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May 18, 2009

Where Everbody Knew My Name

A couple of administrative notes before today's post ...

1) Over the past couple of weeks I've had some interesting discussions with a rep from the Wilderness Running Company, a new online vendor for trail running and outdoor gear. They're just getting off the ground, and they're dedicated to selling quality gear and building a loyal following one satisfied runner at a time.

They're also providing a very generous offer to readers of my blog, as indicated in the sidebar banner at left. Shop around their website for a bit, then enter coupon code R&R10 for a 10% discount on whatever you decide to buy. They seem like good people, so I'd like to help get their business rolling.

2) This one's completely random ... but I've spent the better part of the past 72 hours listening to the long-awaited new Green Day album 21st Century Breakdown. Musically, it's a remarkable effort; with a few exceptions, the songs don't grab you by the throat like old-school Green Day used to, but after a few listens they'll have you tapping your toes and pumping your fist and jamming on your air guitar just like the old days ... or maybe that's just me.

If you liked American Idiot, definitely give this album a listen - it's a very worthy sequel from three guys who have, to everyone's surprise (including their own), become the elder statesmen of punk rock. To pique your interest a bit, I've embedded the title song after this post. Speaking of which ...

*
This Monday is the 24th running of the Los Angeles Marathon, an event that will always occupy a special place in my heart.

Many years ago, this was the race that inspired me to become a runner. I eventually ran the LA Marathon several times, sometimes coming away with an enormous feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction, and other times an unbearable sense of frustration and regret – which, now that I think of it, is a great summary of my experience with the city on the whole.

It was also the inspiration for one of my first articles that ever gained traction outside the little circle of acquaintances who normally read my writing. Shortly after I wrote some observations on the (brand new, at the time) trend of putting names on bib numbers, I was contacted by the LA Marathon, who said they loved the article and asked if they could use it for marketing the following year’s race.

Later that year, I found a paragraph of this article printed on the official entry brochure for the 2004 Los Angeles Marathon. Knowing that I had made a tangible (if small) contribution to my favorite race, and also knowing that about 20,000 of these brochures would be printed and distributed all over the world, I felt like I had reached the pinnacle of my writing career. (It may still be that way; the point is certainly debatable.)

My days in Los Angeles are behind me, and with my athletic exploits venturing away from the marathon, chances are pretty good that I’ll never take part in the LA Marathon again - so this article also has a bit of sentimental meaning to me as a reminder of days gone by. In light of that, it’s kind of surprising that I’ve never posted it here until today.

**

Where Everybody Knows My Name

The Los Angeles Marathon likes to be innovative. They were the first West Coast marathon to use the now-ubiquitous space blankets we see after every race. They were also the first major marathon to use chip timing for more accurate results, which render bib numbers unnecessary except for their nostalgic appeal.

This year the marathon capitalized on that needlessness by attempting to start another new trend in racing - placing the participant’s name on their bib, in addition to a traditional race number. Anyone who pre-registered for the race by a set deadline had this new feature automatically provided for him or her.

At first glance, I figured this was some kind of corny gimmick, in a city that is known for creating a lot of them – like the marathon equivalent of Joe Millionaire. The idea also made me a bit apprehensive in a Big Brother sort of way; at most races, I tend to be a quiet, analytical observer, taking in the scene around me, but keeping to myself and enjoying the experience is a somewhat introspective manner. Even though I’m sharing the day with thousands of people, I generally prefer to be anonymous.

On race morning in Los Angeles, I quickly found out that things would be different.

It began as I stood in silence in the parking garage elevator, staring down at my feet, and suddenly heard a cheerful voice say “Well, are you ready, Donald?” It took me a second to wonder how this complete stranger knew my name, and then I remembered. So I told Hiroshi that I felt OK, wished him luck, and resigned myself to commencing a weird day.

A few other people greeted me by name, and I reciprocated. In a strange way, I felt like I didn’t have a choice; I kept having flashbacks to the Seinfeld episode where people posted their names and photos by the elevator, became uncomfortably friendly with each other, then turned resentful and angry with anyone who didn’t follow the new code of openness and camaraderie. The last thing I needed was to irritate an anxious mob of runners.

As the race unfolded, I began to suspend my early judgment of having my name on my bib, and the gimmick became more of a curiosity to me. Part of the intrigue was wondering what name the spectators would yell; although I signed up for the race under my proper name, many folks shortened it like we were longtime friends. Others tried to cover their bases by yelling multiple versions like “Go Donald! All right Donny! Go Don! Go D!”

My name also changed depending on what area of town we were in. Most of the Mexican spectators called me “Donaldo”, and periodically I heard the incessant LA Marathon cheer of Si, se puede! replaced by Andale, Donaldo! In Koreatown the locals got tripped up by that pesky l/r thing, and my name often came out as “Do-nard” - but they said it with such enthusiasm that it still felt good to hear.

Complete strangers expressed a sometimes-frightening level of good spirit towards me. Somewhere on Exposition Blvd, an enormous woman with a booming voice stood on the street corner and shouted “WHOOOOO! Yeaaah, Donny baby! You looking GOOD to me! I’d like to eat you up!” I picked up my pace around that particular turn, more out of nervousness than inspiration, but it did help move me down the road.

At each aid station it seemed as if the volunteers had been waiting just for me to arrive. They handed out cups and said things like “Here you go, Donald!” - and as I thanked them for the cup, I heard “You’re welcome, Donald!” in reply. The thought crossed my mind that maybe next year the volunteers could wear name bibs, too. That way, runners could call out “I want YOUR cup, Eddie!” or, “Nice handoff, Maria!” Friendships could be forged in the passing of Gatorade cups. I’ve certainly met people in stranger ways.

I became entertained by hearing my name in ways that I never had before. On one corner, a punk-rock band hammered out some rapid-fire one-chord song, with the singer growling “run, run, run, run” into the microphone, interspersed with people’s names he saw, including mine. The Crenshaw High cheerleaders put my name into a cheer while they were jumping and kicking on the sidewalk. Late in the race, I passed a Spanish-radio broadcaster’s booth, and I think I heard my name mentioned by the commentator. Unfortunately, it was in the same sentence as the words despacio (slow) and lucha (struggle) - but hey, sometimes it feels good just to be noticed.

By the time the race was over, I had changed my mind about the whole name-wearing thing. There aren’t many ways to make a race of over 20,000 people feel intimate and personal, but this is certainly one of them. It certainly made the race more memorable – almost entirely for the better.

At this point, there’s no telling if the L.A. experiment will last. [2009 postscript: clearly, it has]. Now that the novelty is faded, I’m sure plenty of people will take advantage of the system to create trash-talk names a la the XFL, or try to sneak dirty names past the race censors like they do with license plates at the DMV. There’s no shortage of people willing to ruin a good idea. Then again, this may turn out to be the wave of the future.

I’m sure that in most of my future races I’ll go back to the same reticent, inconspicuous person I usually am. But the next time I enter the L.A. Marathon, I’ll know that all the course is a stage, and everyone is a player. I’ll gladly reprise my role as Donald the Runner, and revel in my (approximately) three hours of fame.

**
Green Day, "21st Century Breakdown" (click to play):

7 comments:

Makita 5/19/09, 8:02 AM  

Portland & Eugene put names on bibs too - I love that spectators call out my name... it gave me a little boost. :D

Gretchen 5/19/09, 8:59 AM  

I'll never forget running Boston in '96 and writing my name on my shirt in big, black marker. Since there weren't names on bibs back then, no one else got the celebrity treatment that my friend Charlie and I did that day. We felt like rock stars.

Interesting about Wilderness Running--I too was contacted by them. They do seem pretty cool.

Also, I just used Rolling Stone's review of 21st Century Breakdown to help teach my sophomores how to write a review. I think they (RS) agreed with your assessment. It's definitely on my "to buy" list.

Jo Lynn 5/19/09, 10:21 AM  

Superstar Status! Not a bad thing. ;)

Thanks for the info on Wilderness Running. I will check them out but I bet it'll be hard to beat my employee discount I get at REI.

Deene 5/19/09, 11:44 AM  

personalized bibs sound great at marathon events! thanks for sharing the discount link.

mweston 5/19/09, 1:10 PM  

This reminds me of what Disneyland was doing a few years back (and may still be doing). On your birthday you can put on a button with your name, and then *every* employee wishes you a Happy Birthday. It sounds stupid, but it does eventually feel good, much like it sounds the named bibs did for you.

sara 5/19/09, 6:33 PM  

for my second marathon, i wrote my name on my shirt. my friend chastised me, saying i would get tired of random people yelling out my name. as it turned out, the two of us ran 19 miles together during the race, and around mile 18 he told me he was bummed he didn't have his name on his shirt since everybody was calling out MY name.

i don't normally like a lot of attention, but i think it really helps out at a marathon. thanks for sharing this story! :)

Juls 5/21/09, 6:34 AM  

I always liked that Seinfeld episode...
I love the idea of having my name on my bib. One year I ran CIM with my name marked down my leg. It was a pain to get off. Do they give you the option to put a nickname like "Juls" instead of "Julie"?

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