True North: Running Route Planning for Neurotics

illustration by Christine Gregory

My German friend Patrick wants to do the Los Angeles Marathon this year on the 21st of March. Unfortunately, the race has been rescheduled to a more vaccine-optimistic TBD date in the fall. They also changed the route, removing the final few miles through Santa Monica down San Vicente Boulevard to the beach.

But Patrick isn’t just German; He’s a German engineer. Therefore, he will be running the marathon on the “correct date” of March 21st, following the “correct route” all the way down to the Pacific Ocean.

He’s declared this run as his official 2021 Birthday Challenge–and he’s challenged me to join him. Honor dictates I accept.

But here’s the rub: I haven’t run more than nine miles in months, making preparation for the event a challenge unto itself. Saturday was to launch my training with a fourteen-mile run. A simple task, except for the pain and suffering part.

The Route Must Not Be Changed!

My fourteen-mile route never changes. It consists of leaving the house, heading south to the base of Palos Verdes at Rat Beach, then heading north along the coast to El Porto, then home. Same, comforting fourteen miles of discomfort every, single time—

Hold on. Something’s wrong here. Let me reread that… Yeah, just as I thought. How’d the word “comfort” get in there? This is supposed to be a challenge! There’s no room for comfort!

I decided to add a little spice to the mix. I changed my route to start by heading north and do the whole thing in reverse. This may not sound revolutionary to you, but for those of us who are, in the words of my therapist, “Aspergery,” flipping the script can be an obsessive-compulsive challenge.

What separates me from Patrick? His rigidity is cultural. I, on the other hand, am just kind of nuts.

Don’t get me wrong. Once I achieve a “runner’s high” or bury myself on the cycling pain cave, I’m all for improvisation to add miles and/or agony. But it’s only in these heightened states that my many neuroses curb themselves, allowing for that freedom. In the planning stages, one must adhere to the accepted structure that best fulfills the goal of the activity.

But OCD be damned! I was going north! Probably!

The Excuse Parade

I awoke Saturday morning the sound of rain. Not a gentle pitter-patter, but a full-on dump. Unhindered, I pulled on some shorts, shoes, and a Smartwool base layer purchased after a previous freezing rain debacle.

I sat at the kitchen table with a big bowl of muesli and stared out at the rain. The muesli is a new addition to my pre-exercise ritual. In the past, I preferred fasted-state training to better train my body to utilize its fat stores, but I listened to a Science of Ultra podcast recently with a really smart Scottish researcher named Dr. Ron Maughan who explained that you can train your gut to tolerate more food during intense exercise. That seemed like a useful adaptation. Also, I like cereal.

As I went outside to the Man Cave to retrieve some sports gels, the excuses began. It was definitely cold and my thin, wool shirt wasn’t getting in the way of that. The only sports gels I could find were peanut butter-based and I have a mild peanut intolerance. The calf muscle I’d pulled a couple weeks ago throbbed slightly when I was digging through the minifridge for gels. Also, I was old.

A Much Needed Coffee Break

Back in the house, Marilyne called from the bedroom, “Do you have time for coffee?” I was going to down a glass of Energize—the pre-workout supplement from the company I work for, Beachbody—but she’s just offered me another excuse. Gotta have a cup of coffee with the wife! It’d be rude not to.

As we sipped our Americanos, she looked out at the rain. “It’s really pouring out there,” she contemplated. “What’s your route?” I explained about the going north thing, in a typically neurotic fashion that didn’t faze her. We’ve been together for a while now.

“Maybe you could just run tomorrow?” she ventured. “It’s not supposed to rain Sunday.”

My jaw dropped in disbelief. This deviation from the schedule hadn’t occurred to me. Not even remotely. I mean, it made complete sense, but it wasn’t the plan. The plan was to run fourteen miles today.

“I, um, I guess I could.” I contemplated taking off my shoes and changing out of my running clothes. Could I use the same socks tomorrow? I mean, I’d only had these on for a few minutes, but still, they’d been exposed to my feet within the confines of my shoes. Hygiene demanded consideration. I’d never been in this situation before.

My empty bowl stared up at me, the remaining bits of soggy oat and flax reminiscent of the tea leaves that psychics read. My fortune told of a generous serving of carbs destined to go to waste. Plans had been made and partially executed, all for naught. My right leg twitched uncontrollably as I self-soothed by rocking gently back and forth.

This wasn’t the first neurotic meltdown that Marilyne had witnessed. She scrambled for something to say. “Or, you could go for a shorter run today and a longer one tomorrow. Instead of going north all the way to El Porto, just go south today to the Riviera Village and back. Six miles is still a good run!”

My leg stopped twitching. This solution made sense. It was not the plan, but it was plan-adjacent. I could cope with that.

“I can do that! I can go south!” I stood up and started to stretch out my legs. Marilyne sighed in relief.

The Actual Run

The rain had subsided by the time I headed out the front door. I trotted down my street towards PCH. The fifty-degree air felt good in my flowing, Covid-19-length hair. Despite earlier concerns, the Smartwool shirt worked liked a toasty charm. My legs embraced the repetitive pounding. I hit play on my earbuds. “Leave Home” by the Chemical Brothers filled my head. There are only two lines in the song, one of them being, “The brother’s gonna work it out.” Super apropos.

I didn’t wait for the light to cross PCH. Normally, I’m not one to cross on a red, but the road was empty and I was high with the knowledge that, In a couple of months, I’d be running the streets of Los Angeles on a Teutonically-blessed marathon for two.

I arrived at Broadway, which runs north/south, without even thinking about which way to turn.

I headed north.