Jorge Gonzaga and Sean Ramsey are running marathons to get ready to run a marathon.
By 4:30 a.m. one recent morning, 16-year-old Jorge was already dressed. He washed down a handful of cookies with a glass of milk and was standing in the driveway of his Highland Park home when Ramsey, his Dorsey High School teacher, pulled up to drive him to practice.
They greeted the dawn inside a 24-hour gym, where they pumped iron and did push-ups and leg-strengthening exercises, more preparation for Sunday's Los Angeles Marathon.
Neither the boy nor the teacher is likely to win the 26.2-mile race. Like many others, they will try make their statement merely by finishing. For Jorge, a novice runner who dropped more than 60 pounds training, it would be another sign of maturity. For Ramsey, who is completing his medical degree at UCLA in addition to teaching biology at Dorsey, it would be vindication for a work schedule that on some days has begun at 1 a.m. and ended at 7 p.m.
"In my life, so many people have pushed me," said Jorge, a 10th-grader at Dorsey's Police Academy magnet school. "When I'm running, I have to push myself. Nobody can do it for me."
Last fall, Ramsey announced plans to take a team of Dorsey students to run in the marathon. Fifty youngsters expressed interest. A dozen will make it to the starting line.
"So many students are afraid to run a 26-mile race," said the Bahamian-born Ramsey, who has finished the marathon six times. "They think it's impossible. Well, anything is possible with good preparation and hard work."
Dorsey's dozen will be among 2,000 Los Angeles students competing in the marathon through Students Run L.A., a program that encourages young people to train for the marathon.
"Student runners have changed eating habits, missed fewer days of school and [graduate] at a higher rate," said Marsha Charney, the group's executive director.
The program was started in the 1980s by a Boyle Heights continuation high school teacher who believed the discipline of running would help his students mature. Today's program encompasses all middle schools and high schools, with corporate sponsors picking up the tab for students' racing fees, uniforms and running shoes. But the message is the same.
"You learn how to keep going and keep going until you accomplish what you started," said Sandy Morales, a Dorsey ninth-grader who at first found it difficult to run a mile.
Derek Jones, 16, said the challenge has strengthened his determination and made it easier for him to communicate with his two younger brothers. "They listen to me," he said.
Ramsey spotted Jorge's determination when he learned that the student was taking two buses to Dorsey in southwest Los Angeles to attend predawn marathon practice. Jorge's mother, Yolanda Gonzaga, a single parent who had quadruple bypass surgery in 1999, would accompany her only child on the 11/2-hour ride and walk to the track and would stay until practice was over. Ramsey drove the students home when practices ran late.
"When it's dark and the streets are lonely, there are a lot of crazy people out there," said Yolanda Gonzaga. She accompanied her son to practices until December, when he turned 16 and asked her if he could ride alone. She agreed, but that's about the time Ramsey started picking him up in the mornings.
The practice runs, which grew to 15-18 miles, were a refuge, Jorge said. "It keeps you away from all the negative things out there," he said. His weight dropped from 240 to 178. But the workouts also put a strain on his day, which was already stretched because of tutoring sessions. His grades suffered. He was sleepy in class and once dozed off while reading Shakespeare. "I wanted to quit," he said. "But my mother said I should always try to finish what I start. So I stayed."
He soon adjusted to the long hours. His grades improved and so did his behavior in the academy, where he was asked to help train the younger cadets. He began to appreciate his decision to leave his Highland Park neighborhood to attend a magnet that would prepare him for a career as a police officer.
"There was a big change," said Los Angeles Police Officer Kacey Coleman, who coordinates the academy. "He was a goof-off last year, and now he's a leader."
Jorge, who never really knew his father, began to bond with his teacher. "He's a good kid," Ramsey said. "I see him wanting to constantly improve. He looks at what I do as an example and tries to better it. If I push 50 pounds with the weights, then he wants to push 50 pounds too."
Ramsey identifies with his young student and his closeness to his mother. The teacher was forced to postpone his graduation from UCLA Medical School for two years after the death of his mother. While teaching at Dorsey, he managed to complete his required schoolwork--including early morning rounds with physicians, before he picked up Jorge for practice.
"Some days ... I fall asleep between 6:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. with the news on television," he said. "I made the commitment that I would give the students all my energy until June."
The day after the marathon, Ramsey will learn which hospital assignment he will draw to complete his residency.
The winner of Sunday's race will complete the course in a little over 2 hours. Jorge is shooting for 3 hours, 9 minutes. That would match his coach's personal best.