Los Angeles, Ca. — Three American men have taken home the Asics Los Angeles Marathon title in its 28 years, Rick Sayre in the inaugural 1986, Mark Plaatjes in 1991, and rabbit-going-the-distance Paul Pilkington in 1994. And while we already know that an American man will win in L.A. in 2016, that title will go to the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials champion, an event recently awarded to the City of Angels. No, like every other race in the world, it seems, the Asics Los Angeles Marathon has starred a primarily Kenyan cast, as their men have taken home 14 of the last 15 L.A. stagings. But this year, though there is another well-matched gathering of East Africans on hand, Kenyan and Ethiopian, an American man is actually among the nominees for the L.A. Marathon podium. Which step on that podium? That, my friends, is why they actually run the race, to answer just that sort of question.
“Oh, yeah, I feel ready,” said Alamosa, Colorado’s Aaron Braun as he sat in the Presidential Suite of the glamorous Biltmore Hotel in downtown L.A., which doubles this week as the marathon’s invited athlete suite. “You never know what can happen, but I definitely feel super fit and really ready.”
Hearing such talk from a runner of any nationality is disorienting. We generally don’t hear such potent positivity from anyone in this sport of rampant over-achievers, but timid under-staters, much less from an American making his marathon debut. But 26 year-old Aaron Braun has thought through this effort, and when you are ready, you are ready, even though L.A. wasn’t his first choice for a maiden voyage over the long distance.
“Originally after I didn’t make the World Championship team going to Moscow in 2013 (he finished fifth in the 10,000m at the nationals), I had New York City in mind. But I fell on a mountain run in Denver, and banged up my knee and didn’t want to go into my debut marathon with any questions.”
Instead Aaron ran, and won, the inaugural .US 12k National Road Championship in Alexandria, Virginia, then took second place at the Manchester, Ct. Thanksgiving Day race, which he had won the year before.
“But I want my future to be in the marathon, so I decided to run a spring race. But I’ve travelled overseas a couple of times, and didn’t want to deal with the different foods and time zone changes. I wanted to take as much mystery as possible, besides the race, out of the mix.”
That left Los Angeles and Boston as his primary choices.
“I know from previous races that if I am near the front for the majority of a race, it is easier for me to keep a positive mind set. And in L.A. I thought it would be easier to do that than in 2:04, 2:05 Boston. I feel I can be in the lead pack here, hopefully for the whole race. I wanted a positive experience, so I wanted to start a little smaller. The 2016 Trials also played into the decision.”
In 1980 eventual Chicago and Boston Marathon champion Greg Meyer debuted at the Detroit Free Press Marathon, winning in 2:13:07. The idea was to try on the distance without the encumbrance of top competition. Eight years later 10K road world record holder Mark Nenow made his debut in New York City, taking a large appearance fee, and running against a strong international field. After finishing eighth in 2:14:21 Mark famously said, “I never used to have any respect for a 2:14 marathoner, now I am one.” Point being, Greg started out low and went high. Mark started high and never finished another marathon.
Not that Braun won’t have competition this Sunday in L.A., defending champion Erick Mose (2:09:44) and 2013 runner-up Julius Keter (2:10:31) have both returned fron, and will be joined by a healthy contingent of other like PR’d gentleman. But there isn’t any obvious outliers in the field, other than Braun’s fellow debutants Tujuba Megersa and Dawit Wolde of Ethiopia, both of whom have shown great shorter distance speed, and one-time marathoner Lani Rutto of Kenya (2:10:01, Frankfurt 2013), who has shown consistency and strength on the U.S. road scene the last several years.
“This race will be a simulator for the (2016) Trials,” thinks Braun, a 2010 Adams State grad who was a 16-time All-American while in Alamosa. “It’s a bunch of 2:09, 2:10 guys, and it’s who can hang on longer.”
After finishing second at the January 19th Aramco Houston Half Marathon in a PR 1:01:38, Braun strung together a series of 130 – 135 mile training weeks, capped by a 16 X 400m speed workout the final week in February during which he averaged 65 – 61 seconds per 400 with a 200m jog between. But this level of training also meant he had to disappoint his young daughter Makenzie (b. Oct. 2011) on occasion.
“I don’t think training wise I could have done anything more,” Aaron concluded. “I’m itching to go, though my daughter doesn’t always understand. She just wants to play, play, play. I try to do as much as I can, but it’s tough when you’re trying to stay off your feet as much as possible.
As always with debuting marathoners, the question is one of preparation and then performing on the bigger stage. It’s a fine line between getting it just-right and taking it too far, and Aaron tested those limits getting ready for L.A.
“I nearly crossed the line three or four weeks ago. I couldn’t finish one workout and was crashing emotionally. But I didn’t know how I should feel, and it freaked me out a little. But I spoke with my coach (Adams State’s Damon Martin), who has a great relationship with Coach (Joe) Vigil. And he said Coach Vigil had gone through the same thing with Deena (Kastor) before her debut. But I know I’m ready, because I’m looking forward to the race itself, not to the break after.”
With seasoned veterans Ryan Hall and Abdi Abdirahman joining Meb Keflezighi and Jason Hartman in Boston, there will be plenty for American fans to root for April 21st. Here in Los Angeles one of the next generation of American distance men who came of age inspired by that quartet (and Dathan Ritzenhein, who has pulled out of Boston with an injury) will attempt to make his mark and rally a new fan base as one and all point toward 2016 in the City of Angels.