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L.A. MARATHON | RANDY HARVEY

The Verdict Is Still Out on the Race

March 30, 1998|RANDY HARVEY

You don't have to have a great marathon to have a great city. I'm pretty sure Parisians don't lose sleep because theirs isn't as prestigious as London's, Boston's or Tokyo's. I'm absolutely sure they don't give a damn about Rotterdam.

I, however, agree with Bill Burke, president of the Los Angeles Marathon. If you have a marathon, it should be a great one.

Burke, after 12 years, finally has won over his staff, many of whom were content in the past with their reputation for organizing the so-called People's Marathon.

But elite runners are people too, even if the five-minute-mile pace some maintain for 26.2 miles seems other worldly, and Burke set out to prove Sunday that the 13th-annual L.A. Marathon could serve their needs as well as those of the 19,000-plus other runners who are not so fast.

How did he do?

To be kind, call it a work in progress.

Tanzania's Zebedayo Bayo won the men's race with the third-fastest winning time in Los Angeles, 2 hours 11 minutes 21 seconds, but he did not come close to Burke's goal of producing a sub-2:10 champion. The women's champion, Kenya's Lornah Kiplagat, finished in 2:34:03, slower than she did in winning her first marathon here last year.

"I'm getting a read on it," Burke said in assessing the race an hour after the last elite runner had crossed the finish line, "and I don't like what I read."

In fairness to Burke, he should be reminded that this was only the first year of his "three-year plan," which, even he admits, will take four years or longer before anyone should even write L.A. Marathon in the same sentence with Boston and New York.

I made an exception in this case because Burke and his staff tried so hard.

Operating on a $400,000 budget that he called embarrassing because it is "Little League compared to the big leagues in Boston and New York," they paid as much as they could afford in appearance fees, significantly increased the prize money and bonuses and attracted their best field.

Burke couldn't have asked for a more perfect start.

With sunshine instead of the predicted rain washing over the runners, little wind and a temperature of 45 degrees when Mayor Richard Riordan fired the starter's pistol at 8:45 a.m., El Nino was nowhere to be found.

But Muhammad Ali was, waving to runners from a perch above the start line downtown at Figueroa and Sixth Street.

I'm not sure what Riordan was talking about when he introduced Ali as "a legend way before his own time," but the runners apparently accepted it as political hyperbole and moved on.

Burke, who said last week that the marathon had to become more legitimate or lose the sports section, was filled with optimism that this would be the year L.A.'s race was taken seriously by the international media.

In the past, it has been labeled as somewhat quirky, like the city that plays host to it.

No one will ever forget that Paul Pilkington was recruited as the pace-setting rabbit for the men's race in 1994 and won when no one challenged him or that Sylvia Mosqueda finished second in the women's race in 1987 after running a 5K the day before.

Track & Field News devoted four paragraphs to the L.A. Marathon last year, most concerning the disqualification of the woman initially declared the winner, Russia's Nadezhda Ilynia, after it was discovered she cut corners.

The race won't receive much more respect this year because of the disappointing times.

Eight men in the race had run faster than 2:10 and appeared fit to do it again. The women weren't as accomplished, but it wasn't unrealistic to expect one or two to break 2:30.

What happened?

Burke and his staff met immediately after the winners were declared and concluded that the course was too difficult. Several runners complained that they had to conquer more than one heartbreak hill over the second half of the race.

The marathon's elite athlete coordinator, Anne Roberts, suggested that the course be reversed next year, maintaining the race's integrity but enabling the runners to pick up speed over the last few miles.

Burke said others suggested that the race be run in a straight line down one of our more famous boulevards, such as Wilshire or Olympic.

As for Burke, he suggested speaking to Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg about blasting a tunnel through one of the Hollywood Hills in her district.

"If you brought back the same field we had today and gave them a different route, I think you'd have a 2:08 or 2:07," Burke said.

If you had an even better field?

"If I had Boston's money, I'd give you a 2:05," he said.

Of course, it's possible there is too much emphasis on times in marathons and that a better method of guaranteeing their place in sports sections of the future would be to develop more name athletes.

In this country, there certainly was more interest in the Boston and New York marathons when U.S. runners such as Bill Rodgers, Alberto Salazar and Joan Benoit Samuelson were winning them.

Perhaps Todd Williams or Lynn Jennings can tap into that national pride in the future.

But it's not Burke's job to make that happen. His job is to attract the best runners his sponsors' money will buy, which, in this era, means investing heavily in Africans.

I hope you appreciate them as much as I do.

It will be intriguing next year to see whether Kiplagat can win for the third year in a row. And who knows about Bayo? He might be a legend way before his own time.

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