The small knot of people gathered at the corner of Figueroa and 6th streets Saturday morning were more than a few hours early for the beginning of the Los Angeles Marathon. The streets had yet to be closed; the traffic hadn't even been diverted. But as a long, sustained air horn sounded, one participant took his mark and took off.
His special send-off reflected his special circumstances: He is a marathoner without legs, without a wheelchair, who will go 26.2 miles on his arms.
Bob Wieland, 57, whose legs were blown off in Vietnam, uses what he calls "hand shoes" -- gel-pads with handles -- to swing his torso down the course. They'll protect his hands from the concrete and asphalt streets. It may take him as many as four days to complete the course.
Wieland, an Arcadia resident, has been participating in distance events -- including marathons, iron man triathlons and even a walk across America -- for more than 20 years, always using his hands to propel himself through the course.
He last completed the Los Angeles Marathon in the late 1980s and decided to participate this year in part to show support for U.S. troops abroad.
As always, fierce upper-body strength, a team of motivated supporters and a bit of humor will guide him.
While two masseuses, one on each arm, helped him stretch his trapezoid and deltoid muscles before the course, Wieland posed for television cameras and joked with marathon President William A. Burke. "We're going to set the early pace," Wieland quipped.
"I just don't want you to embarrass anybody," Burke bantered back. And then he held the air horn in the air. At precisely 10:05, a traffic light turned green and Wieland crossed 6th, beginning his trek.
He will have to obey all traffic laws for most of his journey, remaining on the sidewalks for most of his trip.
During today's race, he will navigate the course like any other participant.
" 'It is God that girdeth me with strength,' " he said, quoting Psalms. He is an ardent Christian and said his faith motivates him, both on the racecourse and off.
"We ask the Lord to guide and direct our steps," he said before starting.
With his heart-rate monitor chirping -- he prefers to stay between 139 and 145 beats per minute -- Wieland barked out orders to an entourage that included two masseuses, several cheerleaders and a videographer.
When he stopped for a red light at the corner of Figueroa and 9th streets, he realized that he was eliciting mostly stares from the people lined up to eat at the Original Pantry Restaurant.
"Give 'em some brochures, so they'll know what's going on," Wieland shouted to Sammy Malouf, a Hollywood stuntman who is the chief member of his support team.
Two of Wieland's acolytes quickly were dispatched to pass out blue, bookmark-sized fliers listing some of his accomplishments and a toll-free telephone number for information about Wieland-alia, seminars and products he touts on a Web site, mrinspiration.com.
As masseuse Laura Vasquez chatted with the crowd, one man waiting in line, wearing a marathon T-shirt, marveled at Wieland's resolve.
"What an amazing heart this guy has," said Jeffrey Solomon, 59, a loan officer from Venice.
Then the light changed to green. Team Wieland was back on the road.
One hour, 53 minutes and 11 hours after the air horn sounded, Wieland crossed under the "Mile One" banner at the south end of the Convention Center.
Twenty-five to go.
According to race organizers, more than 22,000 runners are expected to participate in this year's Los Angeles Marathon, which will begin at 8:30 a.m. at 6th and Figueroa and finish at Flower and 5th streets. More than 85 performing groups will entertain runners and crowds along the route.
In addition, 17,000 cyclists will participate in the Acura/L.A. Bike Tour, which begins at 6 a.m. and ends near USC.