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L.A. MARATHON | THE OTHER RACES

This Repeat Winner Sets a Record

March 30, 1998|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the mean streets of Los Angeles, Saul Mendoza has friends in low places.

For the second year in a row, the Mexico City native won the men's wheelchair division after a pre-race favorite blew a tire on the bumps and potholes of the city's treacherous pavement.

"It's part of racing," said Mendoza, who showed little sympathy. "I feel so happy. I've been training so hard."

Lest anyone dismiss his back-to-back victories as luck, Mendoza powered to an event record of 1 hour 30 minutes and 1 second. The previous mark was Jim Mattern's 1:32:15, set in 1993.

Aaron Gordian (1:30:51), Mendoza's countryman and training partner, finished second and Ben Lucas (1:33:39) of New Zealand was third.

Some 15 minutes later, Franz Nietlispach of Switzerland hobbled across the line with a left wheel that was creaking and bristled with shards of broken carbon fibers.

Nietlispach, the reigning Paralympic marathon champion, had built a 30-second lead only five miles into the race when he hit a bump and went airborne.

As his sleek racing chair crashed down, the wheel splintered and the tire flew off.

"There are some bumps [on this course]," he said. "You always have to keep an eye out for them. I was really happy not to crash."

After a tire change that was quick enough to qualify him for a NASCAR pit crew, Nietlispach rolled back within sight of the leaders at mile 13 only to have those fractured fibers puncture the replacement tire.

All this calamity was lost on Mendoza and Gordian, who failed to see their fallen comrade on the roadside and figured he was still in the lead. They were pushing toward a long climb that begins at the 14th mile.

"I think Nietlispach is one of the stronger guys," Mendoza said. "But we knew we were stronger on the uphill so we were waiting to catch him."

Mendoza and Gordian worked together, one "taking a pull" in front, the other drafting just behind. The cooperation ended at mile 24 when Mendoza surged ahead.

This event marked the beginning of his racing season, a precursor to the Boston Marathon in April. It figured to be a stern test against a top-flight field.

But Heinz Frei of Switzerland--who lost to Mendoza last year because of a flat tire--fell ill and failed to show. Then Nietlispach ran into his problems.

"It was a very tough field," Mendoza said. "It's a shame because it's always good to do the race with good athletes."

It's also good to win the $2,000 prize money for first place.

Head down and arms pumping, Mendoza opened a comfortable lead on the final half-mile.

*

In an upset, Kazu Hatanaka of Japan beat defending champion Louise Sauvage of Australia for the women's wheelchair title.

Hatanaka collected $2,000 first-place money with a time of 1:56:58, eight minutes off the Los Angeles record. Sauvage was about four minutes behind (2:00:55) for second place. Ariadne Hernandez of Santa Fe Springs finished third in 2:10:19.

*

In the men's 5-K, the top three racers crossed the finish line within seconds of each other. Chris Martinez of Los Angeles narrowly won with a time of 16:08. Rey Sanchez (16:11) of Delano was second and Christopher Pioness (16:14) of Huntington Beach was third.

Lisa Davis won the women's 5-K in 18:14. Ashley Caro (18:51) of Northridge finished second and Lauren Klatsky (18:56) of Manhattan Beach came in third.

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