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4.0 Student Sets Sights on Another Number: 26 Miles


Sandra Loera was not aware that she was tied for the highest grade-point average in Roosevelt High's senior class until a routine grade check by her counselor last fall.

The news prompted mixed feelings for Loera, who has been named the school's outstanding math student for the past two years and who was the recipient of last year's Harvard Prize Book Award--an honor given to students who combine academic excellence with achievement in other fields.

"There are so many stresses to meet deadlines for essays and (college) applications," said Loera, who wants to attend Stanford or UC Berkeley. With a perfect 4.0 grade-point average, she is tied with another student for No. 1 ranking in her class. "Now, I'm competing to try to stay on top."

Loera, 17, has also been gearing up for another competition as one of nearly 900 students involved in Students Run L.A., a citywide training program for next month's Los Angeles Marathon.

The program involves nearly 40 high schools, junior highs and continuation schools. More than half of the participants come from continuation schools--alternative high schools for students who are having attendance, academic or other problems.

"I have never done anything athletic," Loera said. "It's a challenge to prove to myself that I could do it."

Harry Shabazian, 35, felt a similar calling to try the 26-mile, 385-yard race seven years ago after three weeks of training. Shabazian, a teacher at Boyle Heights High--one of the 43 continuation high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District--challenged seven students to run the next year.

"It was such an exhilarating feeling crossing the finish line, I had to share it," Shabazian said.

A similar program was started at Aliso Continuation High in Reseda, and by 1989 the idea spread to other continuation and high schools.

This year's program, endorsed by the Los Angeles Unified School District, has received $100,000 in donations from corporations, nonprofit foundations and others for shoes, uniforms, transportation and other expenses.

Students train for five months alongside teachers who will also run in the marathon March 7 and volunteer to coordinate a group of about 35 runners. The groups meet individually several times a week and congregate for selected training runs and races.

The program is open to all. But non-students are required to pay expenses such as entry fees for races. Parents have started to participate and many students stay involved after high school.

Beatrice Barajas, 20, a sophomore at East L.A. College, is in her third year in the program. She took up running as a senior at Boyle Heights High. "I see this as a lifetime thing," Barajas said.

Her brother, Enrique, 12, a sixth-grader at Dacotah Street Elementary, completed the marathon last year in a little over seven hours and hopes to cut an hour from his time this year.

"I felt good when I finished," Enrique said. "I felt sore and tired the next day but I wanted to do it again."

But seeing high school students, not to mention elementary or junior high students, participate in the marathon has become a sore spot for some.

Ernie Aguirre, cross-country coach at Bell High, has run in all seven L.A. Marathons, but questions whether a teen-ager's body can handle the rigors of the race. Aguirre permits his athletes to train with the program but will not allow them to run in the marathon.

"Asking a 15- or 16-year-old to run 26 miles just destroys their leg muscles," Aguirre, 44, said. "I've seen guys from other schools who have run the marathon and their track season was a complete waste."

Shabazian, though, believes any risk of injury is outweighed by the benefits of running a marathon.

"What's a few blisters when there is a lot of good going on?" Shabazian said. "If you want to get kids away from drugs and gangs, you've got to get them started really young when something can be done. They learn to make a commitment and not give up."

Rene Duran, a junior who competes on the track and cross-country teams at Roosevelt, ran in the marathon last year against his coach's wishes and plans to try it again this year. "It didn't affect me much," he said.

Loera, who competed on the cross-country team for the first time last fall, also hopes to participate in track this spring but is not sure if her schedule will permit.

She is taking advanced placement courses in physics, calculus and English and serves as a tutor and a peer counselor. Nevertheless, Loera, who hopes to finish the marathon in about five hours, still finds time to run an hour each day, covering five to six miles.

"It's hard for me to study and train, but it pushes me harder," Loera said. "It would be a very big accomplishment to be valedictorian."

Finishing the marathon would be another one.

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