It is 5 a.m., still dark, when Carlos Rodriguez leaves his dormitory bed in the Los Angeles Mission and runs toward the light.
He is wearing bathing trunks, second-hand sweats, tight shoes and a frayed knit cap he found in a box.
He is a former crack addict, a former convict, with no permanent home, no car, no money.
He is a marathon man.
“When I run, I think of the things I can become,” he says. “Running makes me believe.”
Rodriguez, 39, jogs down Winston, turns left on San Pedro, turns right on Fourth, and heads through a stretch of hopeless L.A. like a man trying to outrun his past.
He jogs into a group of men who want to sell him drugs.
“That was once me,” he says.
He runs past a hooker who jumps, startled, out of an alley.
“You scared me!” she cries.
“I used to be paranoid like that,” he says.
He jogs under the scattered pale glow of streetlights, through piles of fast-food cartons and beer bottles, past doorways reeking of urine.
He jogs past blanket-draped figures pushing rusted shopping carts, around the loud snoring forms in sidewalk tents, in front of cardboard-covered men who look at him with strange smiles.
“I don’t know these people, but I do know them,” he says. “I used to stay up all night, just like them. It makes you crazy.”
He jogs past the despair, toward the bridge across the L.A. River, alone again, dreaming, as he always dreams, of a day when these barred storefronts are filled with smiles and cheers.
He dreams of today, the L.A. Marathon, the first race of his life, probably the only race of his life, he and 14 other homeless men running on an unlikely team sponsored by the L.A. Mission.
“I have this vision,” he says. “I see myself crossing the finish line and sticking up my arms like, ‘Yeah, I did it. I’m the champion!’ ”
There in the middle of 4th Street, the darkened city behind him, impending dawn ahead, Carlos Rodriguez lifts his arms and pumps his fists and does a little dance.
A wino burps. A giant delivery truck belches. The champion does not notice.
One start, and 22,000 finish lines.
Such is the course map for today’s L.A. Marathon, this country’s biggest collection of human beings racing mostly themselves.
Unlike in Boston or New York or Chicago, nobody ever remembers who wins.
Unlike in San Francisco, nobody ever remembers which runners entertain.
Only in L.A. is the focus on the masses, the average person chasing extraordinary dreams as different as the shoes they will wear, or won’t wear.
Some are running uphill, others are going downhill.
Some, their lives burdened and stretched, are running to escape.
Others, like Carlos Rodriguez, are running to belong.
“I heard you get a medal if you finish,” he says, his toothy smile revealing a silver cap that was fitted when he was younger and wanted to look tough. “I’ve never had a medal before.”
When he arrived at the Mission eight months ago, entering a program that allows him to bunk there for a year if he remains clean, he had nothing.
Drug abuse had cost the El Salvador native the chance to live with his wife and two daughters. Gangs had landed him, briefly, in jail.
He was living out of his minivan, selling drugs and stealing car stereos, when he stumbled into the Mission.
“Guys come here when they reach the end of their ropes, when they’re out of chances, when they have no other choice,” says Jeff Elhami, Mission chaplain and athletic director.
Rodriguez still isn’t sure exactly why he showed up at the large brick structure on the cluttered downtown corner of 5th and Wall.
But he does know when he smoked his last bit of crack.
“In the bathroom in the reception area, right before they took me in,” he remembers. “I threw the pipe in the trash and walked inside.”
After spending two months in a giant dormitory, shaking and sweating and having nightmares about being swallowed by a giant hole, Rodriguez thought he was well enough to hit the streets again.
Then Elhami, a former middleweight boxer, persuaded him to hit the streets in a different sort of way.
He asked Rodriguez to join his third annual marathon team, a group of this town’s unlikeliest runners, hailing from its unlikeliest conditions, undisciplined men who train to run the most disciplined 26 miles and 385 yards in existence.
“I started the team because I figured it would be good for the guys to be able to see a goal, and reach the goal, for the first time in some of their lives,” Elhami says.
That’s not why Rodriguez joined.
“I joined because I saw a picture of a guy crossing a finish line,” he says. “He looked so happy. I thought that could be me. Actually finishing something.”
In Elhami’s first year, his team had four runners, and all finished the race.
Last year, he had 12 runners. Again, all finished.
This year, 15 runners, all new guys with the same old problems.
For their first workout in October, Elhami piled them into a van and took them to the renowned cross-country course at Mt. San Antonio College.
“I wanted them to see how tough, but pretty, running could be,” he says.
It was tough, as in, several guys vomited before the first mile.
It was pretty, as in, several guys were pretty foolish, trying to cheat by cutting through the hills and strolling across the finish without having broken a sweat.
Rodriguez? He ran all of one block.
The years of two-pack-a-day smoking had sapped his lungs. The nights of drugs and floorboard beds had scarred his body.
As a child in El Salvador, he had never played anything other than street soccer. As an adult, he considered his daily exercise to be running from the police.
“I was terrible,” Rodriguez says. “I couldn’t breathe. It was torture.”
But it was freedom, it was free, and it made him sweat with something besides crack or confusion.
So he kept doing it, even when it seemed he could never do it.
Because he’d shown up at the Mission with virtually no clothes, all his running gear was lifted from boxes of donations.
Until fresh donations arrived this week, he had been running with his size-8 1/2 feet squeezed into battered women’s shoes, size 10.
“It felt kind of funny,” Rodriguez says. “But there was something inside of me that wanted to prove I could do this. It would be, like, the first thing I’ve ever proven in my life.”
There are plenty of firsts with this team.
This is, for example, probably the only running team in Los Angeles that gains weight during training.
Rodriguez, who was withered and drugged out when he came here, has gained 33 pounds to 190.
“I gained weight while my cholesterol dropped,” he says. “You like that?”
This is also one of the few running teams that never drinks bottled water -- because it’s too expensive.
“We always know where to find a water fountain,” Elhami says.
Nor do many of them run with sunglasses or caps or anything other than their torn T-shirts and baggy shorts.
When they return to the Mission after their runs, they use their communal showers, eat their Mission-style cafeteria food and retire to their plain dorm rooms.
There was no traditional big prerace feast planned for Saturday night -- in fact, Rodriguez was going to skip dinner because he was worried that the Mission food might be too greasy.
There is no big party planned for those who finish this morning, perhaps because few of the men have families who will come.
“We can’t make it. We have something else to do,” says Jasmine Rodriguez, Carlos’ 15-year-old daughter who lives in Whittier with her mother and sister. “But I know running makes my dad happy. And maybe it can make him get better.”
Maybe they will find the race on TV. Maybe they will see Carlos running with the newly donated Arco T-shirts and caps.
Maybe he’ll even finish within his predicted six hours, although his pace is closer to seven hours, maybe even eight.
The farthest he has run is 12 miles. But the L.A. Marathon is about nothing if not taking that extra step.
“I will finish,” Carlos Rodriguez promises. “By about the 16th mile, I will be calling on the Holy Spirit to carry me home. But I will finish.”
The marathon man runs down across the Los Angeles River, over the 101 Freeway, past the 5, and into Hollenbeck Park.
He slows for a second to find the darkened path around the little lake here. You give him a bottle of spring water. He looks at it as if looking at a jewel.
He hides it in the tall grass, afraid someone will steal it, even though it is 5:30 a.m. and nobody is in sight.
He begins running around the little lake, and you are amazed at how he picks his way around the ducks and trash and mud.
During one segment, he runs deftly on a thin concrete ledge that hangs over mud. During another segment, he stares down a duck who will not move.
“Look at that guy,” he says, with admiration. “He’s not scared. I like that.”
He finishes two laps around the park and returns to the street for his run back to the Mission, where he is required to be in chapel by 7 a.m.
By now, he is breathing quick, and hard, perhaps harder than a marathon runner should breathe after only three miles.
You wonder how he will make it. He hugs you in the middle of an empty sidewalk, and thanks you for believing in him, and you are ashamed for wondering.
“I have nothing,” Carlos Rodriguez says. “But [this] morning, I will be a millionaire.”
Bill Plaschke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.
* Bike tour...6 a.m.
* Wheelchair...8:05 a.m.
* Women’s marathon...8:12 a.m.
* Crank wheelchair...8:18 a.m.
* Men’s marathon...8:32 a.m.