to run to help his condition, enjoyed and became good at it and so ran the early LA Marathons (in a very quick time) He has competed in this – and other – Marathons ever since (25 in total I believe) and formed Team Parkinson to heighten awareness and raise funds. Along with his Wife, Edna (who is his rock and is one of the nicest and funniest people you will ever meet) they have inspired many others to join the cause, have written a book, are active lobbyists in Washington DC for more PD research funding and have raised over $250,000 to date. Despite John showing the obvious physical signs of the disease, he still leads an astonishingly active life and is an absolute inspiration to me and everyone who has the good fortune to meet him.

Anyway, John and Edna host an annual pre-Marathon carbo-load dinner every year before the LA event. It is attended by over 150 people – runners and families and this year we were invited along as their guests. It is a fantastic event, everyone has a story to tell and we were made so welcome. There were many auspicious guests there, including a PD Specialist, Athletic coaches and Mohammed Ali’s Daughter, May May, (who is a huge supporter of Team Parkinson) but we were made to feel extremely special and made many new friends. A great night.

We had heard on the local news that there was the prospect of storms on Sunday (Marathon day) but know from experience that US weather forecasters have a propensity for exaggeration so didn’t think too much of it……………WRONG!!!

The race starts at 7:30 am so I needed to be on the shuttle bus to the start by 5:00 a.m. A 4:30 alarm call wasn’t welcome but, with a mixture of excitement and fear, I left Sue in the comfort of a warm bed and headed for the bus. It was dark and cold – and very breezy – but it was the middle of the night so was entitled to be. No sign of the promised rain at least so no problem……. I thought.

Marathon shuttle buses are always interesting places. The journey always starts very noisily with lots of chatter about the day ahead. I always end up looking at everyone else and noting how much fitter, leaner and more confident than me they all seem. However, as the bus gets nearer the start the noise levels drop dramatically as people realise just what is about to happen and the pain they are about to endure. Lots of goodwill messages and nervous laughter later and we all pile off the bus.

It was absolutely freezing!
The temperature was barely above zero, the wind was whipping around the stadium and, despite the DJ’s on the PA system trying hard to drum up enthusiasm, everyone was desperately trying to find shelter. There were stands giving out free bagels, bananas and coffee and, surprise surprise the coffee queue extended to several hundred people looking for some warmth. I decided that the nerves were starting to get the better of me and so headed for a portaloo. Now, anyone who has experienced a pre-Marathon portaloo knows that these are not pleasant places and generally have radioactive levels only fractionally below a Japanese nuclear power plant! However, I probably stayed in mine a little longer than is strictly safe just to keep out of the cold wind. Not my finest experience!

I don’t know whether the organisers had planned to open up the baseball stadium before the race and whether the conditions had an influence but they did open it up and provided some much needed shelter. Most of the runners huddled in the stadium and the atmosphere appreciably lifted. It became something of a carnival and complete strangers started to talk animatedly about the day to come. As race time approached the air was filled with the smell of deep heat and other concoctions as everyone began to strip down to their race gear and send the rest of their kit down to the finish on baggage lorries.

I had a really lucky break here. I was getting ready and talking to a couple of locals plus a German guy and a lady from Seattle who was using this as a training run for a 100-mile race (crazy!) when a janitor emerged from one of the storage areas and offered us LA Dodgers ‘ponchos’ – you know the thing, thin transparent cagoule-type arrangements that are often sold in theme parks or sports stadiums without roofs. He warned us that rain was on the way in and we would need them – whether he was supposed to give out the stock or not, I’m not sure but I’m mightily grateful that he did. My plan was to wear it while waiting for the start to keep a bit warmer and to see off any rain and then discard it after a couple of miles or so.

You need to be in the starting pens about 30 minutes before race time and so, after discarding my kit bag on the baggage van, I nervously got into the start area. I put myself somewhere near the back (might as well start as I mean to go on!) and noted that there were still people sprinting to the portaloos (which must have been absolutely rancid by now! Nice!). Typically I ended up standing near a Mexican guy wearing a Man Utd shirt – they get everywhere don’t they?). A local choir sang an absolutely stirring version of the USA National Anthem over the loudspeaker system – say what you like but the Americans have a lot more sense of national pride and patriotism than we do and it was actually quite moving. The wheelchair athletes set off, then the elite ladies and finally the elite men and the masses (I was the latter!). it’s always a strange experience as the gun goes off, there are loud cheers but then nobody moves! With 23,000 people to get through the start line, it’s a slow process but eventually we get going and about 15 minutes later hit the start line.

And as if by magic, that’s when the rain started! No problem, thinks I, it will only be a shower and it will keep everyone cool. No such luck. The rain started to get heavier, and heavier until it was bouncing knee high off the roads at times. I made the decision to keep the poncho on over my running vest until the rain eased (it stayed on for the full 26 miles!)

The course itself is the best big city marathon course I’ve run. Whereas London and New York really only hit the landmark spots every so often and have long areas of mainly residential roads, LA really tried to give us the best experience possible. You run through downtown, past the impressive Disney Concert Hall, down Sunset Boulevard, through Hollywood (including Graumans Chinese Theatre and the Kodak Theatre where the Oscars are held), Beverley Hills, Rodeo Drive and finish at Santa Monica Pier. A great route and surprisingly hilly I thought.

However, my overwhelming memory is the weather. The rain was incessant and the winds gusted to 45 mph. As everyone was so wet, the wind felt like ice and lots of people were really struggling. What surprised me was that, because the weather was so freakish, the drains and roads simply couldn’t cope with the amount of water. As a result there were times when the roads flooded and we were running through shin-deep (literally) torrents of cold rainwater – now in Lancashire you expect that but not in California (isn’t there a song called “it never rains in Southern California”? – can I sue under the trades descriptions act?)

Despite that, my race was going OK. I tried to be disciplined and keep to a pace to bring me in at around 5 hours and at half way I was swinging along nicely. At around 11 miles I had caught up with a pacing group who were following a pace-leader specifically included to run a 5 hour race (there are pace leaders for all times from 3:15 to 6:00 hours I believe). I latched onto the group, who were about 40 strong, and enjoyed their company and good spirits despite the worsening weather. Amazingly, as part of the group was a guy from Ohio who we had shared a taxi with to the Expo the previous day. Small world!

It seemed to be relatively comfortable running with this group – there were some fascinating people and stories shared – and through miles 11 to 18 it seemed to go quickly. However, from miles 18-19 I started to drop off the back and found the pace increasingly difficult to match. That’s when I hit the wall….and it really is just like hitting a brick wall. The bodies glycogen stores run low and you just lose all momentum and every step becomes a struggle. The final straw for me was ‘Purple Heart Hill’ at about 20 miles. It’s a long steady climb lasting well over a mile and, although in the scheme of normal life it would only be regarded as a steady incline, right then it felt like Everest!! To compound matters, the rainwater was coming down the slope like Niagara Falls and those who decided to avoid the shin deep water and jump onto the verges found themselves ankle deep in mud! Fun and games!

I lost the plot for a while here, started to walk up the hill and continued to feel sorry for myself for a while longer. It was only at the 22/23 mile area that I gave myself a bit of a “talking to” and started to run again. You are reminded at these times of why we do this, the fact that our pain is only temporary whilst the people who we fundraise for have it far harder and that, for me anyway, finishing is all that matters – time is irrelevant.

So, I managed to break into a gentle trot again and actually enjoyed the last 3 miles running down into Santa Monica. At this point I should mention the volunteers and spectators. At every point of the race people were out there cheering, waving banners and shouting our names (helpfully printed on our race numbers). They were soaked through but never wavered in their enthusiasm – absolutely fantastic. Similarly, volunteers were at every mile handing out water and energy drinks with equal enthusiasm. Brilliant!

Sue had arranged to meet some of the Team Parkinson supporters around 1 mile from the finish. They had planned a gazebo, balloons, even a small BBQ I believe but the weather put paid to all that. The gazebo blew away and they had to resort to sheltering in doorways until they saw a Team Parkinson runner whereupon they leapt out and gave the greatest cheers imaginable.

I had almost given up seeing them, and was concentrating so hard on reaching the finish, when I heard Sue’s voice above the rain (she is used to shouting at me and I’m used to listening so it wasn’t difficult!). Despite the fact that she was soaked through, she was a welcome, beautiful sight and, along with the other great people from Team Parkinson, it was a welcome boost for the finishing stretch. I have to confess here that seeing Sue, being tired and wet, thinking about my Mum (who has PD) and all the other fantastic people I had met made emotions wash over me and I had to fight back a few tears. The day had been tough, very tough but I was almost there and was quite overcome with emotion.

A few minutes later and that fantastic sight – the finish line!!

5 hours, 21 minutes and 28 seconds (finishing place 11790th) – a bit slower than I would have liked but I did it. Relief, joy, pride, exhaustion all in equal measure. The great thing about the Marathon is that it brings a great sense of community – everyone, no matter whether they are Kenyan and running it in 2 hours or brilliantly persevering to get over that line in 8 hours (as many incredibly did), we all do it for the same reason: because it’s there and gives a sense of accomplishment. We all get the same medal on the end of an orange ribbon which is far more than a piece of metal – it says “I was there, I pushed myself to the limit and I did some good for other people”. Money-can’t-buy stuff really……….

Anyway, before I get over-sentimental, after a ridiculous 2 mile walk to the baggage vans and back to get my gear, a 45 minute hot shower to thaw out and a huge burger and chips meal in the nearest restaurant we could find, I felt human again. The constant stream of ambulances racing past the restaurant and hotel were a worrying noise over the next few hours and we learned later that the injury and illness count was far higher than normal (see below) but, overall, a fantastic weekend, some great new friends and after:

26.2 miles
5 hours, 21 minutes, 28 seconds
6 inches of rain!
45 mph winds
200 people treated for hyperthermia
60 people hospitalised for hyperthermia!!
2 lost toenails

I can say “I did it”!!

Roll on London – it’s got to be easier than that…………………..hasn’t it?

Thank you for reading and for your support for Parkinson’s Disease Research


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