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Taking a Different Route to the Marathon : Running: Richard Roodberg, 62, trains for once-a-year effort with an unusual method.


Richard Roodberg has big news for runners who endure calluses, shin splints and creaky knees to get in shape for long-distance races: They never again have to actually run--or even leave the privacy of their own home--to become capable of finishing a marathon.

Wait a minute, you say. According to convention, marathon runners are required to toughen their legs and their lungs by running as many as 100 miles a week over asphalt streets in smog.

But Roodberg, 62, can back up his claim. He only runs once a year--in the Los Angeles Marathon. And to answer your next question, yes, he does finish under his own power.

So what's the catch? Does he stumble across the finish line sometime the next day, then check into intensive care?

Hardly. Roodberg not only runs the entire distance at a pace that exhausts much younger runners, but this year he also set a world record for his age.

Roodberg, who was 61 when he ran the recent L.A. Marathon, clipped nine minutes off the previous record, running the 26.2 miles in 2 hours 47 minutes 28 seconds. Three years ago, when he ran the marathon in 2:34:33 and placed 95th overall, he was 16 years older than any other top 100 finisher.

What's Roodberg's secret? A surprisingly simple training method--and the Doobie Brothers.

Roodberg, a general contractor with a degree in business from the University of California, is working out in the spacious family room of his home. A lean 5 feet 8 and 150 pounds, he's running in place on a small, thick rubber mat. That's the foundation of his workout, the key to his marathon success. No running over steep hills or long stretches of beach. Just running in place, indoors.

A SONY Walkman is plugged into his ears, playing the same five songs over and over, giving him a beat as he runs in place. The Doobies sing, "Taking It to the Streets," and Roodberg skips 150 times a minute. George Michael sings, "Faith," and Roodberg switches to a nifty two-step, keeping the same pace. A workout lasts an hour, during which time he has heard each song twice and done some 9,000 little jumps, skips and bounces.

"Runners have told me, if I was running, that would be the equivalent of nine miles," Roodberg says.

In preparing for a marathon, Roodberg does the hourlong routine three times a week at either the Westside YMCA or the Sand & Sea Club in Santa Monica. At each workout, he supplements running in place by doing 300 leg lifts, with 70 pounds, on a Nautilus machine. Four-man beach volleyball--he plays nine hours a week--and monthly downhill skiing trips also play prominent roles in his marathon conditioning program.

How does the running community react to Roodberg? "I think there are a lot of different ways to do things," says Don Strametz, track coach at Cal State Northridge. But running in place instead of running? "Maybe he has something new," Strametz says.

George Holland, a CSUN physiology professor, wasn't all that surprised to hear about Roodberg's success, "but to run that fast, he has to be training quite expeditiously," Holland says. Holland is doing research on the Stairmaster, an exercise machine that simulates climbing stairs in place. Curiously, he says, "I've never seen any research on running in place."

It's not surprising that Roodberg developed a training regimen that excludes running. He hates it.

"I've never jogged," he says, citing its dangers: By running, especially on hard surfaces, a runner puts three times his body weight on his knees. Roodberg is almost obsessed with preserving his.

"I played B-team volleyball at Berkeley, and that's when I realized what a pounding your knees take on hard surfaces," says Roodberg, a grandfather. "Once at the Sand & Sea Club, I heard (former UCLA basketball player) Keith Erickson say, 'If you're a human being, there are just so many jumps in your knees.' I believe that. So I made up my mind, no more hard surfaces. I refuse to hurt my knees on the streets."

Which presented him with a dilemma when he heard about the first L.A. Marathon in 1986. "I wanted to be a part of excitement," he says. He figured he would avoid the possibility of injury by "jogging a couple of miles and that's it." He signed up the morning of the race, then went out and alternated jogging with walking "until my legs got rubbery after about an hour."

But the enthusiasm of the runners and the spectators motivated him "to see how far I could go." Walking and jogging, he managed to jog across the finish line in just under five hours, physically whipped but already thinking about the next year's race.

"Finishing that first race was the catalyst," he says. "I knew I could finish without any running conditioning. If I could come up with an exercise program that was similar to running but had low impact, I felt I could jog the whole marathon."

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