In April of 2010, author Tim Forbes embarked on a one-year “sports walkabout” that took him across the country to 100 sporting events involving 50 completely different sports. Why? Well, it’s complicated. His journey and ultimate discoveries about the true value of sports were published in the book “It’s Game Time Somewhere” (Bascom Hill Publishing, 2013).
Most of my time covering sporting events is spent solidly underground. I go incognito, posing as a simple-minded sports fan—a role for which it hasn’t been too difficult to get into character. 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, a Southern California training 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…well, need I go on?
At this point, the alert reader may be asking, “And how did a creaky-kneed non-runner come to make the acquaintaince of Steve Mackel?”
Well, metaphorically speaking, I had for some time been leaving the door open behind me when I went out to revel in one sports community after another. And ironically enough, a sports community walked right in and took up residence while I was out. See, The Bird is not one to sit around with time heavy on her hands, and she was getting a wee bit tired of seeing more of my tail lights heading out of town than of me. So she ran.
Please don’t be alarmed—she came back. What I mean is, The Bird took up running. But befitting her nature, semiregular jogging on the beach just to get the endorphins pumping wasn’t going to cut it. From day one, she focused her sights on marathons. And although she’s nuts, she’s not crazy. She knew she needed help. So it wasn’t long before she discovered her SOLE. Not “soul” but SOLE—otherwise known as Seeking Out Life Experiences.
Founded by running gurus Mackel and Gary Smith, SOLE Runners focuses a good deal of its energy on introducing beginners to both the physical and metaphysical benefits of long-distance running. Steve and Gary conduct step-by-step training programs designed to gradually prepare even the most novice of runners for conquering marathons and half-marathons, and the group training sessions that they conduct are the program’s centerpiece. 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. As you can imagine, “first-timers” in particular flock to SOLE Runners.
In addition to following the independent portion of her training program religiously, each Saturday for several months The Bird rose at 5:00 AM and made the 30-minute drive to join her SOLE-mates for a crack-of-dawn group run. She would effervescently arrive home shortly before noon with warm stories about the people she had run with that day.
Even if that had been the extent of it, her experience as a member of this sports community would have been well worth the expenditure of time and money. But it was merely the opening act.
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, the training clock had ticked down to GoTime.
And they were by no means alone.
On Marathon Sunday morning, it seemed as if the entire city of Long Beach was wide awake by 5:30 AM. As early as 4:30, the 710 freeway, the main artery leading down from L.A. was backed up for well over a mile. Even with the benefit of insider’s intelligence, I 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. But this was not for a lack of event organization. It was pure volume. The field of participants 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.
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 each athlete present in the Long Beach Marina had prior to the beginning of the marathon. And that spirit was further amplified on the small patch of Runners Club 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.
There were far more people running than could be accommodated by a single starting command, so runners went off in waves—eight of them by my count. The “assignment” of runners to waves was brilliant in its simplicity. When registering, people were asked to estimate how long it would take for them to run their event. Simple math then defined the break points, and it was up to the runners on race morning to join the wave number posted as being appropriate for their pace.
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 and intent on posting a time that would qualify them for the Boston Marathon.
The next several waves consisted of experienced marathoners who on this day were out simply to enjoy the event. Vocal and high-spirited, this crowd was worked expertly by the race announcers as they passed the time spent waiting.
The final two waves were made up heavily 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 everyone was an atmosphere thick with pride. As you might expect, it was easily visible on the faces of the runners. But it was their friends and loved ones 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 Boston—or simply cross the finish line upright.
Lined up three and four deep on sidewalks and overpasses, spectators strained to pick out the face of their favorite runner from the literally thousands that streamed by. When visual contact was made, both runner and onlooker glowed, buoyed by the unspoken bond.
And all of this, mind you, was at the beginning of the race!