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In the long run, Daniel Okabe finds his true calling

It wasn't until last year that Okabe, who is from Uganda, realized he had the ability to run marathons. He's done so well in such a short time that he'll compete in the Boston Marathon in April.

January 24, 2011|By Mike DiGiovanna
  • Marathon runner Daniel Okabe, right, talks with Alfredo Torres, left, after a pickup soccer game at Heritage Park in Irvine.
Marathon runner Daniel Okabe, right, talks with Alfredo Torres, left,… (Katie Falkenberg / For The…)

In Uganda, an impoverished East African nation where roughly half of the population lives on $1.25 a day, some children run 10 to 12 miles, from one village to another, to deliver mail or a message.

Daniel Okabe never worked as a postal carrier or message boy. The longest he ever ran in his native country was about three miles, for his high school cross-country team in Mbale.

Had he been called on for such duty, Okabe might have discovered before he was 24 that he is a natural distance runner, one with enough ability to finish 10th in the Orange County Marathon last May and run in the prestigious Boston Marathon this April.

"I never had any idea I could run a marathon," said Okabe, a second-year international student at Golden West College in Huntington Beach. "I didn't even know how many miles a marathon was. But I have God-given ability. I'm trying to use that talent."

Okabe hails from a continent that produces many of the world's top marathon runners, but soccer was always his favorite sport, and he is now part of an ethnically diverse group of players that gathers every Sunday for a pickup game at Heritage Park in Irvine.

Seeing how tireless he was on the soccer field and how much he jogged to stay in shape, Okabe's host family, Terry and Debra Innis of Irvine, suggested about a year ago that Okabe try a marathon.

Off to wine country they went for the Napa Valley Marathon last March 6. Though he had no formal training and knew little about how to fuel his 5-foot-3, 124-pound body, Okabe hung with the lead pack, a group of four runners, for about 19 miles.

"I hit the wall," Okabe, now 25, said. "I didn't know the distance. I didn't know about pacing. I just ran with all my energy, and I was so excited because I was the only African in the race, and I thought I would be the best. But I started too fast."

Okabe alternated between walking and running for the last five miles, but he still finished the 26.2-mile course in 3 hours 35 minutes and 11 seconds.

Two weeks later, after getting some advice on training and carb-loading, Okabe completed the Los Angeles Marathon in 3:02:14, and on May 2 he finished 10th in Orange County with a personal best time of 2:46:38.

Okabe, who has completed several half-marathons, with a personal best of 1 hour 13 minutes, also finished the Long Beach (Oct. 17), New York City (Nov. 7) and Las Vegas (Dec. 5) marathons in under three hours, qualifying him for Boston on April 18.

"I hope to finish in two and a half hours," said Okabe, whose parents, Patrick and Christine, run an orphanage in Mbale that houses 350 kids and feeds another 400 a day.

"That's my main goal. I watched the Boston Marathon a few times in Uganda, and it was neat to see the top runners in the world. I'm thankful for this opportunity. I will do my best."

mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

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