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He Won the L.A. Marathon Even if He Wasn't the First to Finish

Running * For this competitor, completing the endurance test was a triumph in itself.

March 13, 2000|RICHARD CORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I won the marathon.

Writing this one day after crossing the finish line of Los Angeles Marathon XV, I truly feel that way.

I didn't just run the race's 26.2 miles. I beat it.

Sure, I finished behind 2,097 other runners. And my time was almost two hours slower than that of Nelson Mbithi, the Kenyan racer who crossed the line first.

But I accomplished my goal--I pushed myself to the limit to turn a vague dream into a joyous reality. (The soreness in my legs is just a reminder of how good it was.)

I am victorious.

For the last three marathons, I had stood on a Hollywood Boulevard curb, watching the runners go by Mann's Chinese Theatre, wishing I were them.

This year, I joined them. But not on March 5, when the race was run. Rather, it was Aug. 21, when I signed up to train with the L.A. Roadrunners, the marathon's official training program.

The Saturday morning runs with my fellow Roadrunners in Venice, combined with solitary weekday jogs around my Hollywood neighborhood, put close to 500 miles of training on my stubby, 39-year-old legs.

I lost 25 pounds. My body-fat percentage dropped from 15.7% to 11.6%. I grew stronger and gained confidence that I could endure this physical and mental test.

Still, after all that, I had to block out thoughts of quitting on marathon morning. As I stepped out of my house into the predawn cold, rain and wind, a little nagging voice said I shouldn't subject myself to such punishment.

I hurriedly got into my car, cranked up the heater and the windshield wipers, and drove downtown to get away from such thoughts.

My spirits lifted a bit as I entered the Wilshire Grand Hotel, the Roadrunners' gathering place. Before long, the meeting room was filled with runners who looked as anxious as I felt as they stretched, meditated or chattered nervously.

At about 8 a.m., the Roadrunners' coach, Pat Connelly, stood on a chair to give us a rousing pep talk. He finished it off by leading us in a marathon-route cheer, in which he yelled out, and we repeated while clapping, all the streets in order.

That got me fired up. I was ready now.

As we joined almost 23,000 other runners at the starting line, I hung with a group led by Stan Kirschner, who had been one of the pace leaders on our Saturday runs.

Stan has run several marathons, and we looked to him to get us through the early crowded pack and keep us from going out too fast.

He did just that. We lined up fairly close to the starting line and, when the gun sounded, Stan led us down Figueroa Street, shouting encouragement as we maintained our pace at close to 9 minutes per mile.

"We're right on!" Stan yelled. "We're looking good!"

The foul weather didn't seem to matter much. I decided to go without the garbage bag over my shirt that many of the runners donned that day. I was soon completely soaked. But my adrenaline was flowing, and my body was warmed up.

When the rain pounded harder and the wind blew in our faces, I'd hear Stan yell to Mother Nature, "Is that all you got? It's gonna take more than that!"

Our group stayed together until about mile 10. There, as we hit some of the first hills, we began to go our own ways.

In Koreatown, I was feeling good and pulled away from my Roadrunner friend Terry Treacy going up a hill on 8th Street. Another Roadrunner, Jeff Richards, stayed just ahead of me, and we ran close as we made the turn onto Vermont Avenue and then onto Wilshire Boulevard.

I then lost Jeff in the crowd--somewhere around mile 12--and I was on my own.

Sort of.

As I pounded the pavement past mile 13, I began to listen more to the people who were lining the route with their umbrellas and ponchos. The fact that they would stand in the pouring rain to cheer us on was inspiring. And whenever one of them spotted my T-shirt and yelled, "Keep going, Roadrunner!" it gave me a boost.

There certainly were times when I needed the encouragement. The hills were much harder than I expected. The long grinds on Highland Avenue and Vine Street--miles 15 to 17--took a toll, pulling the life out of my legs.

But I gained strength again going down Sunset Boulevard, made the turn onto Orange Drive, and pounded my fists in the air as I rounded the turn onto Hollywood Boulevard and saw the Chinese Theatre. I'd come a long way from standing on the curb just a year before.

And I still had a long way--eight miles--to go.

I just hung on. I downed some energy gel at a station at the east end of Hollywood Boulevard. I tried to block out the fact that my legs were stiffening up.

In mile 22, going downhill was a relief. Going uphill was a pain, reducing my stride to mini-steps. I just kept my head down and kept going.

Mile 23. Mile 24. Mile 25.

One last, excruciating climb into downtown on Wilshire Boulevard.

Then the crest of the hill. The crowd cheering. Downhill to the turn onto Flower Street and . . .

The clock! It hadn't hit four hours yet!

I had been so excited at the beginning that I forgot to start my wristwatch timer. So when I lost Stan and the group, I had trouble figuring out my time.

I had dreamed during my training of how great it would be to finish under four hours. And now I was going to do it!

I spotted Coach Connelly, and almost took off his arm with a fearsome high-five, then sprinted--painlessly, joyously--to the finish line, arms raised high.

My time: 3 hours, 57 minutes, 24 seconds.

I proudly accepted my gold medal from the marathon worker and found my wife, Susan, and 4-year-old daughter, Rachel, in the crowd.

"Did you win, Daddy?" Rachel asked. I said, "No, a man from Kenya did."

But a few hours later, I changed my mind.

I had, indeed, won.

A few months ago, as I was training, a friend asked me: "Is this a life-changing experience or just a one-time thing?"

It may be too early to know the answer to the latter part of his question. But to the former:

Yes.

Previous installments in this series are on The Times' Web site at http://www.latimes.com/intraining.

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