The Rabbit Was Supposed to Hop Out of Last Year's Marathon; Instead, He Won : Was This a Fast One?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If marathon running were a mainstream sport, Paul Pilkington would be peddling batteries between scenes of "Murphy Brown" or "NYPD Blue."

He's the Energizer Bunny who can or, more accurately, who did keep going and going and going, 26 miles 385 yards to the Coliseum a year ago to win the Los Angeles Marathon.

He was the rabbit, hired to run 13 miles in 1 hour 5 minutes so that the serious contenders could finish in a time that would allow the event's organizers to hold up their heads at marathon union meetings.

He did just that, earning his $3,000, then found that he was so far ahead of the field that he just kept going and going and going . . . until 2:12:13 after he started he broke the tape and added the U.S. Track and Field championship, $27,000 and the cash equivalent of a Mercedes-Benz to his weekend take. In the euphoria of the moment, he said he was going to take the car to replace his 100,000-mile family van. Then he found out what it was worth and figured out how that would spend in Roy, Utah. He took the cash and bought a Harley.

Thirty-nine seconds later Luca Barzaghi of Italy finished, waving his arms and wondering why nobody was waving back. By then, Pilkington was posing for the cameras and wondering how everybody back home was going to like this.

They liked it just fine, and, after a post-race skirmish with Barzaghi, who cried foul, saying he had understood that the rabbit would hop out of the race halfway along, so did the L.A. Marathon folks, who realized they had a bigger and better story than if any of the elite runners had won.

"They had no reason," said Rod Dixon, the New Zealand Olympian and the race's ambassador, of the runners who were irritated with Pilkington for not dropping out, as planned. "Every runner in a race is supposed to know where the leader is and is supposed to know the times and conditions."

Dixon is charged with spreading the word about the L.A. Marathon, and this was a word he had plenty of help spreading.

"In New Zealand there are three (TV) channels, and he was the lead news item on two of them," Dixon said. "I've talked up this race for 10 years, and he did more to promote it in one race than I have in 10."

Marie Patrick, vice president of L.A. Marathon Inc., was queried by some Portuguese officials about the rabbit that won. Bill Burke, the event's president, got questions from German running people.

Pilkington has heard about it from everywhere.

"In the marathon, it's so hard to stay on top because no single person can dominate it anymore because the depth is so much greater than it used to be," he said. "It's hard to get an identity because you don't have the same person winning races--more so in the marathon because of the distance--and so, yeah, it's helped my identity. I'm the rabbit that won."

It's not that he was a nobody. He won the 1990 Houston Marathon and has been the rabbit in some of America's more renowned races. He has his own circuit--Los Angeles, Cleveland, New York and occasionally an event in Japan.

And it's not that he's an eccentric, a sacrificial lamb who gives himself up so that serious marathon runners can do their thing. And he's not a 10,000-meter or half-marathon specialist out to maintain cash flow by pacing a race. The marathon, he says, is his best distance.

"I run about 160-165 miles a week, and I'll pick two marathons a year that I'll run seriously and aim toward," he said. "Then I'll pick a few shorter distances to see where I am and just get some racing. And then the rabbiting is kind of part of my training."

He has run 2:11:13, has competed in Boston and planned to run there again last year.

"But when I ran the whole race in Los Angeles, that took care of that," he said.

Last fall, though, he finished seventh at Venice, Italy, in 2:13:08.

Then it was back to New York, where he ran with the leaders for nine miles as the hare before dropping out. He was standing at the finish line to welcome them to Central Park.

Three weeks ago, he was fourth in the Las Vegas half-marathon, running a personal best 1:01:16 and finishing 25 seconds behind the winner, Eddie Hellebuuck, who was one second ahead of Bob Kempainen, the U.S. marathon record holder and a runner in Los Angeles on Sunday.

Pilkington has qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials, to be run in Charlotte, N.C., next February, and says he thinks he's a realistic candidate for the team. He also is pointing to the World Championships, to be run in Sweden in August. The current world champion, Mark Plaatjes, will line up alongside him in front of the Coliseum on Sunday.

But for all that, he knows his claim to fame.

"I'm the rabbit that won," he said. "I don't mind that. I don't mind the term rabbit. It's what I do."

Pilkington, 36, was a steeplechase runner at Weber State and in graduate school at Utah, but because he bloomed late physically, came to marathon running late and says he still is improving.

In Roy, a town at 5,000 feet, 35 miles from Salt Lake City, he teaches school and runs a media center. He works out with Ed Eyestone, a two-time U.S. Olympian who dropped out in Los Angeles at 24 miles last year because of an injury; and Lucketz Swartbooi, a Namibian who set the pace in Boston in 1993 before being passed at 24 miles by race winner Cosmas N'Deti.

On Sunday, Pilkington returns to Los Angeles as the defending champion.

He's also back as the rabbit.

"That makes it a little different for me," he said. "I'll be out front again, but the pressure's not on because I'm not running the whole thing. That makes it relaxing for me. When you're planning on running an entire marathon, you put a little more pressure on yourself.

"My goal is just to bring them through on time again."

That time will be talked out at a meeting on Saturday, when Kempainen, Plaatjes, Arturo Barrios and the other elite men get together to plot strategy to ensure the race is run in a credible time. You can bet Pilkington will get a few admonitions--and probably a couple of jibes--at that meeting.

But goals change with the ebb and flow of a race.

"I guess we'll have to make sure we know where he is all the time," said Kempainen, chuckling.

"Well, there's always a possibility I could keep going," Pilkington said. "There's still a chance. A lot depends on the weather. If it's a windy day and you're the rabbit, it's much harder on you. Last year, we had calm weather, so it wasn't as difficult."

But don't bet on a repeat performance. You can only sucker-punch a guy once.

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