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Exuberance of L.A. Marathon Tempered by Runners' Deaths

Two men suffer fatal heart attacks along the 26.2-mile route. Another who collapsed is hospitalized in critical condition.

March 20, 2006|Cynthia H. Cho and Sandy Banks | Times Staff Writers

The weather was perfect, the field enthusiastic, the times respectable, but Los Angeles' annual street party masquerading as street race was marred Sunday by the deaths of two runners and the collapse of an elderly man who was hospitalized in critical condition.

Two retired law enforcement officers died after collapsing on the route. Det. Raul Reyna, 53, suffered a heart attack at mile 24 near Olympic Boulevard and Westmoreland Avenue, two miles short of the finish line. He died at Good Samaritan Hospital. The 28-year Los Angeles Police Department veteran had worked on the use of force investigation team at Parker Center, officials said.

Retired Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy James Leone, 60, collapsed at mile 3, near Exposition Boulevard and Figueroa Street. "He just dropped ... keeled over and hit his face on the pavement," said David Lawson, who interrupted his own run to administer CPR to the fallen runner.

"His face was covered with blood and his eyes were open, but we never really got a pulse," said Lawson, a private pilot who volunteers part time on a ski patrol team. He and another runner, a physician, spent several minutes trying to revive Leone before paramedics arrived, said Lawson, who then resumed his run. Leone was pronounced dead upon arrival at California Hospital Medical Center.

Sheriff's officials said Leone was participating in his 11th L.A. marathon. He was a 26-year member of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and had retired in July 2000.

Lt. Fred Corral of the Los Angeles County's coroner's investigation division said Leone, who lived in St. George, Utah, had been under a doctor's care and may have suffered from cardiovascular disease.

He was accompanied to the marathon by his wife and daughter. Marathon officials said this was the second time in the 21-year history of the race that there had been a fatality along the course.

The only other known death during the Los Angeles Marathon came in 1990, when a 59-year-old Altadena man under a doctor's care for hypertension suffered a fatal heart attack while running in the fifth annual race. William McKinney, who had trained for the contest under a physician's care, suffered heart failure at the 21-mile mark near Crenshaw and Pico boulevards.

Just nine blocks into the race Sunday, a third runner, believed to be in his 70s, suffered a heart attack near the intersection of Figueroa and 15th streets. The man, whose name was not released, was taken by paramedics to California Hospital Medical Center, where he was in critical but stable condition Sunday night.

The tragedies unfolded unnoticed by most runners.

More than 25,000 competed in the marathon, and 20,000 participated in the wheelchair race, bicycle run or companion 5-kilometer race. Open to all comers, the marathon has no qualifying requirements.

Race purists were captivated by the to-the-wire competition between elite men and women runners for a $100,000 bonus given to whoever crossed the finish line first. Russian Lidiya Grigoryeva won that distinction though her time was 17 minutes slower than the men's winner, Benson Cherono of Kenya, because women were given a head start intended to equalize their chances in the novel challenge competition.

Thousands of other runners considered themselves winners just because they finished.

Sixteen months ago, Liz Roark weighed 323 pounds. A nurse, she got winded just walking down a hospital corridor. Gastric bypass surgery enabled her to lose 100 pounds, and eight months of training for the marathon helped her drop 65 pounds.

She ran Sunday's marathon with two friends, fellow gastric bypass patients Keri Zwerner and Luana Ball. The trio has lost a combined 500 pounds in the last five years. They had to skip the typical pre-race, carbo-loading routine; the gastric bypass process rules out big pasta meals. But the women filled their fanny packs with bite-sized snacks, along with such essentials as water and cellphones.

Perseverance meant more to Roark than speed, as evidenced by her mascot -- a green turtle emblazoned on her white cap. It took her more than seven hours to run the 26.2-mile course.

Many of the runners were accompanied by friends. At the 15-mile marker, 30 men, women and children from Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in El Monte gathered beneath a cabana-style tent to cheer on 57 parishioners running in glowing lime-colored shirts.

Among the runners was their diminutive 64-year-old priest, Father Francisco Vitela, participating in his sixth marathon. Each year, the church's runners line their sneakers up along the altar and Vitela blesses them with holy water.

Vitela, who says he "hates running," listens to classical music on a headset as he runs and prays that more people will join the ministry. During a stop in the tent, parishioners fed him, massaged his legs, removed his shoes and changed his orthopedic socks. A few minutes later, he was back on the course. A few hours later, he would be celebrating evening Mass at the church.

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