He was paid to run fast, but not too fast.
He was paid to run far, but not too far.
Quick but harmless, Paul Pilkington was known to Los Angeles Marathon runners Sunday as the “rabbit.”
Somebody else was supposed to win. For $3,000, Pilkington was supposed to quit.
But with nearly a two-minute lead and 10 miles remaining, Pilkington’s legs had other ideas. Or was that his pride?
Whatever, the rabbit pulled a marathon out of his hat.
Delighting spectators and shocking elite runners by refusing to quit as expected after 15.5 miles, American Pilkington led from the start and hung on to win the ninth annual race by 39 seconds over Italy’s Luca Barzaghi.
On a cool, cloudy morning, Pilkington led the 19,000 competitors over the 26.2-mile course in 2 hours 12 minutes 13 seconds, the fourth-fastest winning time in race history.
He was joined in front of the Coliseum about 16 minutes later by an emotional Olga Appell.
Running only nine days after becoming a United States citizen, Appell won the women’s race by nearly nine minutes to chants of “Go U.S.A.”
It was the first time in nine years that the men’s and women’s winners in one of the big three marathons--New York, Boston, Los Angeles--were U.S. citizens at the time of the race.
It was also the first time in recent memory that the second-place finisher was convinced he had finished first.
Barzaghi, a pre-race favorite, fell so far behind Pilkington during the final miles that he could no longer see him. He figured Pilkington had dropped out of the race--as promised, according to Barzaghi--so he slowed.
By the time Barzaghi crossed the finish line, he had already chosen the color of his new car. He raised his arms. He smiled.
He was wondering where all the cameras were when a silver medal was draped around his neck.
He then learned that the athlete who is paid only to set a fast pace and block the wind for the better runners actually kept running.
“I thought the rabbit had dropped out; nobody told me he was still running. I thought I won,” Barzaghi said angrily through an interpreter. “I was keeping my own pace. I was not running against him.”
So began one of the more bizarre post-race chapters in this marathon’s history. By the time the participants had finally gone home, there were more strained jaw muscles than hamstrings.
The Italians derided Pilkington:
“The rabbit is supposed to drop out of the race, it’s not fair, and we’re going to do something about it,” said Eugene Colombo of Pasadena, who served as Barzaghi’s interpreter. “Luca had no idea what was going on.”
Said Pilkington’s agent, Bob Wood:
“You’ve got to be smart enough to know you aren’t in first place. Hey, man, get a brain. I know they give split times at this race. What, these guys can’t read, either? Those comments are bush league.”
The Italians, in the middle of a news conference, also criticized Anne Roberts, coordinator of marathon elite athletes:
“Anne told us before the race that the rabbit would be dropping out after 25K (kilometers), absolutely,” Colombo said.
From the back of the room, Roberts responded: “I never said that.”
Said Colombo: “Yes, you said it.”
Said Roberts: “I never said it. It’s not true.”
However, third-place finisher Andrzej Krzyscin of Poland and 11th-place finisher Danny Gonzales of Anaheim, both of whom ran in the pack with Barzaghi, agreed with the Italian.
“At a technical meeting (Saturday), we were told that the rabbit was going to drop at 25K,” Gonzales said. “I’m thrilled for Paul, but that is what we were told.”
Roberts claimed that she would never have made that promise, and Pilkington said he never would have signed a contract containing that promise.
“In every race, the rabbit always has the option of staying in the race,” Pilkington said. “It doesn’t happen very much, but it’s always possible.”
However, Pilkington, 35, acknowledged that he has dropped out of each of the five previous marathons he has run as a rabbit, including twice in New York and last year here.
“But today, after I did my job by getting out fast, nobody came after me,” said Pilkington, who won his first marathon in four years. “I couldn’t believe nobody closed the gap. I figured as long as I was out there and feeling good, why stop?”
He was buoyed by the knowledge that for the first time, this race was considered the U.S. Track and Field men’s marathon championship.
When running partner Ed Eyestone suffered a groin injury Friday, Pilkington knew he had a chance at the $12,000 bonus for winning the national title in addition to $15,000 prize money and the car.
“Once I did what I was paid to do, I knew I had a chance at more,” he said. “I just got more and more relaxed. And nobody seemed to be able to go with me.”
Not that he has any regrets about being a rabbit, nor will this controversy cause him to retire from that strange duty.
After all, for those runners who live on the outskirts of fame or who are training for other races, it is a nice way to make a buck.
“You serve a purpose, races can use you,” he said of his role. “It’s all part of my trying to make a living as an athlete.”
Pilkington, who lives in northern Utah, also makes a living teaching troubled teen-agers. He walked away from the Coliseum on Sunday worrying about making an 8:30 a.m. writing class at Washington High in Roy, Utah.
Unusual for winners of this race, he will keep the luxury car. It will replace a van that has nearly 100,000 miles.
And about that white glove he wore on his left hand, his only apparent concession to fashion? He wears it not because of Michael Jackson, but because of asthma. An inhaler is stuck inside the glove.
Not that he needed it Sunday. Leading from start to finish, one tends to breath easy.
On another dizzying day in marathon history, he was the only one.
“During the race, the photographers kept wanting to drive back from Paul and shoot the real runners,” said Bill Burke, marathon president, describing the scene on the course. “By the 20-mile mark, it was great fun to find them and say, ‘Hey, guys, guess what--the winner is really up there!’ ”