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THE SUNDAY PROFILE : Sweating the Details : The finer points of running the L.A. Marathon fall to Marie Patrick. Working in her partner's shadow, she's kept the event on track for 10 years.

March 05, 1995|JEANNINE STEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the gun goes off at the Los Angeles Marathon this morning, one spectator will probably shed a tear as the 19,000 runners dash through Downtown.

Marie Patrick has been observing this massive scene for 10 years. She knows every inch of the 26.2-mile course, from the water stations to the portable toilets to the bandstands and party tents. She can name every sponsor, recite the demographic minutiae of the runners, and even recount some of their personal histories--the first-timers who thought they'd never make it to the starting line, the ones battling illnesses, the die-hards who have traveled thousands of miles to be here.

But few people would know Patrick if they ran into her.

"Marie who ?" is the comeback when her name is raised in connection with the marathon, even though she co-founded the annual event with schmoozemeister Bill Burke a decade ago.

He's the gadabout spokesman and she's the diligent workhorse. For 10 years they have maintained this balance of power, in good times, with deep-pocketed sponsors, and in bad, amid accusations last year of money laundering.

The backstage role suits Patrick just fine. "I have no need to put my hand out and say, 'I'm Marie Patrick. I'm vice president of the marathon,' you know? . . . I don't feel like I'm in this little shell and I'm pecking my way out."

If that attitude seems disingenuous, those close to her insist it's real.

"Not everybody has to have an ego," says a former co-worker, "and in a sense that's why Marie's successful at what she does. A lot of people want to be famous rather than successful and wealthy, but I think Marie would rather be successful and wealthy rather than famous."

Elite runner Mark Plaatjes, who won the 1991 L.A. Marathon and has known its co-founders for seven years, says, "Bill's the flash guy. He gets the credit for what gets done, but really the two of them work hand in hand. . . . Courting a sponsor, Bill will do the talking and the socializing, but Marie is the person who closes the deal and gets everything organized. You never see Marie, but she really does the most amazing things."

*

A few weeks before race day, an annoying swarm of flies has taken up residence outside the marathon's West Los Angeles headquarters.

Adrenaline buzzes within. Every phone rings as staffers and volunteers ricochet across the office. Some will practically live here until the event, pulling 16-, 18-hour days.

If there is an eye in this hurricane, it's Patrick's office, overlooking a row of graceful eucalyptus trees. Neon fish glide lazily inside a tank. Employees sometimes eat their lunch in front of the aquarium just to get their equilibrium back.

Patrick's phone is pressed to her ear. Her conservative suit is a throwback to her East Coast--New Jersey to be precise--upbringing. Her red nails are perfectly manicured, her makeup neatly applied to her perpetually tanned face, her modified pageboy in place to a hair. Post-its dot neat stacks of papers covering the desk.

During a few moments on hold, she huddles with the head of operations, checks a press release and gives instructions to her assistant. She apologizes to a visitor for a nonexistent mess.

If the pace is a little more frenetic than usual, it's because the marathon expanded this year to include a non-competitive bike tour, part of a big-picture plan to make the event a huge citywide happening. The for-profit venture has also evolved over the years to include pre- and post-race parties, entertainment, live television coverage and thousands of spectators.

But that first year, Burke and Patrick were "selling a dream," she says. Others had tried and failed to sustain a world-class race. What these two had that their predecessors did not was a city still high from the 1984 Olympics.

As tennis commissioner for the summer games, Burke hired Patrick as his deputy. That partnership segued into the marathon business, and the pair has never looked back. What did they know about marathons? That one should be 26.2 miles long.

Patrick recalls that a would-be sponsor called a few months before the inaugural event to ask if bibs were available for advertising its logo. "Bill said, 'Excuse me a minute,' put him on hold and buzzed me and said, 'Marie, what's a bib?' I went running into his office and said, 'You know, the bib that racers wear over their shirts.' And Bill got back on the phone and said, 'Yes, they're available.' That's how much we knew."

Each proved to be a quick study. With his political connections (he's married to county supervisor and longtime politico Yvonne Brathwaite Burke) and her sports marketing savvy, they pulled together a first race that attracted 11,000 runners.

Their responsibilities have never been officially defined. But their personalities dictated that he be the grand wheeler-dealer who often puts a chokehold on the spotlight, and she the Uber -organizer who ensures that the i's are dotted, the t's crossed.

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