This appeared in the March 8, 2008 edition of LAObserved.com.
On Marathon Sunday morning, I emerged as crabby as I usually do when something wakes me up at 4:30 AM. Even if it was my own alarm clock, reminding me that I had committed to meet a few of my thug cycle buddies down the street at 5:15, ready to hit the pavement in the annual LA Marathon Bike Tour.
I grew even crabbier when I discovered that, for most of said so-called buddies, “maybe” apparently meant “no.” Only one showed up, the indefatigable Barry Mason. Barry and his lovely wife Karen had bicycled across the entire United States last year. Karen would be running the marathon later that day for the tenth time. (Or, more precisely, Barry informed me, running the first block — then, with great determination, hiking the rest of the course.) And Barry and Karen together had hosted the annual holiday party for the venerable Los Angeles Wheelmen bicycle club, at the humble little art gallery they own in Hollywood.
(The gallery at the time was filled with the exquisite sketchings of various presidential candidates on the campaign trail created by their daughter Rachel. I was so impressed that I urged my wife, the radiant radio personality Kitty Felde, to create a feature story about the exhibit. It aired in February on KPCC, 89.3 FM, and you can still listen to it by going to www.kpcc.org, then clicking on the left on “News Staff,” then clicking on Kitty.)
Barry, it turned out, proved more than adequate as a cycling companion. As we cycled 5 miles east to get to USC, and then rode the 20+ mile course with 20,000+ fellow early risers, Barry regaled me with stories of his grandfather, who had worked as a bootlegger for Al Capone in Chicago in the 1920s, and his mother, who as a young beauty had served as a “moll” for one of Capone’s hotshot young getaway drivers in the 1930s — until one day he failed to get away.
After the ride, in the detox area outside the Coliseum, we bumped into the intrepid cycle activist Stephen Box, of www.illuminatela.com andwww.labike.org, where he regaled us with his vision of tax vouchers for personal bicycle investments, replacing high school driver education with bicycle proficiency requirements, nationalizing every automobile in the city … (Perhaps I exaggerate.)
After extracting ourselves from Stephen, Barry and I set out to catch a bit of the real marathon as spectators. I had forgotten to check on the starting times for the wheelchair athletes and the women’s race. However, Barry and I did know that the men’s race started at 8:15 sharp. And we knew that world-class marathon men run right about a 5 minute per mile pace for 26 miles. (I recalled the great efforts I exerted in high school to run a 5 minute per mile pace for 1 mile.) So we headed off on our bicycles to Venice Blvd, just east of Normandie, where — by the light of the rising sun — we had seen the “Mile 11” banner draped high across the street a couple of hours earlier.
Sure enough, almost exactly 55 minutes after the starting gun, here came the lead marathoners, almost all Kenyans, running right under the banner and right by us. (Actually, one local guy, Dmitry Safronov, had passed through about two minutes earlier. He had perhaps a six hundred meter lead on the field — a lead that the experienced world-class runners knew he would not be able to maintain. Safronov bravely held on until Mile 17, where he finally was caught and passed, eventually coming in at 11th place.)
Barry and I quickly decided that on this open stretch of a traffic-free Venice Blvd and then south onto Normandie, our best move was to follow alongside the lead pack. On our bicycles. And that’s what we did, watching for a good two miles these magnificent athletes with their seemingly effortless strides, expecting the police to shoo us away at any instant but giving the runners a wide enough berth that none bothered to do so. (Believe me, it’s a bit of work, at least for me, to ride as fast as these guys run.)
Just past the 13-mile marker and the halfway point in the race, we decided that was enough of that. We cycled a bit ahead of the pack, then pulled over, determined to give one last shout out to the marathon men of Kenya.
So imagine our surprise, when, barely a second after we had stopped and turned to cheer, one of the Kenyan runners abruptly stopped — and started walking directly toward us! All I could see initially was the number “3” on his bib — the third seed in the entire field of more than 20,000 runners.
“He’s mad at us for shadowing them and we’re in big trouble,” was my first thought. “He thinks we’re officials because we were shadowing them, and he needs help” was the next. “He assumes I’m a friendly sort because I have rabbit ears on top of my bicycle helmet, and he needs help” came soon after that.
Sure enough, he walked right over to me, put his hands on my shoulders, leaned on me for a moment while he struggled to catch his breath, and said, finally, “I need help.”
His name was Joseph Kahugu. He spoke Kukuyu, but only a tiny bit of English. After some back and forth, I figured out he was trying to tell me that his ankle was injured. He had run on it for 13 miles, but had decided he would injure it further if he continued. So he was dropping out, and he needed to get back to the finish line area.
Barry and I walked with Joseph over to a couple of police officers, and I explained the situation. They were very sympathetic and got on the horn immediately. Unfortunately, with so many streets blocked off, it would likely be at least 45 minutes until a shuttle car could make it over there.
So Barry and I spent the next 45 minutes watching the marathon in the company of a world-class marathoner. How good is Joseph Kahugu? The world record in the marathon is 2:04. No one in the Los Angeles Marathon has ever run faster than 2:09. Joseph Kahugu’s personal record in the marathon is 2:07. It’s quite possible he’ll make the Kenyan team for the Beijing Olympics this summer.
Doing my best to put things into very simple English, I tried to explain to Joseph the two things I like most about Marathon Day in Los Angeles.
First, if you go to a Laker game, you cheer for one team and against the other. (I’m a Clipper fan, so for me it’s usually the other.) But in the LA Marathon, for several hundred thousand people lining the streets, everybody cheers for everybody. Indeed, most everybody’s trying to help everybody — I saw one man sitting calmly in a lawn chair, coffee in one hand and garden hose in the other, spraying every overheated runner who came near.
Second, if you go to a Laker game, you don’t get to go one-on-one against Kobe Bryant. But in the LA Marathon, any jogger, be it Dmitry Safronov or Karen Mason, can toe the line against Joseph Kahugu, and say, “I’m gonna take a shot.”
Joseph seemed to get all of this, and soon he seemed to be really enjoying the enthusiasms of the crowd. And he did seem to preen a little bit when I started harassing everyone nearby, spectators and runners alike, declaring, “Hey — I got the Kobe Bryant of marathoning right here. Joseph Kahugu. #3 seed. One of the finest athletes in the world. 2:07 PR.”
Then I decided to teach Joseph how to cheer for the runners by name. Perhaps half the marathoners going by had elected to have their names printed on their bibs. That means as soon as spectators spot the name, they can holler out, “Way to go Jorge!” “Looking smooth Veronica!” “Run Jessica Run!”
Before long, Joseph Kahugu had hollered encouragement, by name, to at least a hundred LA marathoners, as they slogged toward finishing times nowhere close to 2:07. “Go Arno!” “Go Jasmine!” “Go Travis!”
This would rather be like if you were playing H-O-R-S-E in your driveway, alternating your shooting stroke between airballs and bricks, when suddenly Kobe Bryant shows up on the sidewalk, enthusiastically urging you on.
Just before the shuttle car finally arrived, Joseph turned to Barry and me, and said, haltingly, “I wish very much to thank you. Before today, I have run many times the marathon. But until today, I have never before watched the marathon.”
We told him it was our hope that he would come back to Los Angeles again, many times. Hopefully, to do both.