Backward Runner Gets Straightforward Stares

Times Staff Writer

When Albert Freese goes for a jog along the beach near his apartment, people don't just glance when he zips by. They gawk.

That's because Freese runs backward.

The 39-year-old Seal Beach resident has been practicing his peculiar gait for the last six months while getting ready for Sunday's running of the Long Beach Marathon.

But Freese doesn't plan to simply complete the 26.2-mile course. No, his sights are set higher.

Sir Edmund Hillary had his mountain. Lindbergh had an airplane and the Atlantic Ocean. And Al Freese wants to set the world record for running a marathon backward.

How Fast Is That?

If all goes according to plan, Freese will cross the finish line at the Long Beach Convention Center in less than 3 hours and 30 minutes, a time that would put him well ahead of a majority of the 3,600 runners expected for the race.

Such a time also would shatter the current mark listed by Guinness Book of World Records for running a marathon backward. That record was set Dec. 12, 1982, by Donald Davis, who completed the Honolulu Marathon in 4 hours, 20 minutes and 36 seconds.

"I know it's going to be hard, but I've got the endurance," said Freese, an electrical technician at the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station who took up running--mostly forward--only five years ago but has become a top area competitor in his age bracket.

Miles of Training

To prepare, Freese has been running backward 75 miles a week, treading barefoot along a smooth, milelong stretch of sand near the foot of the Seal Beach Pier. Legs kicking high, the wiry, 5-foot, 8-inch runner--known to friends as "Big Al" because of his lofty aspirations--literally prances through a workout, smiling and waving to people strolling on the beach.

"When I first started, people would say, 'Hey buddy, why are you running backwards?' I'd just laugh and yell back, 'Who's saying I'm the one running backwards?' " Freese said after a recent workout.

Levity aside, Freese does have weighty reasons for undertaking his unusual effort.

"It's basically part of a desire to be myself," Freese said. "It's to let the world out there know I'm somebody, that I'm not just another face in the crowd."

Freese also sees his quest as a way to make his four children--who live with their mother in Westminster--proud of him.

A Spiritual Element

And the effort is partly spiritual. Freese, a "born-again" Christian, feels that "God's got a task for each of us, and you just have to do the best you can at it. For me, right now, it just happens to be running a marathon backwards."

As a youth in Kansas, Freese wasn't very athletic and didn't play sports in school. "I was a typical nerd. I didn't do anything," he said.

He began jogging in 1980 and after a few months decided on a whim to enter a 10-kilometer race. He finished fourth in his age group. He finished third in his second race and was awarded a plaque. He was hooked.

Numerous marathons, 10K races and miles of training followed. Some weeks, Freese would put in more than 100 miles of roadwork. To aid his running, he became "a health food nut," raising his own sprouts and banning sugar from his diet.

In June, 1984, Freese entered the Western States Endurance Run, a 100-mile test on rocky terrain near Lake Tahoe, and finished 110th out of 350 entrants.

Needed New Fields

The race was the pinnacle of Freese's running career. There seemed nowhere to go from there--until he decided to start running backward.

"I guess running backwards revived me a little bit. It brought back the enjoyment," he said.

Freese, a man with thinning hair and a quick smile, appreciates the obvious humor in his wrong-way lope. But the backward marathoner, who runs most races wearing a felt fedora that he calls "my Humphrey Bogart hat," enjoys making people laugh.

"It just seems like people, little kids especially, just smile a lot when they see me run by them backwards," Freese said. "But I always get a lot more of a positive reaction from people than negative. I guess they figure someone running backwards can't be all bad."

Running backward, however, can have its drawbacks. During one outing on the beach, Freese was striding along when his mind began to wander. Forgetting to check over his shoulder, Freese tripped over a man who was swigging a beer while lying on the sand.

"I looked at him, and he looked at me," Freese recalls. "I said, 'Excuse me, I was running backwards.' His eyes got real big, so I just ran off. I don't think he ever knew what hit him."

Usually Stays on His Feet

Such falls have been rare when Freese trains on the beach. But while running the marathon, Freese knows he will have to be more careful with his navigation.

His effort has the marathon's organizers a bit worried. When Freese sent in his entry form, race director Joe Carlson asked him if he planned to use a bicycle mirror to see where he's going.

Freese said he won't, but he will continuously cock his head to scan the road ahead--more accurately, behind him. To help clear the way for Freese, race organizers will let him begin the marathon with the race walkers, who start 10 minutes ahead of the rest of the pack.

"On race day, with all the runners and the traffic, it'll be a challenge," Freese said. "I'll have to be real sharp."

His friends are all behind him. One friend had T-shirts printed up with a message saying, "Go Backwards Big Al! 1985 Long Beach Marathon SDRAWKCAB."

Freese says the Long Beach Marathon might be the last time he races backward. If that's the case, neighbors who have grown accustomed to the sight of a man running backward on the beach may be disappointed.

"When I sometimes go out on the beach and run forward," Freese said, "people who know me look and say, 'Hey, you're running the wrong way!' "

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World