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Column: Virgen’s View: Costa Mesa man, who is autistic, prepares to run his sixth OC Marathon

On most Saturdays, Marcell Bassett will ditch his running shoes and run on his bare feet. His toes crush into the sand. He prefers to train for the OC Marathon on the beach.

He says the work helps with his posture and strengthens his stride. He wants to be ready, and he believes this will help. This applies to a marathon race, but it could also be a reflection of his everyday life.

Each morning, Bassett, 43, of Costa Mesa must find ways to be prepared for the day. He lives with autism.

The complex developmental disability became well-known in the 1988 movie “Rain Man.” But this isn’t Hollywood, and Bassett isn’t counting cards in a casino or desperately wanting to watch “People’s Court.”

He’s a gentle soul who is passionate about running, and yet there’s more to him than that, and more to him than autism.

For the past few months leading into Sunday’s 13th annual OC Marathon, Bassett’s life has been mostly about running … and running … and running.

In addition to his training on sand (he enjoys running near Huntington Beach Pier the most), he jogs through Mile Square Park in Fountain Valley. He also likes to run in Fairview Park in Costa Mesa. He trains daily.

“I had issues running on the streets with the homeless tents,” he said. “I used to run by the [Santa Ana] riverbed, but I had to cut down the training for the riverbed.”

Bassett expects fewer issues Sunday morning when he runs 26.2 miles, through Newport Beach, Irvine, Santa Ana with the finish at the OC Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa. He knows the course well. This will be his sixth time running the OC Marathon and he doesn’t run in any others.

He runs “to feel great and to have fun.”

Those great feelings are evident while running near the Mile 23 water station of the OC Marathon. That’s where his friends at Project Independence are set up to cheer for him and distribute water to all the runners.

Project Independence, known to many as P.I., is a Costa Mesa-based nonprofit that helps adults with developmental disabilities.

Bassett stops by the P.I. office at least three times a week, sometimes just to hang out and converse with staff.

“He’s very thoughtful and kind,” said Debbie Marsteller, chief executive of P.I. “His perspective on the world is so interesting. He is also just a fabulous athlete.”

Bassett has a look of a runner: well-defined leg muscles and a thin build. He said he’s been actively running since he was 15.

Marsteller worked for Vantage Foundation, an organization similar to P.I., for 28 years before it merged with P.I. in 2008, and she stayed on.

She said there have been several athletes at P.I. but none at Bassett’s level.

“He’s very devoted to his training and his sport,” Marsteller said. “He runs how you wish you could. If you were a runner you would want to run like him. It’s so smooth and steady. There is not one wasted motion.”

Bassett trains alone. It’s difficult to find others with his schedule. He sometimes works out in the morning and runs in the evening. He works 15½ hours a week at the IKEA in Costa Mesa.

“I’ll be excited to run my race, to get my time in,” Bassett said about Sunday’s race. “I put three hours for my time, the time I want, around [3 hours, 4 minutes].”

When Bassett runs he said he sometimes enjoys listening to music, mostly hits from the 1970s and ’80s. When he’s not running or working, he has a few hobbies, including art.

Bassett will cut out phrases, as well as different-shaped letters and numbers from magazines, or the ad coupons that come in the mail. He collects those clippings in plastic baggies to later make a collage.

Bassett said he likes to spend time with his parents, Ronnie and Maxine, who live in Garden Grove. He also has a sister, Monica, 28.

They too will be rooting for him to run well at the OC Marathon.

steven.virgen@latimes.com

Twitter: @SteveVirgen


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