A Late Bloomer Races Toward Earlier Finish

Times Staff Writer

When Chris Schallert of Canoga Park runs in the Los Angeles Marathon today, his legs will be on automatic pilot and his mind will be taking him to other places. Occasionally, the thoughts that are streaming through his consciousness will include pop songs from his own internal stereo system. Twenty-six miles is a long way to go without a little rock 'n' roll.

As the race goes on over the asphalt and concrete, Schallert will have enough time to sing his entire musical inventory and do a lot of thinking. He'll think about pace and try to run each mile in 5 minutes, 10 seconds--which will bring him in at 2 hours 15 minutes, a minute better than his personal best. And he'll think about his goal, which is to finish among the top 10.

Schallert, 26, may also be thinking about how a self-described "OK runner" at North Hollywood High improved enough to become the first American across the line in the 1984 L.A. International marathon and the third-place finisher in last year's Long Beach Marathon--and ranked by Track & Field News as the 33rd-best marathoner in the United States.

How did he do it? "It wasn't easy," Schallert said.

What turned Schallert from OK to Oh Wow was a lot of hard work.

When he went to Valley College after high school, he fell under the tutelage of track Coach Mark Covert. Until then, Schallert said, "I had never even heard of morning runs or two-a-day runs or anything over 10 miles. Mark's philosophy was a lot of miles and a lot of dedication. He matured me."

After spending what he called "one year too long" at Idaho State, Schallert returned to the Valley and earned a degree in geography at Cal State Northridge. In his one year of eligibility at CSUN, he finished third in the 10,000-meter run at the 1982 NCAA Division II championships and qualified as an All-American.

As the L.A. Marathon winds through Chinatown today, Schallert will try to block out the fireworks in the streets and concentrate on his plan for the race. To toughen his resolve, he'll probably think back to all the training he had to endure over the last few months. Until January, he was running 100 miles a week, including weekly two-hour sessions just to remind his body what a marathon is all about.

In January, Schallert got a new coach, Rick O'Bryan, who altered his training techniques, bringing them more in line with what the East Germans are doing. O'Bryan had the 127-pound runner reduce his weekly mileage to about 80 to save his legs, put him on Nautilus machines to build his upper body and introduced him to interval training on a track to increase his speed.

"Chris is capable of a 2:09 marathon," which would put him among the world's very best, said O'Bryan. "He's got the perfect body for it. He's light. He's got the legs of a lion and the upper body of a bird. With speed training, he'll go through the roof in the next two or three years. He's already got the endurance."

When the L.A. Marathon reaches Hollywood, where Playboy bunnies will hand water to the runners, Schallert will no doubt be thinking about his wife, Carol. They're newlyweds, married in December, and Schallert thinks of her whenever the loneliness of the long-distance runner gets to him.

To survive as the wife of a marathoner, Carol must be understanding. "Running dominates my personal life," Schallert said. "My day revolves around it." It is Carol, the restaurant manager at the Mid-Valley Athletic Club in Reseda, who keeps him off nachos, his favorite food, and prepares those balanced meals that keep his machinery working properly.

About 1 1/2 years ago, Carol was hiring waiters at the restaurant when Schallert walked in. It wasn't exactly love at first bite, but she did hire him, she says with a wink, "because he could cover the hours." Four months after he was hired, they began to date.

"It's the first time I ever dated an employee," she said. "But I became involved in his running and we got to be good friends."

What's it like to be married to a guy who rises every day at 6 a.m. to run around many blocks? "I've never known him any other way," she said. Are there any drawbacks? "We can never go on a cruise because he'll never find a ship with a big running track, but so what?" she said, smiling.

As the L.A. Marathon nears the home stretch, Latin choir groups will be crooning on Crenshaw Boulevard. Schallert will be doing his own, silent impersonation of Bruce Springsteen. Among the runners ahead of him will probably be Tanzania's Gidemas Shahanga, Schallert's pick to win the race in 2:10. But Schallert won't overextend himself, knowing, he said, "that I've got to run my race, not someone else's."

With the finish at the Coliseum in sight, Schallert will draw on his reserves. What motivates him at that point is the knowledge that a prominent finish in this race will accelerate his running career. Although he won the recent 10K Heart Run at Woodland Hills, he doesn't consider himself a world-class runner in the shorter distances, and knows that his future is in marathons.

"But it's not really a career now," he said. "I didn't even get invited to this race."

As Schallert nears the gate of the Coliseum, he'll barely be aware of his body. It's almost as if some outside force is propelling him. In other races, he said, "Sometimes, I don't even feel like I'm using my legs." The fatigue, mental and physical, will carry over long after the race is done.

"It'll feel like I just got off a horse after a two-day ride," said Schallert, who isn't planning to run another marathon for a year. "The next day I won't be able to do anything real fast, and I'll be sore as hell. It'll be four days before the soreness goes away and seven days before I can run a normal run."

But as he crosses the finish line in the L.A. Marathon, Schallert won't be feeling anything but euphoria. In his mind, the music has stopped, and all he will hear is cheering.

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