Company Teams Put Best Feet Forward : Spirit Soars Among Corporate Runners Who Compete Fiercely on Field of Honor

Times Staff Writer

"When you dream, you'll dream of being an executive . . . . You know what those executives dream about out there behind their desks Moonpie? They dream they're great rollerballers."

--Mr. Bartholomew

in the movie "Rollerball"

Cathie Ritter just hadn't understood.

Wednesday, the 33-year-old drafting manager from Orange--in faded jeans and lilac running shoes--loped across a finish line in the William R. Mason Regional Park in Irvine. A half-hour behind the winner, Ritter placed last in the 3.5-mile Manufacturers Hanover Corporate Challenge, a road race for company teams. "I thought it would be a lot of people walking fast," said Ritter, a non-athlete and smoker who had never run before. "Then I saw all these runners were serious!"

In all, the race--known to veteran corporate runners as "the Manny Hanny"--drew about 1,100 lawyers, engineers, grocers, manufacturers, retailers, and builders, presidents, vice presidents, guards and clerks from 97 companies in San Diego, Riverside and Valencia as well as Los Angeles and Orange County. Rockwell International had imported two out-of-state runners from Washington and Colorado.

Corporate running has become institutionalized in recent years, with big team races sponsored by Manufacturer's Hanover Trust, a New York-based bank, and Xerox Corp. Smaller races are also held--such as Union Bank's Heart of the City Run June 26 in Los Angeles. A U.S. Corporate Track Assn, formed last year, will hold its first national meet in July at UCLA.

Spirit Runs High

Corporate team spirit runs as high as any high school playoff game. "We're number one!" yelled a Wang runner Wednesday in a T-shirt with the letters IBM inside a red circle with a line through it.

Before the race, Dana Metcheck, a product manager for Avery International, the adhesive label manufacturer, led 20 runners--all in matching maroon shorts and singlets--in stretching exercises as "You're Out of Touch" blared over the loudspeakers. "We're a cohesive group," she explained.

Other competitors warmed up near company banners wearing singlets, T-shirts and visors with logos and slogans for their firms. "The best selling sponge isn't found in housewares," read the pale blue T-shirt for the team from VLI Corp. in Irvine, manufacturers of Today, the contraceptive sponge. "Buns on the run," read the Safeway T-shirt. On another, simple lines set off the tasteful message: "The Law Firm of Rutan and Tucker."

Mycomp Technologies, a video distribution equipment firm in Costa Mesa offered this obscure advertisement: "Between source and finished dub, the ultimate in control."

Employees from Calcomp, Security Pacific Bank and the IRS gathered for team pictures, some striking fierce victory poses.

Running particularly for the glory of their companies were rivals Hughes and Rockwell. In 1983, Rockwell's men's team won the national Manufacturers Hanover championship held in New York, and swept the field--winning first in the men's, women's and co-ed teams divisions--in the Los Angeles regional race. Last year, the team also won the Los Angeles event and finished second to Nike in the nationals.

"We're here to make that trip to New York," said Catherine Benedict, a production control planner for Hughes, referring to the winner's prize: a trip to the national championships to be held in November on Park Avenue. Hughes runners trained in company workouts to build team spirit, she said.

Following the race--which jammed traffic temporarily on University Drive--the victor was Steve Bishop, a 25-year-old engineer in Rockwell's laser systems group, with a time of 16:45. A Hughes runner, Mark Mesler, came in second at 17:25. But six more Rockwell runners finished in the top 16, and Kathy Thomas from Rockwell took first place for women in 20:02.

Steven Badolato, 45, from Corona del Mar, took first in the Chief Executive Officer category with a time of 21.13. He is executive director of the World Trade Assn. of Orange County in Santa Ana.

Prizes Given

Prizes were also given for the fastest men's, women's and co-ed teams. Under the race rules, the company team captain selects runners to make up the teams following the race. The teams with the fastest cumulative times win. (Winners in one regional challenge are disqualified from winning in another regional challenge.)

While Rockwell's men's team won, Hughes' women's and co-ed teams took first.

Winning the men's team involved a complex strategy for Gil Armour, a Rockwell project engineer and captain of the Rockwell long-distance running team. His goal was to form a "medium strong" men's team which would beat Hughes but leave some of the faster runners to qualify for a winning team following the Los Angeles race in September. Using a spotter to time the Hughes runners, Armour spent an hour after the race, comparing times and computing which Rockwell runners should be used to beat Hughes then and which should be saved for Los Angeles.

"If you want to see someone nervous and with an ulcer, that's me at 6:20," he said, referring to the tense moments following the race.

The Manufacturers Hanover Corporate Challenge was first run eight years ago in New York and drew 200 runners from 50 companies. Last year, 53,000 racers competed in New York, Albany, Syracuse, Buffalo, Atlanta, Miami, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, San Francisco and Los Angeles. This was the first year the race came to Orange County.

Sports-Oriented Bank

Manufacturers Hanover Trust, the nation's fourth largest bank, and self-described "most sports-oriented bank in the world" sponsors the 14 races to back up the bank's corporate business strategy, said Charles H. McCabe Jr., the senior vice president and director of marketing for Manufacturers Hanover Trust. "We choose the key cities where we call on corporations--both customers and prospects--to have the challenges," he explained. Moving into Orange County was necessary, he said, in order to reach all the middle-sized and large corporations in the Los Angeles area. Each year, the races cost the bank about $560,000.

"It's a definite established event. Like the PGA," said McCabe. And, he said, it continues to grow.

Some attribute the race's popularity to the running and fitness mania of recent years. Or to the competitiveness of American business naturally wedded to the competitiveness of sports. Or perhaps to the longing of corporate executives, bound to desks, telephones, computers and business meetings, for some rousing, personal contact.

"It transfers the old school spirit into the corporate world," said McCabe. "It gives you something to cheer for, to root for in a corporate environment." If nothing else, he said, it's an ice breaker. "You might meet fellow employees you never met before."

Wednesday, some night-shift workers from Parker Hannifin, an Orange County aerospace manufacturing firm, were introduced to day-shift workers at the race. "This is our company's first formal race as a team," said Don Howard, a financial analyst who runs 50 miles a week. "We're just doing this for fun. We'll see how competitive we are." The team placed two runners in the top 50: Eric Jensen who was 18th with a time of 18:50 and James Burton with 20:05.

The race was originally designed as a fun-run, but some companies say other companies will do anything to win. They've heard stories of companies finding jobs for top runners. Rockwell has denied it, though Armour says: "If we find out a runner is applying for a job, we try to put in a good word." "I always thought Texas Instruments did it," said Rockwell's Bishop.

Pat Ewing, one of Rockwell's top runners, recently left Rockwell for Hughes. "I'm sure he was recruited for his business knowledge," assured Hughes' acting team captain Benedict.

'Our Hearts Sank'

Rockwell's Armour said he heard the news that Ewing might be leaving when John Pulley, Rockwell club captain called him and asked him if he were sitting down. "When we heard he was moving on, our hearts sank," said Armour, who sends newsletters to his runners with course information and times of competitors. "We now have the top corporate team (not affiliated with the running industry) in the country. We hate to break up the winning combination."

However, Rockwell has just hired a a design engineer who is a runner from Brigham Young University who has a faster mile time than Ewing, said Armour, brightening.

"It's important to win, but there's no pressure from the company," said Armour. The most important corporate benefits arise from public relations and inducements for recruitment, he said, mentioning Rockwell's nine-acre recreational facility in Downey where runners work out daily. Work schedules to accommodate training time can be arranged under flextime.

However, Rockwell does not provide the uniforms or travel budget for its runners as do other companies such at AT&T;, Coca-Cola, IBM and Texas Instruments, complained Armour.

The Union Bank race, for instance, has a $1,000 entry fee which is prohibitive for the Rockwell team, said Armour.

The discipline required for serious running is usually also found in good workers, Armour said. Both work and running are important to Wednesday's winner, Bishop, who says a combined scholar-athlete award his senior year at Montana State University was the most important achievement in his life. "That's why (corporate running) is so much fun."

But another runner said that although he knows his career must come first, "Running is more important to me than my job."

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