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Celebrity Marathon : The Spotlight Is on the Finish Line Where Actors, Comedians, Sports Figures Are Making Tracks to Raise Funds for 26 Los Angeles Charities

Times Staff Writer

I trashed my calves; my quads were ready to explode; I came walking onto the set the next day like Grandma Moses. ...

--Brian Patrick Clarke

I puff up. I really do. The day after a marathon I just can’t get into my jeans.

--Susan Walters

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I’m going to eat lightly so I won’t go into severe cramping after 100 yards.

--Fritz Coleman

My boyfriend dropped me off at the starting line, said, “you’re crazy” and split.

--Jo Ann Willette

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Me? Run a marathon? Are you kidding?

--Roosevelt Grier

Pheidippides they’re not.

Nor, for that matter, are all but a handful of the 20,000 runners entered in Sunday’s fourth Los Angeles Marathon.

Like their less-celebrated counterparts, though, the Marathon Celebrity Team is equal parts of grit and grin, of faith, of hope and, especially, of charity.

A handful of the celebrities are dedicated athletes too, at least when their shooting schedules permit. Others make no apology for being in the race strictly for the money--money pledged per mile (their miles) to one of the official 26 marathon charities.

Run for Charity

Some play heavies on the screen. Others, like Grier, don’t have to play; they are heavy, and while their activities are confined to the 26 charities booths set up along the race course, their contributions can be weighed in the gold of good will.

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Attention, though, focuses on those rash enough to actually make a run at the 26.2-mile trial by treadmill. And to actually finish? The year’s worth of bragging rights are akin to Oscars, and just as rare.

For the first time, the celebrity team has its own sponsor--Great Earth Europlex--lending a certain cachet to what used to be a walk in the park. Among this year’s races within a race is a men’s rivalry as intense as it is undeclared; a women’s rivalry that was strictly the product of PR hyperbole--until each contestant got wind of the other’s intentions, and a demonstration of what can only be called raw courage, on the part of TV weatherman/comedian Fritz Coleman: “The very fact that I would strip to my shorts in front of thousands of people is a victory for charity over common sense.”

“It’s funny,” says Brian Clarke, who doesn’t make it sound all that funny. “Jack gets all the ink and all I do is win the damn race.”

“Jack” is Jack Scalia, “Dallas” stalwart, this year’s chairman of the 26 charities and “a really terrific athlete” according to Clarke, who is not above a little sandbagging.

Clarke--who has played in “General Hospital” and “Simon and Simon” and just wrapped a movie called “Singapore Harbor"--is arguably the fastest man in Hollywood. He’s won the celebrity section for two straight years, breaking 3 hours in 1988, a pretty sexy time for a 36-year-old. Meanwhile, Scalia, 38, ran 3:07 to Clarke’s 2:58.

“Jack cracks me up,” Clarke says. “Talk about sandbagging! I’m reading the L.A. Times Marathon Supplement and he’s saying, ‘Well, I just want to finish.’ Come on, Jack! You’ve run four (flipping) marathons and you never came close to not finishing.

“All I know is he told me last year before the race he was going to be taking it easy, right? I tell you what: Jack Scalia was running by my side for 20 miles. I’m saying to him, ‘Jack, you’re looking good,’ and I’m thinking, ‘This guy is running easy ?!’ ”

Scalia is “very competitive,” says Clarke, who’s played baseball and basketball with his rival. And Clarke? “Some people have pledged a lot extra for every minute under 3 hours. So if Jack ran 2:50 and I did 2:55, I’d be thrilled.” Sure.

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Noncompetitive Clarke--who played football for Yale, for Memphis in the old World Football League and just barely blew a tryout with the Dallas Cowboys--has only a single (printable) gripe with the marathon: the start time. “By 9:05 a.m. the L.A. streets are already baked to a kiln. They obviously do it for the sake of TV, but if you speak to the runners, they’re all (angry). But there’s (race organizer) Bill Burke riding around in the lead car, waving and smiling. Hey, have a good time, Bill.

“Ask Fritz what the weather’s going to be, will you?”

Coleman goes out on a limb: “The weather will be the same here as it’s been every March 5 since the Paleolithic Era. And you can quote me.”

Then there’s the rivalry that wasn’t, but suddenly is. Maybe.

“Who’s Jo Ann Willette?” asks Susan Walters, 25, who plays Bridgit on “Nightingales.” “I’ve never heard of her.”

“Susan Walters?” asks Willette, equally 25 but playing 14-year-old Constance on “Just the 10 of Us.” “I’ve never met her.” A studiously nonchalant pause. Then: “Has she ever run before? I gotta know my competition, babe. Her fifth marathon? She finished four? All of them?”

Walters has indeed finished four--including first place among celebrettes last year, at 4:15. She’s trained for seven, but a variety of injuries, including a fractured pelvic bone, scrubbed the others, “which is why I kind of have a fear of fastness now. How fast is Jo Ann? My times are always so much slower than everyone else’s that it’ll be nice to have company in the back of the pack, back there where we swap recipes for chocolate-chip cookies.” Sure.

Walters, who swears she has “the wrong kind of body for running,” nevertheless finds it relaxing, relatively pain-free and the perfect set-up for long days on the set. She gets up at 4:15 a.m. to run with her dogs and far prefers the regimen to, say, aerobics.

“Here I am on a very looks-oriented show,” she says, “and the last thing I need is to go to an aerobics class surrounded by mirrors and a bunch of beautiful women in leotards. That’s what I’m doing at work. Then they say, ‘Now we’re going to be working on the pecs, or the quads.’ I mean, it’s like being in a doctor’s office.”

In last year’s race: “I was running for charity, so I said, ‘Great, I’ll do 10 miles, at least contribute something.’ Somehow I got mentally psyched and felt that even without training, I’d go for it.

“My parents were in from Atlanta. My dad and I ran the first 16 together, then my mom jumped in and we finished together. It was beautiful. I was bawling at the finish line. . . .”

Willette ran in the first L.A. Marathon. Finished too, in 4:44. Which is pretty amazing, considering the prelude.

“What happened,” she says, “is--well, I run in the neighborhood and this old man I pass every day--he’s always in his front yard doing something--he yells, ‘Hey Jo, you running in the marathon?’ I yell back, ‘When is it?’ He says, ‘next Sunday,’ so I say, ‘Yeah, sure, I’m running.’ So I trained hard--all that week.”

Willette figured to do 15 miles or so, “but it was so much fun! There’s a point, about 18 miles for me, when you lose your mind. Up to then, your mind is telling you, ‘All right, that’s enough,’ but your body goes on automatic pilot, and there’s an emotion and rhythm you get into. . . .

“Once the endorphins kick in--they just go ‘Ta- da !'--you get ‘runner’s high.’ You relax mentally. I just go on and on and that’s when I do all my problem-solving, my thinking. Before you know it you’ve finished, and you feel great afterward, you feel alive!

“There’s a sense of accomplishment, a private thing. Something that’s yours.”

“They bill this race as ‘a fast, mostly flat, loop course,’ ” Clarke says, “and they’re right on one out of three. It is a loop course, but a very tough one. (Premier runner) Rod Dixon told me it’s tougher than Boston.

“The first 10 miles is a significant climb; 10 through 19 is a quick section; the final 6 miles, especially the last 3 along Exposition Boulevard, you hit a hill where you just want to cry. I’m like semi-lucid at that point. It’s a minor grade, but it feels like an eternity.

“We thought we were pretty macho playing football, but this makes football seem like a (sissy) sport.”

Rosey Grier isn’t around to hear the comparison. If he were, chances are he’d have given one of his deep-bellied chuckles and agreed with Clarke.

Make no mistake, Grier--monster mainstay of the L.A. Rams’ defensive line only yesterday, it seems--is not running the L.A. Marathon. Not now, not ever. Why not? “You don’t know what I have to carry,” he laughs, “and I don’t want to tell you. When you get to be my age (56), the most important thing to exercise is your wisdom.”

In a larger sense, though, Grier is what the Celebrity Team is all about. On Sunday, start to finish and then some, Grier will be manning the RP stand at Mile 25.

Blinding Disease

RP is retinitis pigmentosa. RP makes you blind. The process can’t be halted--not yet--but it can be lessened, and it is Grier’s intent, by his presence at the RP table, to call attention to a problem “that most people aren’t aware of.”

“You know,” Grier says, “when the lights went out in New York City people were up in arms. They wanted those lights on, ‘and don’t let it happen again.’ Well, the lights are going out for RP victims all over the world. They’re losing their sight. They’re hurting.”

Grier’s exercise these days consists of a daily 3-mile walk along San Vicente Boulevard. “It’s not enough,” he admits, “but the bus drivers keep me on my toes: ‘Where were you yesterday?’ they ask, or ‘How come you’re comin’ when you should be goin’?’ ”

Grier’s heart, though, is bigger than that of the strongest runner. On the board of RP International, he is a very visible, and forceful, representative. “We need research,” he says, “education. We have to get the lights turned back on. That’s my role in the marathon.”

Fritz Coleman’s role is similar, if somewhat more oblique. As a member of Comic Relief, he promises not only to expose his problematic knees to the world at large but actually to run--at least for a mile--on an ad hoc relay team.

“I jog 2-3 miles a day,” he says, “but before my knees went bad I was totally noncompetitive.”

Still, he was asked, isn’t a stand-up comedian in better running shape than, say, a sit-down comedian? “We are, we are,” he agrees. “Watch for us; you can’t miss us. We have that pasty pallor; most of our equipment is borrowed, and we squint in direct sunlight.”

Carbo-Charged

As for pre-race diet: “I’m a big 1-K runner,” he says, “so maybe I will do a lot of carbohydrate loading. You can run off a lot of fat in the 1-K run, or even while shaving in the morning.

“Steroids? No, not me, but if ever there was a candidate, I’m it.”

“Yeah, Fritz is kind of a hero,” says Clarke, tapering off with a last-day run in Van Nuys.

“You know what’s fun?” asks Walters, whose tapering-off isn’t that much different from her flat-out racing. “What’s fun is the people--the ones you run with and the ones who’re cheering you on. Of course, half of the good runners will finish the race, shower, go home, have lunch, turn on the TV and there I’ll be, still running.

“But who cares? Not me. It’s for a good cause. . . . What did you say Jo Ann’s time was again?”


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