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Amazing Feat : Running: Hector Lopez took up the sport after watching the New York City marathon on television five years ago. With little experience and no coaching, he won his first race recently.

August 06, 1995|KIRBY LEE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The infamous Bay Area hills were about the only challenge for Hector Lopez in the City of San Francisco Marathon. The Baldwin Hills resident ran 2 hours, 23 minutes, 38 seconds to win the race by more than 10 minutes.

"I thought I was going to die on the hills," Lopez said. "I was able to recuperate on the downhills and then I'd be facing another one."

Lopez, 28, however, said completing the July 10 race was no comparison to the rigors of training.

A veteran of 15 marathons with a best of 2:20:59, Lopez wakes up at 4 a.m. to run 60 to 90 minutes. Then it's off to his job as a warehouse worker where he put in 10 to 12 hours before returning home to run another 30 minutes, sometimes as late as midnight.

On most days, he carries Mace to fend off loose dogs while running laps around Jim Gilliam Park. Over the past two years, the 5-foot-3, 133-pound Lopez has also been punched in the face, had bottles thrown at him and been threatened by robbers for money while training.

"I told them: 'I'm in my running shorts. Does it look like I have a wallet?' " Lopez said. "They give me a dumb look and then walk away. There's a lot of gangs and you have to be careful. It is not a safe place. The area is improving but when you're running far, you're going to run into trouble spots."

Lopez never had those concerns until he began running five years ago after watching the New York City Marathon on television. That night, he went on a three-mile run.

"I've always been in shape, so I was feeling good," Lopez said. "When I tried to wake up, everything was hurting. I had the pain for a week. But I said that's not going to stop me."

Lopez increased his running to an hour per day. Four months later, Lopez was at the starting line for the 1991 L.A. Marathon with visions of victory.

He fell short of his expectations, finishing 976th in 3:18. That experience, however, left a lasting impression.

"I felt like I was reborn," Lopez said. "You feel like a different person. It was like you have given everything . . . your soul, your mind, your body for that race."

It took similar dedication for Lopez to earn his high school degree. When he was 12, he moved from Mexico with his mother after his parents separated. Lopez dropped out of high school after his first semester to return to his birthplace of Jalisco and live with his father.

He was placed in the sixth grade--the level in which he was enrolled before his departure to the United States He finished the seventh, eighth and ninth grades before returning to the United States in 1986 to work as a forklift operator to help support his mother.

In 1988, he decided to enroll in Dorsey adult school. After five years of balancing school, work and running, Lopez received his high school diploma.

"It felt like I accomplished something," Lopez said. "I just thank God for the strength to finish and do something good for me. It was hard because I would go to school and after school I would go run. Sometimes I would be very sleepy and I could not concentrate at work."

His running did not seem to suffer.

Two months after his marathon debut, Lopez ran 2:38:19 in the Long Beach Marathon. Afterward, he started training with the Cacique running club and began to see steady improvement with coaching.

Running in 90-degree heat, he placed 14th in 2:30:30 in the 1993 L.A. Marathon where he was the top finisher from L.A. and the No. 3 U.S. runner. He clipped nearly 10 minutes off his time in the 1994 L.A. Marathon, running 2:20:59. In this year's L.A. Marathon, he placed 11th.

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"He didn't have a clue of what running was," Cacique Coach Donald Ocana said. "He didn't know how to train but you can always spot the good guys. He has made amazing improvement, but he still has a long ways to go. He has so much potential."

Although Lopez did not approach his lifetime best in the San Francisco Marathon, the race marked his first race victory. A field of 4,000 started but a lack of prize money kept away most national-caliber runners and made for a lonely run for Lopez.

At six miles, he led by about 30 yards. He increased it to about 200 yards at mile 7 and by mile 11 he led by nearly three minutes. His advantage was almost a mile and a half at mile 22.

"Maybe I could have gone faster if someone was in front of me," Lopez said. "My goal was to win a marathon when I started running. I accomplished what I wanted to do, but this is not the end for me."

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