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At the Finish Line

The first runners to reach the finish line of L.A.'s Marathon IV breezed across in what seemed an effortless conclusion to a self-destructive quest. They slowed easily to a walk as they acknowledged cheers from the sidelines, then ambled off in a manner that belied the rigors of a 26-mile run, as fresh and alert as babies in a play yard. Then came the walking dead.

“Will they live?” I asked Dr. Sonny Cobble as I watched a series of runners being half-dragged and half-carried to medical tents set up by the Orthopaedic Hospital. Their legs had turned to rubber and their heads rolled on their shoulders like Styrofoam balls. I’ve seen healthier-looking people in embalming rooms.

“Oh, sure,” Cobble said, as he strolled from the non-acute to the acute tent, where volunteer doctors and nurses seemed prepared to handle anything short of a heart transplant. Cobble was medical director of the marathon. “They look a little ashy now,” he said, “but we’ll get them healthy again.”

“How you doing?” I asked one runner who hadn’t even made it to a tent but was stretched out on the grass waiting to be helped in.

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He stared at me through eyes that took a minute to focus, swallowed hard and began moving his lips. No sound emerged at first, but then he tried again and I had to lean in close to hear him whisper, “Just fine.” I felt as though I were listening to his last words. Tell my wife I love her and I finished 36th....

Welcome to Marathon IV, where the point of the endeavor isn’t so much to win but to survive: to survive the distance, the heat, the body’s instinctive resistance to pain and, so doing, to ignore that tiny, anguished voice in your head that says, “ Stop, stop!

I was at the finish line at the behest of Orthopaedic Hospital’s Levonne Ahonen and Rosemary Hutton to see how an army of volunteers handled the casualties of a sport whose participants looked as though they were straggling in from the Second Punic War, drained and battered but happy to be alive.

Levonne and Rosemary were whirlwinds of activity but were never too busy to ask me to eat, eat or sit, sit. Levonne, as I recall, was in charge of eat, eat and Rosemary handled sit, sit, but since the most energy I expended that day was to walk from the finish line to the medical tent I had no need to sit, sit. Eat, eat could wait until later, when I might savor a little pasta alla carbonara, leaving the baloney sandwiches to those with less complicated demands.

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There was a festival feeling to Sunday’s assemblage, a day brightened by balloons, flags, caps and T-shirts and by vendors hawking hot dogs and Jesus. Overhead, a small plane dragged a trailer with a Jack in the Box logo that said, “New grilled chicken filet sandwich,” and news helicopters darted about like hummingbirds.

Marathons have become the new state fairs in America, calling crowds to participate in the accomplishment of a race rather than in the accomplishment of raising prize pigs or baking prize cakes, but the feeling is the same. Everybody loves a party, and only the era alters its conditions.

My favorite vendor pushed a God-is-love cart. You threw a quarter into a wishing well and that somehow caused a monkey to run around a turntable on a pole over the cart itself, after which the man pushing the cart shouted, “God is love!” The monkey rested and looked down from his perch.

Tom Bradley was there, standing before those naked statues in front of the L.A. Coliseum whose exposed genitalia once caused shouts of moral indignation. The mayor was on hand to reward the winners through a public address system so bad that all you got was blurred oratory echoing off into the masses.

But the finish line was the place to be. As tension mounted, photographers shouted, “Get out of the way,” at the security people and the security people shouted, “Get out of the lanes,” at the photographers, but it was all just a lot of noise and no one seemed very upset.

I wore a red tag that said “Medical,” having forgotten to apply for one that said “Media,” and when a runner staggered out of the finish chutes he turned to me for help. But since my medical knowledge is limited to pumping the left arm of a person who has had the wind knocked out of him (my sister taught me that when I was 11), I summoned more qualified assistance. The man was hauled off by Orthopaedic Hospital personnel, and as he left, I said, “Was that fun?”

He looked at me and closed his eyes and smiled.


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