It all began with stickers and shouting.
In 2002, that was how Lou Briones and his friend Denny Smith found others like themselves at the start of that year’s Los Angeles Marathon. Participants in every running of the race, they were looking for others who shared that distinction. So, as the masses made their way to the starting line, Briones and Smith called out for competitors of the same criteria.
“People started yelling, ‘I’m a legacy!’ ‘I’m a legacy!’” Briones said.
For each runner who responded, Briones and Smith stuck a label on their bib. These labels, the kind usually used to print return address on envelopes, instead had the address of a newly created email account Briones had set up to collect information. When the race ended, Briones returned home to find his inbox full of messages from fellow L.A. Marathon lifers.
With that, the L.A. Marathon Legacy Runners — people who have participated in all 35 editions of the race — formally banded together for the first time.
“I don’t remember exactly how [that name] came about,” Briones said Sunday, a week removed from the most recent 26.2-mile race that starts at Dodger Stadium and ends in Santa Monica. “It may have been the result of a writer ... that used the word ‘legacy’ in a story. It just kind of stuck.”
It’s also rather fitting, the exact thing the group, which still includes 127 members after all these years, preserves by participating in every single race.
These aren’t world-class athletes, this army of overachievers. Many have lived ordinary lives — doctors and dentists, teachers and truck drivers. By now, most are retired. And over the years, more and more of the original gang — back in 2002, Briones said there were about 600 Legacy members — have let the pursuit go.
“We really are the bell-shaped curve,” Smith said. “We really reflect what is great about Los Angeles. The fact that we can run and be outdoors all 12 months of the year, it allows all of us to stick with this. We all use the word ‘family’ all the time.”
And even as the numbers have dwindled, Briones and Smith remain amazed — though not surprised — at those who keep coming back.
“It’s become a very important thing in the lives of all the legacy runners,” said Briones, now 72 and retired from his job in the aerospace industry. “As you can imagine, in 35 years, a lot of things happen in a person’s lifetime. … The one constant thing in all of our lives is the L.A. Marathon.”
Organized two years after the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the first L.A. Marathon attracted more than 10,000 registrants in March 1986. During the early years, race officials held mini-celebrations every half-decade for the dedicated bunch who came back again and again.
In 1991, the City Council awarded the Legacy Runners (then nicknamed “Fivers”) with a proclamation of achievement. For the 10-year anniversary, the group (nicknamed the “Teners”) was honored with a chicken dinner ceremony at the Coliseum.
The 2001 celebration was simpler, a lunch at the Olvera Street Plaza, during which the honorees were presented with a singlet running shirt with the dates of all 15 races printed on the back. That was also when Briones remembered hearing the term “Legacy Runners” for the first time.
It sparked an idea.
Leading up to the 2002 race, Briones met Smith by chance in a diner in Westchester. They were wearing matching marathon-themed shirts and got to talking. Smith had already created a website he hoped would bring the Legacy Runners together, but wasn’t sure how to find others who belonged in the group.
“We had no access to anybody’s email or phone numbers,” Briones said. “We didn’t know anybody.”
So, they hatched their sticker plan. By the time the 2003 race came around, the Legacy Runners had built their own de facto social club.
“It’s become this real pride,” Smith said. “A sense of belonging that no one else has.”
No longer do the runners wait until the marathon to get together. They have an organized training regimen, rebuilding their stamina each year with half a dozen training runs of five, 10, and then 20 miles. Periodically, a member will host a group dinner. Most importantly, an annual postrace brunch is held the Sunday after every marathon.
That event draws the largest turnout, a four-hour meal where members really learn about one another.
“We try to get people involved,” Briones said. “We have open mic time, where people come up and talk about their experience, especially if they had some kind of struggle they had to overcome.”
There is never a shortage of stories, especially as the runners have entered their middle-age and retirement years. Some have run the marathon on new knees and replaced hips. Others have crossed the finish line on crutches or in wheelchairs.
For all of them, the marathon has remained over the course of their lives. Marriage and families. New homes and new jobs. Children and careers. Some have even moved away from L.A.
But every March, they get back together again.
“At that brunch, we congratulate each other and share paraphernalia,” said Rick Wallace, another Legacy Runner who shows up to the gathering every year with each of his L.A. Marathon medals hanging from his neck. “Talk about stories and do all kinds of things.”
The coronavirus pandemic didn’t snap their marathon streak this year. The race, which was held March 8, was one of the last mass gatherings in L.A. before wide-scale social distancing measures were enacted in the city.
“Everybody had the knowledge of it,” Briones said when asked if members of the group were hesitant to participate. “But because the marathon decided the race was going to go on, pretty much everyone decided that they were going to do it, regardless of the risk involved.”
By last Sunday, however, Briones was forced to call off the breakfast. Over the course of the week, the risk had grown. Too many people would have been in the same place and too many members fall into that susceptible 60-plus age group.
“It was a very tough decision,” Briones said.
But, the Legacy Runners expect to get together again next March. In 35 years, after all, they always do.
“We always tell our runners, ‘Get to the start line,’” Smith said. “If you can’t [complete] the race, fine. But don’t break your streak by not showing up.”