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We, the People

Words by Sarah Franklin
Photography by Andrew Castro

On March 20, the Los Angeles Marathon will celebrate its 37th year.
Through four decades it has become a mainstay in the LA running community, but it still aspires toward a brighter spotlight on the global running stage. 

The race traces its lineage to the 1984 Olympic marathon in Los Angeles, and its annual takeover of the city is looking increasingly relevant with the Games returning to LA in 2028. Although this year’s race will be somewhat subdued as LA County emerges from lingering COVID-19 protocols, it will nevertheless uphold the pomp, circumstance, and civic pride of the Olympic tradition from which it was born.

In 1948, the Western Hemisphere Marathon in Culver City thrust Los Angeles onto the American marathoning scene. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, it had more entrants than any other marathon in the country. That race’s decline in the early-1980s, plus the excitement generated by the 1984 Olympics, set the stage for Bill Burke, who was decidedly not a runner (but something of a political, business, and marketing savant), to take an odd approach in creating a new Los Angeles marathon experience. He told the Los Angeles Times that “This race is not for the runners. This race is for the people and the City of Los Angeles.” 

Two years after American Joan Benoit Samuelson became the first-ever women’s Olympic marathon gold medalist, under Burke’s city-centric tutelage, roughly 11,000 runners from 48 states and 28 countries took over the typically traffic-infused streets to christen the inaugural Los Angeles Marathon. This made it the country’s largest debut marathon. Such a large-scale race in Los Angeles was a rarity, and someone unknowingly drove a car onto the route, and, sandwiched between the first two runners, cut off race vehicles and obstructed the second-place runner’s path before being directed off the course. 

Since then, this 26.2-mile caper through Tinseltown has produced outcomes that even a Hollywood screenwriter couldn’t conjure. In 1994, the pacesetter won the race outright, much to the second-place finisher’s surprise. In 1997, the first-place female was disqualified after race officials determined she cut the course while desperately searching for a bathroom. In 2000, Marco Ortiz finished 11th overall but was subsequently disqualified for course cutting, then sought redemption the following year, finishing 18th only to be disqualified again…for the exact same transgression.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given those bizarre finishes and Burke’s original race ethos, top-level elite runners have never prioritized the LA Marathon. Toni Reavis, longtime marathon aficionado and television broadcaster who has broadcast every LA Marathon as well as numerous Boston and New York City Marathons, knows about world-class competition. In his estimation, “The LA Marathon never grew into a major marathon. It’s a major event, but a B-level marathon.”

This year, the LA Marathon will hype the elite competition by reinstating the Quincy Cass Associates Marathon Challenge, colloquially known as “the chase.” This promotion previously existed in various forms from 2004-2014, and awards a cash prize to the race’s first finisher. The elite women start approximately eighteen minutes before the elite men, thus engendering a potential finish line spectacle. Historically the payout reached $100,000, but this year’s award is $10,000. LA Marathon spokesperson Dan Cruz acknowledged, “It’s a small step, but it’s an important step forward as we look toward the Olympics in 2028.”

Despite several route changes over the years, the LA Marathon course has consistently showcased the city’s lively, diverse, and famous neighborhoods. Cruz notes that runners “get a tour of the unique enclaves that make up Los Angeles.” True to form for any big-city marathon, the tens of thousands of runners and hundreds of thousands of spectators generate a distinct atmosphere of solidarity and spirit. “LA is nineteen communities in search of a center,” Reavis says. “The marathon is a centering event.” After 37 years, Burke’s seemingly backward notion that the LA Marathon is for the city, not the runners, maintains some merit.

Cruz estimates that one-in-five LA Marathon runners is a first-time marathoner, noting that “LA is a bucket list town, it’s an experiential town.” Some of those first-timers are teenagers affiliated with Students Run LA, a grassroots organization that helps at-risk youth train for and complete the Los Angeles Marathon. “The best thing that the LA Marathon has ever done, and it’s the best thing in the sport worldwide, is Students Run LA,” Reavis observed. “If all the LA Marathon had was Students Run LA, it would be a remarkable event.” At the 2021 LA Marathon, DACA recipient and Students Run LA alum Jocelyn Rivas became the youngest person to complete 100 marathons. “The way that this program changes the lives of these young people is unparalleled in this industry,” Cruz says.

On the other end of the lifetime marathon spectrum are Legacy Runners, those who have run every LA Marathon since its inception. Generally speaking, most clubs want to increase membership; however, with every passing year this one becomes smaller, or, with any luck, stays the same. In 2020, 127 Legacy Runners toed the line, an astonishing showing for the race’s 35th year. Regarding this year’s crop of Legacy Runners, Cruz remarked, “For anyone to do anything 37 times…” before pausing in contemplative awe. “And these people come from all walks of life. They’re still there, they still care.”

The City of Los Angeles and its runners care deeply about the LA Marathon, an event that has galvanized the local running scene. As Cruz notes, “With the Olympics approaching, we know there will be more athletes who want to run LA.” Like so many people who flock to Los Angeles, the city’s marathon continues to bide its time, embracing relatively small but meaningful roles and building a community network while waiting to catch its big break.

What the Los Angeles Marathon lacks in running industry renown, it makes up for in camaraderie and community in a city on a constant quest for both. Reavis, who will once again broadcast this year’s race, says that “LA has great fans, great community support – it’s got everything.” Even through the lens that the LA Marathon is really for the city itself, a time-honored adage still applies: the runners are the celebrities. “Disneyland is right down the street,” Cruz says, “but there’s no happier place than the finish line of the Los Angeles Marathon.”