Runners Go the Extra Miles for Charity

Times Staff Writer

As she approached the homestretch of the Orange County Marathon, Diana Bell of Newport Beach was treated to a surprise serenade.

Over the public address system, race announcers broke into a spontaneous "Happy Birthday" song for Bell, who turned 53 Sunday and who was greeted at the finish line by her teenage daughter and two friends who had traveled from Florida to support her.

"We're so proud of her," said Marty Leaf, 57, of Tampa Bay, who met Bell when they both became flight attendants in the 1970s. The post-race celebration would be "whatever the queen wants to do," Leaf said.

Bell was one of about 12,000 runners from 41 states and nine countries -- as far away as Ukraine -- who participated in the second annual Orange County Marathon, half-marathon, 5-kilometer and children's race.

Organizers estimated that up to 40,000 people gathered along the 26.2-mile course that began in Newport Beach's Fashion Island, passed the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, and finished near the Irvine Spectrum.

Albert Kiplagat, 34, of Kenya was the overall winner, finishing in 2 hours, 24 minutes, 22 seconds. Magdalena Boulet, 32, of Oakland was the top female runner and placed 11th overall, at 2 hours, 50 minutes, 41 seconds.

It was a day when anyone could be a hero. And for many, the events were a family affair.

Abby Gradijan, 4, laced up her white and pink sneakers and became a first-time runner. She even had a banged-up knee to prove it.

While her father was tackling his first marathon, Abby ran the 1.2-mile course for kids. She took a tumble at a curb but recovered to finish behind 7-year-old brother Travis, both with plenty of energy left to cheer their dad down his homestretch.

"This is the first race she hasn't been in a stroller," said her mom, Nina Gradijan, who ran with her daughter.

Nearby, Barbara Stefanides, 35, of Los Alamitos stood with her daughters, Dana, 4, who shook a toy tambourine, and Kira, 23 months, who beat on a plastic drum.

"Daddy's gonna be here any minute," their mother promised.

Within moments, Dave Stefanides appeared, grabbing Dana's hand and sweeping Kira off her feet, and taking both across the finish line with him. Stefanides, 39, finished in three hours, 40 minutes, not far from his goal. "He spends a lot of time with his girls," his wife said. "And he spends a lot of time training too."

The Westlake Village chapter of Moms in Motion was 19 strong, with most competing in the half-marathon. Jessica Dundish, 29, was the lone member to go the full marathon, her fourth -- but her first since giving birth to her three children, ages 8 months to 4 years. She finished in about 5 hours, 47 minutes, but "didn't even look" at her time because she knew it took her longer than she hoped.

"It was a little hotter than I would have liked, but I don't have any injuries," said Dundish.

The mission of the Orange County Marathon is to benefit children's charities. This year, race organizers hoped through event proceeds to raise at least $500,000 for 11 groups through the nonprofit Run for Orange County Kids (ROCK).

Grant Dunning, 39, of Newport Beach ran his first marathon to raise $14,000 for one of the charities, United Cerebral Palsy Assn. of Orange County. His daughter, Paige, 8, suffers from the condition, and they completed the course together, with him pushing her in a large stroller.

"I did it mainly to raise awareness for kids with the disability," he said. "The sky's the limit as far as what she will be able to do."

Others were inspired by their own disabilities. Among them was Fermin Camarena, 51, the last to finish the half-marathon. He walked the entire way with a leg brace and bamboo cane, which he raised in salute as he took his final steps.

Camarena, who suffered a stroke in 2003, is trying to start a foundation to raise money for other victims. His message was simple.

"I want to tell everybody that even if you just start you're a winner," he said. "It's the person who doesn't ever try who loses."

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