When the gun goes off at the Los Angeles Marathon this morning, one spectator will probably shed a tear as the 19,000 runners dash through Downtown.
Marie Patrick has been observing this massive scene for 10 years. She knows every inch of the 26.2-mile course, from the water stations to the portable toilets to the bandstands and party tents. She can name every sponsor, recite the demographic minutiae of the runners, and even recount some of their personal histories--the first-timers who thought they'd never make it to the starting line, the ones battling illnesses, the die-hards who have traveled thousands of miles to be here.
But few people would know Patrick if they ran into her.
"Marie who ?" is the comeback when her name is raised in connection with the marathon, even though she co-founded the annual event with schmoozemeister Bill Burke a decade ago.
He's the gadabout spokesman and she's the diligent workhorse. For 10 years they have maintained this balance of power, in good times, with deep-pocketed sponsors, and in bad, amid accusations last year of money laundering.
The backstage role suits Patrick just fine. "I have no need to put my hand out and say, 'I'm Marie Patrick. I'm vice president of the marathon,' you know? . . . I don't feel like I'm in this little shell and I'm pecking my way out."
If that attitude seems disingenuous, those close to her insist it's real.
"Not everybody has to have an ego," says a former co-worker, "and in a sense that's why Marie's successful at what she does. A lot of people want to be famous rather than successful and wealthy, but I think Marie would rather be successful and wealthy rather than famous."
Elite runner Mark Plaatjes, who won the 1991 L.A. Marathon and has known its co-founders for seven years, says, "Bill's the flash guy. He gets the credit for what gets done, but really the two of them work hand in hand. . . . Courting a sponsor, Bill will do the talking and the socializing, but Marie is the person who closes the deal and gets everything organized. You never see Marie, but she really does the most amazing things."
A few weeks before race day, an annoying swarm of flies has taken up residence outside the marathon's West Los Angeles headquarters.
Adrenaline buzzes within. Every phone rings as staffers and volunteers ricochet across the office. Some will practically live here until the event, pulling 16-, 18-hour days.
If there is an eye in this hurricane, it's Patrick's office, overlooking a row of graceful eucalyptus trees. Neon fish glide lazily inside a tank. Employees sometimes eat their lunch in front of the aquarium just to get their equilibrium back.
Patrick's phone is pressed to her ear. Her conservative suit is a throwback to her East Coast--New Jersey to be precise--upbringing. Her red nails are perfectly manicured, her makeup neatly applied to her perpetually tanned face, her modified pageboy in place to a hair. Post-its dot neat stacks of papers covering the desk.
During a few moments on hold, she huddles with the head of operations, checks a press release and gives instructions to her assistant. She apologizes to a visitor for a nonexistent mess.
If the pace is a little more frenetic than usual, it's because the marathon expanded this year to include a non-competitive bike tour, part of a big-picture plan to make the event a huge citywide happening. The for-profit venture has also evolved over the years to include pre- and post-race parties, entertainment, live television coverage and thousands of spectators.
But that first year, Burke and Patrick were "selling a dream," she says. Others had tried and failed to sustain a world-class race. What these two had that their predecessors did not was a city still high from the 1984 Olympics.
As tennis commissioner for the summer games, Burke hired Patrick as his deputy. That partnership segued into the marathon business, and the pair has never looked back. What did they know about marathons? That one should be 26.2 miles long.
Patrick recalls that a would-be sponsor called a few months before the inaugural event to ask if bibs were available for advertising its logo. "Bill said, 'Excuse me a minute,' put him on hold and buzzed me and said, 'Marie, what's a bib?' I went running into his office and said, 'You know, the bib that racers wear over their shirts.' And Bill got back on the phone and said, 'Yes, they're available.' That's how much we knew."
Each proved to be a quick study. With his political connections (he's married to county supervisor and longtime politico Yvonne Brathwaite Burke) and her sports marketing savvy, they pulled together a first race that attracted 11,000 runners.
Their responsibilities have never been officially defined. But their personalities dictated that he be the grand wheeler-dealer who often puts a chokehold on the spotlight, and she the Uber -organizer who ensures that the i's are dotted, the t's crossed.
"I think we understand our strengths and weaknesses," Patrick says. "He can tell a story with a lot more excitement and style and pizazz. I tell my stories my own way, and I don't think they're boring for people to listen to. But it seems to work. . . . He enjoys being a spokesman and I'll do that, but it's not my most comfortable role."
Skirting attention has always been Patrick's way, says her mother, Eleanor Wurzburger, a retired administrative assistant who lives in Lexington, Va.
"I can remember, for instance, at the dinner table, (her older sister) Peggy did all the talking and Marie was just there. I talked to her about it some time later, and she said that Peggy taking the lead was all right with her."
While her sister was the brainy one, Marie excelled in sports, particularly tennis, to her father's delight.
Stuard Wurzburger was a self-employed labor relations consultant who went to work at 9, returned at 5:30, never took a business call at home, paid cash for everything and encouraged his girls to read. He didn't allow a television in the house until Marie was a teen-ager. The strong work ethic he instilled until his death three years ago is still felt.
"One thing my father forced me to do was write. I had to write for the school paper, and when I went to summer camp, I had to write a letter a week. When I went to college, I had to write a letter a week or my tuition wasn't paid. There were serious rules in my family. . . . It seems pretty harsh, but I survived. . . . I believe a lot of that translates into who I am and the kind of work I do."
Patrick followed her sister to Ohio Wesleyan University, where she majored in English and earned a teaching credential. "My father really believed that a woman should get an education and should have something to fall back on."
He also believed that a woman should get married, which Marie did soon after graduation. She then went to work at the private Maumee Valley Country Day School in Toledo. Former headmaster Gordon Schofield recalls that she was "a natural" with her second-graders.
"They just trusted her and loved her," he says, adding that Patrick also made an impression by talking sports with "any of us guys."
Patrick and her husband, an accountant, soon moved to Denver, where she continued to teach. During the summer break of 1975, she grew restless and took a temporary job helping to stage a tennis tournament. She thought it would be a great way to meet some of her longtime sports idols. There were tickets and box seats to sell and sponsors to find, and Patrick loved it all. By the time school started, she decided to ditch.
The company she had joined eventually became the tennis marketing and management firm ProServ. After setting up its tournaments in Denver for two years, Patrick went after a more prestigious event, the finals of the 1977 Colgate Grand Prix tour in New York's Madison Square Garden.
Her bosses' balked. "They said, 'You're married, you can't do that,' " she recalls. But she prevailed and, with her husband's blessing, went East. A blown-up photo of a finals match, with a sold-out Garden in the background, sits on a her office shelf.
Patrick continued to stage tournaments--renting office space, hiring staff, selling tickets and finding sponsors--in other cities for several years. At some point she realized that she didn't want to return to Denver, and her marriage ended.
While still with ProServ, Patrick started a tournament circuit for men 35 and older in smaller cities. Charlie Pasarell and Marty Riessen became her partners in the venture. For the next five years, they traveled to such places as Birmingham, Ala., Seattle and Oklahoma City. Patrick, again "one of the guys," found that she appreciated working with players who didn't cop an attitude when asked to make an appearance at a Junior League meeting.
But the travel wore Patrick down. On the rare nights she spent in her Washington, D.C., apartment, near ProServ headquarters, she caught herself trying to call room service.
Eventually, she decided to leave ProServ for what she thought would be a secure, long-term job establishing tournaments at a new Scottsdale, Ariz., resort. But it evaporated when the complex was sold. Then she heard that Burke needed someone with know-how to help with the Olympics.
"Everyone had a lot of spirit, drive and imagination," Burke says, "but there were not that many with hands-on experience. As young as she was, Marie had 10 years in the business, which was nine years and six months more than some people."
When the Olympics ended, Burke and Patrick made a pact to keep going. They brainstormed a list of 37 potential business ventures, including some tennis events and a marathon.
Patrick's tennis background perhaps gave her the courage to attempt staging a 26.2-mile road race, but it didn't prepare her for the challenge of putting on an event that encompasses half the city. She had never even been much of a runner, although she finished the New York Marathon in 1988.
"We had a lot to learn," she says, "and even after the first year we had an enormous amount to learn. (I thought) maybe the first year we were extremely lucky, and the second year we were a little smarter. But I really needed three years under my belt before I could look in the mirror and say, 'Yes, I really have something here.' "
Patrick and Burke traveled to marathons around the world, studying how one organized its runners, how another managed its finish line. They also struck up a friendship with the late New York Marathon Director Fred Lebow, who became an invaluable guide.
Over the years, the marathon has seen fat times and lean. Early sponsors such as Coca-Cola have dropped out, but others, including Packard Bell and Price/Costco, have signed up. Mercedes-Benz, an original backer, will bow out after this year.
Patrick seems unconcerned with any defections: "It's never really a surprise. We work closely with (sponsors) throughout the year, so we understand when their marketing is going in other directions. We're more than willing to talk if there's room to talk, but if a decision's been made that money's now going into Indy car racing or golf or whatever, there's not much we can do."
Runners, too, must choose their races, and the best look for good weather, a fast course and hefty prize money.
Don Kardong, president of the Spokane, Wash.-based Assn. of Road Racing Athletes and a senior writer for Runner's World magazine, says skepticism dogged the L.A. Marathon in its early years. Unpredictable weather was one factor; early March can bring the overcast, cool mornings that runners love or the hot, smoggy conditions they hate. And there were others.
"I think there were a lot of people who were dubious in the first year or two that they were going to be able to really carve out a significant event," says Kardong, who has never seen the marathon here. "There had been some failures with other groups, and (they) supposedly knew a lot about running."
But Patrick and company deserve credit, Kardong says, for promoting an unglamorous sport amid intense competition. "Getting sponsors and media attention are not easy things to do in an area like L.A.," he says. Although the event still lags behind the nonprofit New York and Boston marathons in terms of status, it could catch up.
In the early years, the marathon refused to pay elite runners appearance fees, an accepted practice in some top races. They hoped to reward performances with big prize money. But Burke and Patrick realized that they would have to offer more to lure the best. Now they dole out a combination of appearance fees, bonuses and prize money. Among athletes, the race's reputation has risen.
"Some of it is just the fact that you have to be around a long time. But from an elite runner's point of view, every year it moves up another notch," Kardong says.
In other circles, however, it has slipped.
Last year, Los Angeles Marathon Inc. was accused of laundering $73,000 in political contributions from 1989 to 1992. The city Ethics Commission and the state Fair Political Practices Commission settled the case, with the marathon and a former top employee admitting that the company illegally concealed that it was source of 137 donations.
The secret contributions allowed the marathon to give thousands of dollars more to candidates than permitted under the city campaign finance law. Neither Patrick nor Burke was cited in the case; he signed the settlement papers on behalf of the L.A. Marathon, which paid a $436,000 fine.
"Obviously it bothers me to see the company name in the headlines," Patrick says of the related news reports. "As far as the response business-wise, it was minimal. It certainly wasn't pleasant to read about but . . . I think the event is large and strong and will survive and will continue to grow. . . .
"My father once told me that the most important thing you have in life is your reputation. That covers a wide spectrum, especially the more you do, the more people you know, the broader your base, so it's important to me. When you're growing up you go through those teen-age years of 'What does everybody think of me?' But I think at 46, reputation takes on a different connotation. And it's important."
It's Monday night in Brentwood two weeks before the race, and the crowd at Mezzaluna is starting to grow. Down the street, Patrick eats ravioli in an Italian restaurant near her home, a four-bedroom done in calm pastels that she shares with Ali, her cat.
She talks of spotting a runner the other day in a yellow marathon bib reserved for "tenners," or people who will run for the tenth year.
"He already had it pinned on his shirt," she says. "I honked and waved and he sort of looked up like, 'Who is this person?' But it just brought tears to my eyes, I thought that was so neat."
What sounds like a well-crafted sound bite isn't, says runner Plaatjes.
"She's completely honest about that. One thing she and Bill have in common is that when they're around an event they're putting on, they get really jazzed."
Patrick's mind isn't totally fixed on today's race, though. It skips ahead to summer, when the office phone lines won't be in knots and she can brainstorm with the staff.
She sees the future, and it's an even bigger L.A. Marathon.
If someone had shown the 22-year-old schoolteacher Marie Patrick a glimpse of her life in 1995, she would not have believed it.
"Last year some of my college roommates came for the marathon, and one of them described me as being very daring, that the risks I'd taken were enormous," Patrick says. "And I think I'm a pretty conservative person, I carefully weigh the scales and make a pretty calculated, careful move when given an opportunity."
But then again maybe careful isn't right: "I was teaching school and started doing the tennis tournaments and jumping from city to city, then moving back East, then quitting that to move to Arizona, then coming out here to do the Olympics, then teaming up with Bill and starting a company--it's like, wow, you know?"
Patrick pauses to consider the force behind her.
"Maybe I want to meet some level of expectation that nobody ever thought, or maybe my father never really thought, I could be. I know it's not unusual to have some sort of father-daughter relationship that pushes the woman out there to be stronger, to be more successful--as successful as she can be.
"I think he was quite proud of me. I'm not sure he quite understood it all because the world changed dramatically from when he was my age. He was not a demonstrative man in showing it, but yes, in my heart of hearts I know he was proud of me. He came out to Los Angeles a few years before he died to see how things were going, and I think he was quite pleased."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Native?: No; born in New York City, raised in New Jersey, lives in Brentwood.
Passions: Tennis, sitting in the back yard on a sunny day, reading.
On seeing herself in the marathon mural on the Santa Monica Freeway: "It was one of those things that evolved without my really understanding how large it would be and the fact that thousands and thousands of people would be driving by it every day. It just shocks me every time I see it."
On being a mentor: "I hope I am. There aren't a lot of women in the sports business in general, but there are more today than there used to be. I think there are plenty of opportunities in the business, and maybe it gravitates toward men, but that doesn't mean a woman can't be there doing the job. She just needs to be in there trying if it's what she wants to do."
On why she's stayed with the marathon for 10 years: "The people you feel sorry for are the ones who have jobs they don't really enjoy. I can't imagine going to work gnashing my teeth. . . . Every day in the office there's an exchange of teaching and learning and growing and encouraging people to grow and move forward, and encouraging myself to move forward and branch out a little more."