When it comes to great U.S. cities, Los Angeles ranks among the very top in terms of size, image and desirability as a vacation destination. When it comes to great U.S. marathons, however, the Los Angeles Marathon hasn’t really made the list in quite a while. With a new director, new title sponsor and ambitious plans, the race is poised to take its rightful place as one of the world’s great big-city marathons.
That’s been one of the prime objectives of Tracey Russell, who took over as CEO of the marathon in 2013 after six years leading the Atlanta Track Club. The 2016 race, held on Feb. 14, had about 21,000 finishers, a total similar to last year when the race was run in mid-March.
“Los Angeles as a city has set tourism records for three years in a row, and for us, to capitalize on building a really strong southern California race into being seen nationally and globally as a must-run marathon is a priority,” Russell says.
One way to do that is simply giving people good reasons to come experience the city for themselves.
“We’re getting more people here, capitalizing on the vibrancy of Los Angeles,” Russell says.
PHOTOS: 2016 Los Angeles Marathon
To that end, the race hosted the U.S. marathon championships in 2015, and in 2016, it staged the U.S. Olympic Trials downtown on Feb. 13, the day before the city-wide Los Angeles Marathon that sent runners from Dodger Stadium to Santa Monica with a finish line a stone’s throw from the Pacific Ocean.
The marathon also figures to gain some attention and momentum from the city’s bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics.
The race landed a new title sponsor Skechers Performance in 2015, which is based in Los Angeles and growing its own reputation as a brand for serious runners. Russell is looking forward to how Skechers, the No. 2 brand in all athletic footwear sales in the U.S., can leverage its national and global presence to help build awareness of the marathon. Skechers is using its 1,200 retail outlets around the world to spread its performance running vibe through window displays, product marketing and in-store visuals of the marathon and sponsored athletes Meb Keflezighi and Kara Goucher.
“Los Angeles has a great story, and we want to be able to tell that,” says Rick Higgins, senior vice president of merchandising and marketing at Skechers Performance. “It really makes sense to partner with them as they are refreshing their base, and we also have this great message, now connecting with consumers like we never have in the past.”
That message got a boost during the race weekend this year, with Skechers Performance-wearing athletes taking second (Keflezighi) and fourth (Goucher) in the Olympic Trials races on Saturday—15 of the top finishers wore Skechers in the men’s and women’s Trials races—and winning the Los Angeles Marathon on Sunday (Weldon Kirui).
Currently, only five percent of the L.A. field is international, one of the areas of potential growth that excites Russell. “Los Angeles is one of the only remaining huge marathons that has so much ‘blue sky’ potential to further develop and build,” Russell says.
Before it grows so much that you can’t get in, here are 10 reasons you should consider running in Hollywood in winter.
1. Now Dependable
The youngest of the big-city marathons, LA debuted in 1986 (9 years after Chicago, 16 years after New York, and 90 years after Boston). And the race has had growing pains: the ownership changed several times, the course has seen at least five different routes, one year the date was even changed to May. But runners can now count on the experience of Russell, who successfully directed the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta, the world’s largest 10K with 60,000 participants. Plus, you can plan it being held mid-winter and the current course has been in place since 2010 with no plans for changing it.
2. Start in Dodger Stadium
About that course. The first thing you experience is a unique start venue: Dodger Stadium. Dave McGillivray, race director extraordinaire of the Boston marathon and countless other events around the country, ran this year’s Los Angeles Marathon and said after the race, “I’m always thinking that there’s got to be a better way than having runners have to camp on the ground at the start of a race. Could we bring in benches or something? And then I get to this start, and here’s this whole stadium with seating for everyone and it is wide open, you can walk right in. It is brilliant.”
3. Finish at the Beach
Twenty-six miles later, you finish one block from the beach with the famed Santa Monica Pier to your right. Arlene Fichman, a “legacy runner” who has completed all 31 editions of the marathon as well as run New York and Boston, considers this one of the best parts of the current course. “After an overview of the city, you get this beautiful stretch along the Pacific for the last mile,” she says.
4. In Between: This is Tinsel Town
Hollywood Blvd., Rodeo Drive, Santa Monica Blvd.—every street you’re running on is in a movie or a song. Few cities have so many cultural references—they come as a surprise and pile up on each other as you run through the famed locales. The miles go by quickly when the song in your head drifts from “Pretty Woman” to “Sunset Boulevard” to “All I wanna do is have some fun, until the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard.”
5. Traffic-Free and Street Level
No one would ever call L.A. a pedestrian-friendly city: Too spread out, too many cars and highways. You spend much of the time during most visits sitting in six lanes of traffic looking out the window of a taxi or rental car. This initially makes the idea of a marathon here feel incongruous, but once on the course it becomes clear that you’ve been given a unique opportunity to experience the city from street level, free of traffic. You notice the variety of homes and local restaurants, feel the vibe of each neighborhood and how they fit together. You won’t get another chance like this 364 days of the year. “It’s a great way to see the city, at six to seven miles an hour,” says marathon legacy runner George Good. “You see the city with different eyes than behind a wheel.”
6. It’s All Downhill
That’s not exactly true: there are a few ups at mile four and five and a slight grade at mile 20, but the overall course goes downhill, finishing some 400 feet lower than the start. Big drops come in the first two miles, during mile 14 and, gratefully, from mile 23 to the finish. Oh, and it finishes at sea level.
7. Mid-Winter Sunshine
On Feb. 14, 2016, the high temperature in New York City was 15 degrees Fahrenheit, in Chicago, 19. In Los Angeles, it reached 79, with a low of 48. ’Nuff said. Granted, that can be more warmth than you want for a marathon, but the race counters it by starting soon after dawn at 6:55 a.m., and the temps tend to drop as you approach the ocean later in the race. It never got nearly as steamy during the race on Sunday as it did during the televised Olympic Trials mid-day on Saturday.
8. Race-Week Registration
Unlike other big-city marathons, where you have to register months in advance and still often are awaiting lottery results, you can get into L.A. almost up to the start. In 2016, you could register online until Wednesday, Feb. 10, and at the expo until Saturday—the day before the race. (Granted, that luxury could go away as the race grows.)
9. The Students
For nearly all of the marathon’s history, teachers in L.A. have helped train at-risk young runners from the city to run in the marathon. Now, as part of the city-wide program, Students Run LA, they arrive 3,000-strong on race day in matching uniforms and infuse the race with youthful energy and passion. The organization reports that more than 95 percent of them finish the marathon (and, an amazing side effect, more than 95 percent of the seniors who run the marathon finish high school and plan to attend college.) At the race, they are everywhere you look—joking among themselves, clearly ready for this challenge and unabashedly proud of their accomplishment. It not only makes you feel young to be running among them but proud to be part of a sport that can inspire so much confidence and excellence.
10. The Block Party
“Boston has history, New York the 59th Street Bridge and the roar of 1st Avenue,” Good says. “What I enjoy most in L.A. are the people along the way, particularly the kids.” Fishman agrees. “You can think of Boston like the World Series of running,” she says. “L.A. is a lot more of a people’s race. It’s like a big block party. You get a really good feeling of the whole city coming together.” McGillivray raved about the spontaneous support from the neighborhoods along the way. “You had everything offered—water, fruit, candy—as good as I’ve ever seen,” he said.
Few cities in the world could create a nearly linear 26.2 mile course and have every mile be decidedly urban, passing through the heart of diverse neighborhood after neighborhood. Each one embraces being part of the event and provides unique support, from Japanese drummers to Latin dance teams to Beverly Hills cheerleaders. You come away with an understanding that people actually live here and work to make it home, a home that welcomed you into it on this day.