Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sun, 28 Dec 2003 14:05:12 -0500

Old Western


(rerun from December 1997 RC)

It's no Boston, but what is? The next-longest-running U.S. marathon isn't in the same league as the leader -- in age, size, wealth or fame.

So the 50th running of the Western Hemisphere Marathon needs no qualifying times to limit entries. No one is throwing a party to honor past winners.

No one is paying anyone to appear or to win. No one is writing a book to mark the occasion.

Boston didn't need me to write a birthday greeting when it turned 100. Everyone already knew. But Western Hemisphere does need to be remembered at 50.

Technically it's the third-oldest marathon in the country. Yonkers began in 1935 but has had several interruptions, while the race in Culver City, California, has continued without pause since 1948. This is the longest streak of annual U.S. marathons, as even Boston took one year off.

A few hundred runners now compete in Culver City, running past the movie lots and out to the coast where jets from LAX take off overhead. About this same number ran here in 1967, the first of my three Westerns in as many years.

The race was already 20 years old then, the longest-lasting marathon in the west. It had already hosted an Olympic Trial, in 1964.

Billy Mills ran his first race longer than nine miles in that Trial. "I had no idea how to run a marathon," he says now, "so I asked experienced marathoner Hal Higdon what I should do. He said, 'You damn sprinters! Stay with me and I'll tell you when to quit.' Later I passed Hal at around 20 miles." Mills made the marathon team for the Games where he became better known for his 10,000-meter running.

Men ran as fast as 2:15:21 on this course (Bill Scobey, 1971). Women set three world records in four years (Cheryl Bridges, 2:49:40 in 1971; Miki Gorman, 2:46:36 in 1973, and Jacqueline Hansen, 2:43:55 in 1974).

"The Western Hemisphere Marathon was ahead of its time," says Hansen. It welcomed women in the early 1960s, a decade before full racing privileges were granted across the country. Fittingly the first Olympic Marathon for women touched parts of the Culver City course in 1984.

Western Hemisphere no longer attracts runners capable of breaking course records, let alone American or World marks. It can't compete for entrants with the other big regional marathons of the season, in Sacramento, San Diego and Las Vegas.

Western Hemisphere hasn't kept up with the trends of growth and wealth in the sport. But it has kept going. Its strength is its endurance.

"It's really a people's marathon," says Syd Kronenthal, a founder of the race. "We never got into the hype. When everyone else was turning toward marathons as exhibitions, we stayed focused on the marathon as a day for running."

At its core marathon running isn't about big crowds, wide media coverage, record times or hefty prize purses. Marathoning is about enduring and surviving.

No race stands as a better symbol of this sport than the Western Hemisphere Marathon. It endured for 25 years before anyone talked about a "running boom" and there wasn't another big marathon on the West Coast. And it has continued another 25 years in the face of increasing competition in the area.

No other marathon in the United States has gone through its first 50 years without interruption. Not even Boston.

UPDATE. Six years after this column ran, the Western Hemisphere Marathon may have reached its finish line. The event scheduled for December 2003 was canceled. It may reappear someday, but its perfect record of annual runnings has ended at 55.


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