Frank Vasquez glided one recent morning around a 2 1/2-mile circuit of asphalt, grass and dirt in early training for the Los Angeles Marathon.
His breathing was smooth and steady, although beads of sweat had gathered on his forehead. He and a partner kept moving at a steady clip, running about a 7-minute mile, passing others and never being passed.
Vasquez is a member of an elite group within an elite group--he is a marathon runner older than 50. The father of three and grandfather of two has run 14 marathons and hundreds of 5- and 10-kilometer races in the past four years.
A slender man at 5-foot-4 and 154 pounds, Vasquez works out before he goes to his job in the late mornings at a meat distribution depot in Santa Fe Springs. He has been divorced for 12 years and lives alone in a two-bedroom house in a small residential pocket of the industrial city of Commerce. Running has become his singular passion--the next workout, the next race, shaving seconds off his best time.
Hard to Explain
He smooths his white hair and searches for words to explain his addiction to the sport and tolerance for the pain. It is hard to explain, he concludes, just something he likes to do.
"Not trying to be macho or anything, but right after a marathon I'm hurting, sore all over, but I'm looking forward to the next one," Vasquez said. "I don't know why."
In his younger years, Vasquez was never a very serious athlete. He played a little baseball and football in high school but did not earn "letters or anything like that." Now, at 53, to miss a workout is to sin.
"It's like when you go to church every day and then you miss Mass," he said. "That's the way I feel about running."
Vasquez's living room is a showcase of trophies and medals. A stack of Runner's World magazines is in one corner. Vasquez said he became hooked on racing four years ago when a colleague at work invited him to run in a 10-kilometer race. He had run for exercise since his late 20s.
"It was hotter than hell and I almost quit," Vasquez said. The knowledge that his son was watching from the sidelines drove him to the finish, he said.
Vasquez raced again the following weekend and estimates that he has since run about 300 races, many of those in the Southeast area.
There have been a lot of first-, second- and third-place finishes for Vasquez within his age group--usually runners 50 to 59 years old. Most of the races are small, community affairs. He finished first in his age group in the 1987 Pico Rivera Turkey Trot 10-K, for example.
One of Vasquez' proudest accomplishments came last December, when he ran the San Diego International Marathon in 3 hours, 12 minutes and 28 seconds. It was his best marathon time ever and he finished ninth in his age group.
The time also qualified him to run in the Boston Marathon. Runners 50 to 59 years old must have run a marathon in at least 3 hours 20 minutes to qualify, according to a race pamphlet.
Experts say that from 10,000 to 13,000 people older than 50 finished marathons in the United States in 1988.
The American record for men 50 to 54 is 2:29.11, the time run by Norm Green of Wayne, Penn., in 1981 when he was 51, said Basil Honikman, spokesman for the National Center for Long Distance Running Records and Research in Miami.
Vasquez said he plans to run in the Boston race even if he has to borrow from his credit union to pay for the trip.
"It's a challenge because not just anyone can run it," Vasquez said. "To me that's the premier race. That's my dream."
Vasquez mostly works out alone. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, he runs about 10 miles along the Rio Hondo riverbed. On Thursdays he trains on hills, and on Saturdays and Sundays he races whenever he can. Mondays and Fridays are his rest days.
Every so often, Vasquez likes to join a small group of runners who range in age from 20 to 43 years old.
"I'm not saying I inspire the (younger runners), but they don't like to let an old man beat them," Vasquez said. "They have a faster pace, which is better for me because I try to keep up with them."
Vasquez uses four different types of running shoes, the least padded for 5-K races and the most padded for marathons. Vasquez said he regularly eats burritos and hamburgers, but a couple of weeks before a marathon he switches to pasta, fish, and fruits and vegetables to give him more energy and endurance. He has never suffered a serious injury while running, Vasquez said.
During a marathon, Vasquez said, he usually gets his second wind after the 10th mile.
"After the 20th mile is when you start feeling tired," Vasquez said. "Those six miles are the longest ones."
Running a marathon in under three hours could be the next natural hurdle for Vasquez. But Vasquez said he has no intention of pushing himself to the point where running becomes an unenjoyable task, or to the point where he is injured.
"It has to come by itself, and if it doesn't come, fine," Vasquez said.
Air Was Thin