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LOS ANGELES MARATHON | J.A. ADANDE

Under the Weather

Wheelchair winner Mendoza doesn't let a storm rain on his fourth consecutive L.A. Marathon victory.

March 06, 2000|J.A. ADANDE

Wheelchair athlete Saul Mendoza trains by doing 25 miles a day, but a new hobby might have come in handy for Sunday's wet and windy conditions at the Los Angeles Marathon.

"Good thing I took up classes for scuba," Mendoza said.

"But I didn't bring my equipment.

"I should have brought my snorkel, at least."

It rained before, during and after the marathon. The wheelchair racers might have had it worst. They get splashed going through puddles. It's harder to grip the handrails. It's tougher to brake coming downhill.

It changes the tactics of the race. Normally, the wheelchair athletes might draft like race cars, falling in line to allow the leader to absorb most of the wind resistance.

On wet days, drafting only gets you a face full of water, so Mendoza's strategy was to attack from the beginning.

The one thing that didn't change was the result. Mendoza won the men's wheelchair race.

Again.

It's reaching the point that Mendoza might begin to lose track of how many times he has won the wheelchair division of the Los Angeles Marathon.

But when a photographer asked him in Spanish how many victories this made, it took Mendoza no time at all.

"Cuatro," Mendoza said, holding up four fingers.

Four in a row, even.

He extended the streak with an authoritative performance Sunday. He led from the outset and dominated so thoroughly that after crossing the finish line he had no idea who came in second. Mendoza's time of 1 hour 42 minutes 33 seconds won by almost two minutes.

Upon meeting the runner-up, Joel Jeannot, Mendoza's first reaction to Jeannot's shivering body and anguish-stricken face was to ask if he was all right.

It was such a tough day that Heinz Frei, the world record-holder in the wheelchair event and Mendoza's top rival, dropped out at mile 17. The women's wheelchair winner, Jean Driscoll, felt too ill to make it to the news conference afterward and many other wheelchair racers suffered from hypothermia.

As the top runners from the men's and women's race waited for a post-race news conference to begin inside the Los Angeles Public Library, the auditorium took on the look of a triage tent. The runners were wrapped in blankets, shivering.

Mendoza looked just fine.

One advantage for wheelchair racers: They were the first to go Sunday. Mendoza had already changed into dry clothes by the time the first runners crossed the finish line, which was when the downpour got heavier.

But Mendoza looked happy even when he was out in the rain after his race.

He kept smiling, even if his teeth were chattering hard enough to shake the enamel loose.

Mendoza thrives on adverse conditions.

"The tougher it is, the better I do," Mendoza said. "All the time. If it's uphill, or rainy like this, it just gives me that strength.

"I enjoy it. I like it, actually."

The gloves wheelchair racers use to keep their hands from blistering helped Mendoza's grip.

So did a sticky substance called Klister, which is similar to the pine tar baseball hitters use for their bats.

The morning began ominously. Dark clouds filled with bad intentions hung overhead, and they were determined to unleash their contents on Los Angeles.

"I just felt like, 'This is not a good day,' " Mendoza said. "But I didn't block my mind. I knew I had to do it, I just said, 'I'm ready to go.' "

Only the staunchest race fans came out Sunday. When Kenya's Benson Mutisya Mbithi, the first of the men's elite runners, crossed the finish line near 5th and Flower, there were more people watching on television sets in a nearby fast-food restaurant than there were on the streets.

But there were enough people out along the course to keep Mendoza going.

Mendoza, who was born in Mexico City and now lives and trains in Georgia, benefits from the support of Los Angeles' sizable Mexican population.

He believes it's a big reason behind his success in this event, and he heard the shouts of encouragement again Sunday.

"Vamos."

"Mas fuerte, Mendoza."

"It was very inspiring for me," Mendoza said.

It did the trick.

The sun came out for a while in the afternoon. For Mendoza, the best part of the day had already happened.

*

J.A. Adande can be reached at his e-mail address: j.a.adande@latimes.com

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