Despite earning All-American honors in track and cross-country in 1987, Gretchen Lohr-Cruz was unfulfilled as a runner.
She had always wanted to compete in a marathon, but because of her commitment to the track and cross-country programs at Valley College, and then at Cal State Los Angeles, she was unable to fit one into her schedule.
"I knew I'd have to wait until after my eligibility was used up," said Lohr-Cruz, who attended--but did not compete for--North Hollywood High. "There was no way I could run a marathon in college and recover in time for the upcoming season, whether it was track or cross-country."
So she waited. And when her collegiate eligibility expired at the end of the 1988 track season, Lohr-Cruz set her sights on the 26-mile, 385-yard race.
The wait had its rewards. She was timed in two hours, 51 minutes, 17 seconds and placed 10th in the women's division of the Columbus (Ohio) Marathon last November, then improved to 2:41:41 and a fourth-place finish in the women's division of the Los Angeles Marathon last Sunday. Moreover, the Glendale resident was the first woman finisher from the United States in the Los Angeles event.
But Lohr-Cruz, who is still working toward her art degree at Cal State L. A., is just happy to have found an event to call her own.
"I've known for a long time that this was what I wanted to do," said Lohr-Cruz, who is married to Benny Cruz, winner of the 1987 NCAA Division II West regional cross-country championships for Cal State L. A. "I've always liked running the longer distances. The extra training doesn't bother me . . . I just feel more comfortable on the roads than on the track."
Greg Ryan, her coach for the past three years, said that Sunday's race was just the second step of what should be a long and productive career in the marathon.
"I think she's capable of running 2:31 or so by 1992," Ryan said. "Which ought to put her in the thick of things at the Olympic Trials. I've always known that she was suited for this race (marathon), but I didn't want her to run one too soon in her career."
Wary of tiring his protege, Ryan said that Lohr-Cruz will run only two marathons a year between now and the 1992 trials. Her next will probably be at Columbus in November.
"It's a fast, flat course," Ryan said. "And she was successful there the first time, so we'll probably go back."
Lohr-Cruz, however, might disagree, for her memories of the Columbus race are painful.
"I just died like a dog there," she said with a laugh. "I was really, really glad to see the finish line."
After running the first 20 miles at Columbus at nearly a six-minutes-a-mile pace, Lohr-Cruz began to falter in the 21st mile and was forced to walk several times in the last five miles. Her final mile took a nightmarish nine minutes and 15 seconds.
"It was real bad," Lohr-Cruz said. "I just couldn't go any faster."
To combat the fatigue that hampered her in the final miles at Columbus, Ryan increased Lohr-Cruz's training regimen in preparation for the L. A. marathon.
Training in four-week cycles, Lohr-Cruz averaged 70-75 miles a week--compared to 55-60 before Columbus. She would run 70 miles the first week of each cycle, 75 in the second, 80 in the third and 55 in the fourth "rest" week before starting over again.
And the training sessions--frequently run with 1988 Irish Olympian Marie Rollins--were of a high quality.
One workout was a 10-mile run at 5:40 pace with alternating miles run in 5:50 and 5:30. Another involved three three-mile runs in 16:50 with five minutes rest in between. And there were also 18-mile runs at 2:40 marathon pace.
All of which gave Lohr-Cruz a great deal of confidence heading into Sunday's race, despite the heat, which may have been heaven for spectators looking for a good time but was torture for marathoners hoping to run one.
"The heat really worried me about a week before the race because I usually don't run well in it," said Lohr-Cruz, who placed sixth in the 10,000 meters at the 1987 NCAA Championships in Baton Rouge, La., earning All-American honors in the process. "But I was really relaxed going into this race. I just knew I was going to be OK."
Ninth (according to Ryan) or 10th (according to Lohr-Cruz) among the women at the 10-mile mark (1:00:07), Lohr-Cruz began to make her move at 12 miles. She moved into seventh at 13 miles, was fifth at 18 and surged into fourth at 21 miles.
"I just tried to stay relaxed," she said. "I knew the course was hilly, and I knew it was hot, so I just concentrated on running my own race.
"I knew some of the women ahead of me were running foolishly, considering the conditions."
Though Lohr-Cruz slowed in the final miles, her pace slackened only 10 to 15 seconds per mile.
Nevertheless, she was surprised at her time--which bettered her goal of 2:42--because of the heat.
"I think I could have run under 2:40 if it had been cool," Lohr-Cruz said. "But I'm not complaining. After what happened in Columbus, I'll take a 2:41."