Catching Up Begins With Stepping Back : Marathon: Runner wants to atone for missed race, so he’ll run course backward, then forward, on Saturday.


Questions greeted Michael Murphy’s announcement that he was going to run Sunday’s Los Angeles Marathon backward . Would he use a rearview mirror or risk serious neck trauma by swiveling his head for 26.2 miles? Should he turn his singlet around? Would the shamans of the running world put a curse on him for defiling their sacred marathon?

Murphy cleared things up quickly. To friends and relatives who “thought I was absurd,” he “reworded” his intentions. What Murphy, a Lancaster real estate salesman, is actually going to do is run the marathon course in reverse, beginning at the finish line and ending at the starting line. That should make him less absurd, right?

Not quite. Immediately after crossing the starting line at Exposition Park, Murphy, 45, will turn around and take part in the real marathon, making him the only runner among the 20,000 entrants to do the course twice in the same day. That could lead to any number of consequences, such as not knowing whether he’s coming or going, or feeling a sense of deja vu .

Why the marathon double dip? For Murphy, it’s penance for missing the 1991 race, the only blot on his L.A. Marathon attendance record. In 1996, there will be a dinner recognizing runners who have competed in all (by then) 10 marathons since the race began in 1986. (There are 1,832 runners who have done all seven L.A. marathons.) In undertaking a makeup marathon this year, Murphy will get an invitation to the dinner, although “we may have to give him a Roger Maris asterisk by his name,” a marathon spokesman quipped.

Why is the 10-year dinner so important to Murphy? He’s the one who proposed it to marathon president Bill Burke, sending him a letter last fall. “I thought it was a great idea,” Burke said.

Although even a marathoner probably would hyperventilate at the thought of a 52.4-mile trek, Murphy is neither intimidated nor unprepared. Aside from running nearly 50 marathons since taking up the sport in 1978, he has competed in more than 30 ultra-marathons, some as long as 100 miles.


“Marathons got too easy,” Murphy said, “so I went to ultras.”

Distance won’t be a problem for Murphy, but what about the mean streets of L.A. in the pre-dawn darkness? The marathon course circles through 14 communities, from South Central to Chinatown. Isn’t a 5-foot-7 man running alone down Hollywood or Crenshaw Boulevard at that time of the morning a target for gangs and police?

“Everybody’s off the streets at that hour--even the drunks have gone home,” said Murphy, who considers himself an expert on late-night L.A., having moonlighted as a weekend street sweeper for the past 14 years.

The night before the race, Murphy will sleep at his mother’s house in North Hollywood; he will eat Chinese food for dinner before retiring at about 9:30. As he runs the first marathon, he will consult a laminated map of the course. He doesn’t fear getting lost in the dark: “That’s what street lights are for.”

When Murphy is about halfway through the first marathon, the checkpoints will begin to open, making water available. Even so, he’ll carry his own water and a nutritional supplement. He wants to finish as close to the start of the real race as possible “so I don’t have to stand around,” and he expects the back-to-back marathons to “be easier than an ultra marathon--I do those on hills.”

Murphy, whose best time in his six previous L.A. Marathons is 3 hours 27 minutes, doesn’t care how long he takes to finish this year’s race. If the recent Long Beach Marathon is any indication, he may be on the course until darkness falls again.

“It was more of a social gathering,” said Murphy, explaining his nearly five-hour Long Beach journey. “I stopped to eat and talk to people.”

Murphy couldn’t talk himself into competing in the ’91 L.A. Marathon. Two weeks before the race, his son Thomas, then 2, accidentally ate a piece of raw turkey and became ill with salmonella poisoning. Thomas is fully recovered, but Murphy was so distraught during his son’s monthlong hospitalization that running the marathon was out of the question.

“I was mentally down,” he said.

Murphy, who said he plans to keep running “until I die or until I can’t,” has even incorporated his hobby into his work: He gives clients business cards that refer to him as “the running Realtor.”

“For people to remember who you are these days,” Murphy said, “you’ve got to have a catchy phrase.”

Or you can try running the L.A. Marathon backward.