An Exercise in Camaraderie : Sunday Marathon Clinic Fetes 10th Informal Year

Times Staff Writer

It was 8 a.m. Sunday--a time when many people prefer to sleep.

But at De Anza Cove on Mission Bay, 75 people were kneeling on the wet grass, practicing their arm swings and quadriceps stretches.

"Take one step back. One step forward. Bend the knees," Austin (Ozzie) Gontang intoned as he led his flock through the exercises. After 20 minutes, Gontang, a 43-year-old runners' guru, signaled that it was time to run.

"Introduce yourself to two or three people you don't know. Let's go," he said.

For a moment, the runners milled around him, talking, hugging friends, bouncing on their toes.

Suddenly, the lawn was empty as they peeled off in packs of five or 10 for the three-mile jog to the San Diego Hilton, the eight-mile route around Mission Bay or the grueling 10-miler to the top of Mount Soledad and back.

Running is usually a solitary sport. But these people were talking their way around the bay, catching up on everything from last night's movie to a friend's divorce as they ran.

This is the Mission Bay Marathon Clinic, a free runners' clinic that Gontang, its unpaid director, calls "one of the largest organized non-organizations" in town.

The clinic has no dues, no membership list and no particular structure other than a general agreement to meet at the cove every Sunday for fellowship, stretching exercises and 40 minutes or so of running. (Its name is a misnomer, however. Novice runners are welcome along with the marathoners, and every Sunday the clinic offers a special class for beginners.)

Though its air is casual, the marathon clinic has survived the boom and decline of the jogging craze to become an institution in San Diego.

This morning, it celebrates its 10th year at the bay with a potluck brunch, a birthday cake and, of course, the usual stretching exercises and run. Just what kind of institution it is sometimes is difficult, even for Gontang, to define. It has always been a training place for runners. Some Sundays it also has the hungry feeling of a singles bar. But most weeks, it offers something more basic: a feeling of fellowship, perhaps a runner's substitute for church.

Clinic regulars say the camaraderie is a key reason why they haul themselves out of bed early Sundays to run.

"This starts my week off," said hospital administrator Ruth Dundon, a five-year veteran of the clinic who runs abouts five miles on Sundays. "It gives me a feeling of well-being. And when you're with people, sharing the same kind of interest, that feeling exists whether you're running a mile or a marathon."

KYXY radio film critic Andrew Makarushka agreed. "I got home at 2:30 this morning," he said last Sunday morning. "But I wouldn't miss this because I have fun here. This is where I started running longer distances--my first eight miles, my first 18 miles, my first 24 miles. The people who come here are cordial, friendly, non-judgmental. . . . They encourage you to keep going."

The mood of the clinic is rare, said Mitch Feingold, a podiatrist who has been running with it nine years.

"Here's a free thing," he said. "You come down to the bay and, within a few months, you've got friends. There's camaraderie here, whether you move at a slow, walking place or you're a marathon runner."

George Kezas, a senior vice president at Travelodge who has also been meeting with the group for nine years, said, "This is a neat place. You run, finish, grab a beer and tell war stories. What else would you do with your Sunday morning?"

The clinic began on a rainy Sunday in December, 1974, when about 15 people met at the Del Mar home of psychiatrist Thaddeus Kostrobula for a couple of hours of walking or running, then beer and breakfast afterward.

Within several months, the group had grown to 35, too big for Kostrobula's home. On March 16, 1975, it moved to a new, more central location--the Information Center at Mission Bay.

By word-of-mouth, it began to expand. Soon, more than 75 runners were coming regularly for exercises, runs and sometimes potluck feasts afterward on the grass. Gontang at first was one of three people who led the exercises, but gradually he became the clinic's leader.

The idea of the clinic has particularly interested Gontang, a former seminarian who is now a marriage and family counselor working on a doctorate in psychology.

For the last 10 years, Gontang has been studying the psychological effects of exercise. And he has particularly liked "the whole idea of social interaction of the clinic. You're getting your run in, but you also have support for running any distance."

The clinic has reminded him of a lay religious group, The People, in Washington, D.C., that he belonged to in 1966 while in the seminary.

There has been "the same sense of community. You really don't judge the people who are there. And if someone's there for the first time, you introduce yourself," he said.

Also, on the longer runs--eight miles, 10 miles, more--"you may not remember the name of the person you ran with the first time you did it, but you remember the person. It's a communal experience."

As running became a national pastime, the clinic's popularity grew. From 1978 to 1981, it regularly drew 200 to 400 runners on Sunday mornings, Gontang recalled, and, "It was the place to come to learn how to run further, to run long distances." A top 5,000-meter runner, Jerry Marsh, now at UCLA, learned to run at the clinic; other well-known runners, including marathoner Tom Lux, began to drop by.

Ironically, running's popularity almost led to the clinic's demise.

The clinic was held on a small hill next to the Information Center. On the sidewalk below, charities began scheduling 10-kilometer races and drawing even larger crowds of runners. The clinic's runners had trouble finding room for their exercises. Worse, at 7:45 a.m., they had to fight for parking in lots up to two blocks away.

"People were angry at me. And I saw the clinic would die," Gontang said.

But before giving up, Gontang and several clinic members got another idea: move it.

With just a brief announcement, they relocated their starting place one mile south, to De Anza Cove. About 50 people found the new site that first weekend in January, 1982. But by the second weekend, 200 people were there, and they decided, by a show of hands, that they would stay, Gontang recalled.

Attendance has leveled off at 50 to 80 runners. There are more in the summer, there to train for the September-through-January "marathon season," Gontang said. There are fewer now, when the weather is cool and marathons are held less frequently.

Still, new runners come each week. At last Sunday's clinic, eight beginners braved the early-morning chill. After the exercises, they gathered beside a picnic table for an informal class from chiropractor Rich Kaye, one of six volunteers who teach beginners.

One woman, a smoker, complained that she sometimes felt nauseated when she ran. Was there a proper way to breathe?

"Do what feels good for you," Kaye said. "If you feel nauseous, lighten up and walk.

"Remember: You're only running for one person."

After several more questions, Kaye led his class on a half-mile run. Like a sheepdog, he ran circles around them, sometimes running backward alongside one of his charges to offer advice.

Kaye, 38, discovered the clinic seven years ago, when he moved to San Diego from Long Island. Running can be boring, Kaye noted, but it shouldn't be at the marathon clinic.

After all, Kaye said, "It's about Southern California. It's about the outdoors. It's a group of people getting together. It's fun."

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