Sylvia Mosqueda, who finished second among the women in this year's City of Los Angeles Marathon, used to make the 40-mile round trip between City Terrace and Citrus College in Azusa each day on a motor scooter.
But when a crack in the pavement separated her from her scooter one day and left her sprawled across the intersection of Marengo and Soto streets in Lincoln Heights, her coach took her transportation away.
"I was lying on the ground, thinking I was dead," Mosqueda said.
She lived to tell about it, of course, and these days Mosqueda is much more adept at navigating the streets, as she showed in leading the women through the first 23 miles of the marathon.
She faltered at that point, eventually finishing more than two minutes behind Nancy Ditz, but left a lasting impression.
Bob Prichard, a Northern California-based sports physiologist who specializes in biomechanics, said Mosqueda's stride characteristics are "way superior to any other woman distance runner I've ever seen."
Prichard, who analyzed the runners' forms for Channel 13's telecast of the race, said Mosqueda has a stride angle--the space between the front and trailing legs at full stride--of 98 degrees.
In comparison, Prichard said, Olympic gold medalist Joan Benoit-Samuelson has a stride angle of 90 degrees and Grete Waitz, Olympic silver medalist and eight-time winner of the New York Marathon, has a stride angle of 90 degrees with her right leg forward and 86 degrees with her left leg forward.
"What that means is that a person who has a stride angle that is 10 degrees greater than somebody else will cover about 20% more ground with every stride they take," Prichard said.
And Mosqueda, he said, was not overstriding in the marathon.
"She's very efficient," he said.
Then why did she lose to Ditz, whose stride angle is 90 degrees with her right leg in front and only 78 degrees with her left leg in front?
"She just hit the wall," Prichard said. "She ran out of fuel."
But Mosqueda, who said she was running only for a workout, is much better than anybody thought, Prichard said. "Once she gets her conditioning, she's going to be among the best in the world. She's not just a local runner."
Who is this pesky Mosqueda?
Less than a month shy of her 21st birthday, she is a brown-haired, brown-eyed, 5-foot 5-inch, 103-pound sophomore at Cal State Los Angeles who shares a one-room apartment in Alhambra with her best friend, Elizabeth Castaneda.
Her coach, Greg Ryan, calls her a free spirit, "almost like a street kid . . . who is going to do what she wants to do."
The last of six girls born to Guadalupe and Dolores Mosqueda, Sylvia came by her independence at an early age. When she was 6, her mother was crippled by rheumatism and her parents separated.
An aggressive child, raised by her sisters and invalid mother, she took up running as a freshman at San Gabriel High School.
"I was real active and real competitive in sports," she said. "Anything I played, I tried to win. We had a mile loop we had to run in P.E., and I always had to win. I'd stay with this one girl and I'd always out-kick her at the end."
Her teacher suggested she join the track team.
By the time she was a senior, she was good enough to win the Southern Section 3-A cross-country championship.
Letters from colleges trickled in, but Mosqueda, who said she went to class only to stay eligible for track, threw them away.
"I got through high school by cheating a lot," she said. "I'd copy other people's papers and put answers on my arm. I didn't study very much."
After her senior track season, she didn't watch her weight much, either.
She went from 103 pounds to 126 in her freshman year at Citrus, which she chose over Cal State L.A. because she didn't believe she was ready for the academic load at the university level.
She ran infrequently for about 1 1/2 years, eventually left Citrus and finally enrolled at East Los Angeles College two years ago at the urging of Ryan, who was coaching there at the time.
Ryan told her straight out that she'd have to lose weight.
Said Mosqueda: "He told me, 'You're fat. You've got a big fat butt. You're too heavy to run. You're going to run like a turtle.' "
She cut out sweets and other junk food, dropped the weight, attended class often enough to retain her eligibility and won the state junior college cross-country title in 1985.
Last year, she was thrust into the limelight when she led the L.A. Marathon for 19 miles as "the mystery runner." An unofficial entrant in a green singlet, she ran in the lead for all of Los Angeles to see on Channel 13.
She dropped out, but only after putting a scare into Ditz, who won the inaugural race and later called Mosqueda a "bandit," according to Mosqueda.
Ryan said it was all an accident.
He said that Mosqueda makes a long run--usually 13 to 17 miles--two or three times a month. Running by herself can be tedious, though, so sometimes she runs, unofficially, in marathons. At Irvine one year, he said, she led for about 13 miles before dropping out.
"But when there aren't TV cameras out there, nobody knows what's going on and nobody really cares," Ryan said. "It's no big deal. She never finished any of them, so it was never really an issue."
In L.A., though, cameras were everywhere, or so it seemed.
"There was an awful lot of media coverage so we decided we'd just stay out of the way," Ryan said. "But we had a foul-up in communication and she just took off running."
Mosqueda remembers Ryan telling her that Ditz, the 1985 U.S. marathon champion, was in the race, but remembers thinking to herself, "So what? I'm not going to run the whole thing."
But then she took off running and the crowd started yelling, telling her she was the first woman.
"I thought, 'Whoa, what am I doing up here?' " she said. "I knew then that I was going to get in trouble. I didn't have a number and the cops were trying to pull me off the course. I didn't want to get out--not because of the TV, but because I wanted to finish my run."
Ryan, making his way around the course, saw her a few times, but didn't realize she was in the lead. He eventually got caught in traffic and Mosqueda, unsure where he had told her to stop, carried on to the 19-mile mark, where she caught a ride back to the start-finish line.
She never found Ryan, and hitched a ride home with friends.
That night, she learned that she had become known as "the mystery woman" and was identified on television only after a cousin called Channel 13.
Reporters called, but she disconnected the phone.
"It was funny for a while," she said. "But I started to get angry when I read in one paper that my husband (she's not married) was waiting for me at the 10-mile mark with my number and that I went to USC."
Last summer, she saw Ditz at a meet at Stanford and apologized.
She lost a toenail during last year's race, but otherwise the long run didn't seem to affect her. At the state junior college track meet last spring, she won the 800, 1,500 and 5,000-meter runs, setting national junior college records in the 1,500 and 5,000.
After transferring last fall to Cal State L.A., she finished third in the NCAA Division II West Regional cross-country meet and fourth in the national.
On Feb. 28, less than 24 hours before the start of the marathon, she made her debut on the track for Cal State L.A., winning the 800 and setting a school record while winning the 1,500 in a meet at Cal State Northridge.
Her goal for the marathon was the same as last year--run as hard and as far as she could without injuring herself.
In the week before the race, she fought off the flu and never went to bed before 11:30 p.m., about two hours past her usual bed time. "I wander a lot," she said. "I like to drive around."
But when Ryan saw her pass the 22-mile mark that Sunday, he was confident she would win.
Last year, between miles 13 and 19, Mosqueda slowed to a pace of about 6 minutes 10 seconds a mile, about 40 seconds a mile slower than she averaged in the first half of the race, Ryan said.
But this year, he said, she ran at about a 5:59 pace between miles 16 and 22.
"Her pace wasn't slowing at all," Ryan said. "In fact, she actually opened up about 10 seconds on Ditz, by my calculations, during that period. So she really wasn't dying. She looked great. Her mechanics were real good.
"Her face looks funny when she really presses. And when she runs these races, she usually looks that way after Mile 2. But at Mile 22, she looked really relaxed. She was in control of what she was doing."
Mosqueda, though, wasn't drinking any water. Unaccustomed to drinking while she ran and fearful that her stomach might reject the cold liquid, she took water into her mouth on occasion, but spit it out.
Finally, in the 24th mile, "it all caved in," Ryan said.
"When I got to 24, I was practically jogging," Mosqueda said. "And when Ditz passed me, I didn't even care. I wasn't in the race to win it, so I figured, 'Why fight it?' "
Her vision became blurred, she said, and she felt like she was going deaf. She alternated running backward and forward in the 25th and 26th miles because her thighs were burning.
She finished just four seconds ahead of Maria Trujillo.
"I couldn't even really stand," she said. "I felt awful. It took me a good 45 minutes to recuperate and become myself again. I felt like I was a zombie or something. I was really spaced out, like I was high or something. I was really delirious."
Still, she felt better than she had after completing her first marathon.
That was during her junior year in high school, the day after the Southern Section cross-country meet.
She entered the Rose Bowl Marathon, curious to see what "hitting the wall" was all about.
Her competitive instincts took over, and when she saw the leader near the end of the race, she took out after her and passed her. But then her legs gave out. She was passed and friends tried to help her along. Told that aiding a runner could disqualify her, her friends let her go and she staggered across the finish line in second place.
She was sick for a week.
"I don't really like running that far," she said. "The only reason I wanted to finish in L.A. was to accomplish something from last year. I didn't want to hear people say, 'Oh, she dropped out again.'
"My idea wasn't to win, and I'm glad it wasn't because if you go out and try to win, it's a lot of pressure."
Ryan didn't expect her to finish but wasn't surprised when she did.
"She's a real competitive person and she's also real young," he said. "I'm sure that whereas a lot of people think it was great that she ran it, most coaches think, 'Who's the idiot who entered her in a marathon? And who's the idiot who put her in a marathon the day after she was in a track meet?'
"This isn't exactly what you call one of the great coaching decisions of all time. I'm sure my status in the coaching world hasn't gone up because of this."
Why did she finish?
"She just decided to," Ryan said. "You're dealing with somebody who's not controllable. You're dealing with somebody who's going to do what she wants to do.
"I guess I could have tackled her on the course."
Still a reluctant student, Mosqueda said she considered giving up her scholarship and accepting the $8,000 that was supposed to go to the runner-up. She declined when Ryan told her he wouldn't coach her if she quit school.
"He's a great coach," she said.
Mosqueda, who will have taken about a month off from competition before she runs in the 3,000 meters at the Stanford Invitational this Saturday, believes she has a chance to make the Olympic team next year, but she's not sure in which event. Her time of 15:52.5 in the 5,000 ranked 15th in the nation last year and her marathon time of 2 hours 37 minutes 46 seconds qualified her for the Olympic trial next April in Pittsburgh.
"You've got to be smart," she said. "You've got to pick the event that's the least crowded."
She and Ryan have talked about using the same strategy in the Olympic marathon trial that she used in Los Angeles the last two years.
"If I'm in good position, then I'll go ahead and finish and try to qualify," she said, looking ahead to the trial. "If I'm not, I'll drop out."
It couldn't hurt, Ryan said.
"On her long runs, she goes about 16 1/2 miles and she runs it really hard," he said. "She doesn't do that every week, but she'll do at least one of those every month, along with a couple of 13- or 14-milers.
"So she runs long runs very hard, and she's used to that as part of her training. And so, when you put her in a slightly longer race and she runs very hard, it's not like it's a big shock to her system. It's not something she hasn't approached before."