They look like the nation's health nuts: fit, trim, all pumped up and ready to run. To the more sedentary types who watch the race on TV, the 20,000 runners in this Sunday's 13th Los Angeles Marathon may seem to have the best of everything: good health, high energy, immense self-discipline--and enough spare time and money to spend getting ready to run the 26.2-mile course. But the couch potatoes would be wrong--the marathon is more than just a race.
Although many of the runners are undoubtedly happy, healthy types who run for fun--and because they want to stay that way--there are enough heart-tugging tales among the hordes to keep a TV series in business for years.
Judging from questionnaires filled out by marathon participants for a firm that promotes the annual event, the ranks of runners include people afflicted with terminal diseases, with severe disabilities and with monumental grief that causes them to race in memory of departed loved ones.
Other entrants confess that they took to the marathon course to defeat personal demons, such as addiction, excess weight, a lack of self-confidence or a sense of physical frailty.
And yet another big segment of the field might be dubbed "The Inspirations"--people who are running to demonstrate to special friends or loved ones that discipline, willpower and practice pay off and that anyone who really tries can make it to the finish line.
Father Joel Henson of Oxnard runs for God.
In his neon-green shirt and neon-touched running shoes, the 32-year-old priest from St. Anthony's Catholic Church says preparing for the priesthood and the marathon have had certain similarities. In the middle of training for each, he says with a chuckle, "there comes a time when you ask yourself, 'Why am I doing this? Am I truly called to this kind of life?' " In both instances, the answer was yes.
An upbeat kind of guy, Henson recalls a 1988 pizza party in Camarillo, hosted by Sister Kathy Bryant. She proposed that priests, nuns and seminarians join the marathon pack "as a visible witness to the fact that a religious life is a healthy, normal and happy" career choice.
"Every year since then I've asked myself, 'What is happy and normal about running 26.2 miles?' " Henson jokes. But seriously, folks, he's done it nine times, starting in 1989, while still a seminarian. In 1994, he noted in his journal: "My first run as a priest. No discernible ontological change."
In this, his 10th marathon, he hopes to finally finish in less than 5 hours.
Toshi Huey, who works for the Los Angeles County Health Department, turned 50 two years ago and decided to run the race to celebrate her birthday and her health--and to keep pace with her more athletic husband. She trained every Saturday for months with a Venice-based group and ran the 1995 race in 6 hours, 18 minutes. (The record L.A. time: 2:10:19.)
"I was thrilled just to cross the finish line," she says.
Then, on the day of their 25th wedding anniversary in 1996, Huey underwent surgery for breast cancer. Next came chemotherapy and radiation treatments. She still takes Tamoxifen, which makes her look bloated, she says. But she's back in training, and you'll find her at the starting line in Sunday's race.
"You get this will to go ahead with life, to ignore the little problems," she says. "When you see me at the 10-mile mark, I'll be all puffy. I may swell up, but I won't give up. That's my motto."
Kim Tatera, 34, of Apple Valley, was never athletic and had no particular desire to be. But after teaching sixth grade at Liberty Elementary School in Victorville for a few years, a big idea occurred to her.
"I wanted to inspire the kids who are not in soccer and football, who don't belong to any teams, who feel left out," she says. "I wanted them to know they can do something great, participate in a sport all by themselves." So she started running, trained for the competitionwith the Loma Linda Lopers running club and started a track team at her school.
When Tatera runs her fourth marathon on Sunday, she will be doing it "for my kids." There are about 45 of them in her year-round program, she says. "We run Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3 until 4. The kids love it. They are a part of something that makes them feel good. We don't require uniforms, or even running shoes. Some of the parents couldn't afford it. Many of these are latchkey kids, and in addition to helping them be healthy and strong, it gives them something wholesome to do. I try to teach nutrition, breathing, anything I can to help bring them along." She's apparently also had an impact on her husband, who will run his first marathon this year.
Frankie Xavier Guzman, 27, of Los Angeles was a spectator at last year's marathon, where he went to cheer his uncle Mike, the family jock.
"I realized then and there that I would participate the following year," Guzman says.
There was a slight problem to be overcome: Guzman, at 5 feet 10, weighed 312 pounds. That was then; this is now. Guzman, under the guidance of his uncle, lost 91 pounds in one year "just by changing my eating habits and learning to run. I didn't see doctors or try fad diets. I'm doing it the slow, healthy way."
Guzman says he started slow, with walkathons. Then 5K runs, and 10Ks.
"There's a magazine called the Race Place that lists all races in the area. I pick something, register and go," he says.
Two weeks ago, in preparation for Sunday's race, Guzman's uncle set up a 20-mile test course in Griffith Park.
"My goal was to do 13 miles nonstop. I did the whole 20 miles in about 3 hours," Guzman says with pride. He is running not just for himself, he says, but for those in his family who have a tendency to be overweight. He wants to show them what can be done, he says. And he's running for his father, who lives in Missouri and hasn't seen him in three years.
"He's real proud of me now, I think," Guzman says. "He's coming all the way to Los Angeles just to see me run."
And here is one heck of a running team: George Timchenko and Mauri Lathouwers. Timchenko, 69, is legally blind and legally deaf. But that doesn't stop him. Especially since he met Lathouwers, with whom he's been running the L.A. Marathon, arm in arm, for nine years.
Lathouwers, 43, a medical finance executive from Long Beach, decided 10 years ago to try to "help someone finish a marathon who might not be able to do it by himself."
"I was just your average weekend warrior kind of runner," Lathouwers says. He'd run some marathons himself and realized that "the exhilaration of finishing is almost too incredible to describe." He wanted to give that gift to a person who might not otherwise be able achieve it. So he called the L.A. Marathon office, which referred him to the Retinitis Pigmentosa Foundation. The foundation put him in touch with his new best pal--the retired but not retiring Timchenko.
At least once a week before work, Lathouwers drives 40 minutes each way to run with Timchenko, who lives in Monrovia.
"To prepare for the marathon, we increase our distances to about 15 miles each practice. Then on Sunday, we're going to run like heck and try to beat our usual time, which is about 5 hours. George is in his best shape ever. His weight is way down, and his condition is incredible.
"If you can believe this, in the off-season, when we're not running together, we play golf together. And what's more, he beats me."
'You get this will to go ahead with life, to ignore the little problems. When you see me at the 10-mile mark, I'll be
all puffy. I may swell up,
but I won't give up.
That's my motto.'