Tom Fleming has always started fast. In 1979 he had Bill Rodgers by nearly a minute at 10 miles in the Boston Marathon. He came in fourth. Twice he has finished second in Boston, but always his attack was the same: as hard as he could go for as long as he lasted. "You can criticize me for no finesse," he has said, "but that's just the way I am, a tough kid from Bloomfield, New Jersey. But one of these times I'll catch that perfect peak of a day, and when I blow away from the field there'll be no catching me."
That day finally came on Sunday in the $100,000 Jordache Los Angeles Pro-Am Marathon. Seizing an event that figured to be a curiosity, or at best a harbinger of the inevitable world of professional marathoning, Fleming left a solid field after a mile, took on a grueling course that led from the Hollywood Bowl to the Pacific—far hillier than that of any major marathon—and won by more than three minutes in 2:13:14.4. The victory was worth $25,000 to him, thought to be the largest purse ever awarded for a marathon, above or below the table.
Fleming did it without ever looking back, without any signs of distress. Indeed, he rolled down the fearsome last mile and a half, a descent of 500 feet, to the shore beneath Pacific Palisades—"a nail-ripper of a hill," one runner called it—with his arms outstretched like a" soaring bird, in relaxation, in glee, in control. "I couldn't believe how easy it was," he said later. "Even on the most wicked hills, like the one beside UCLA, my breathing never went hairy, my stomach never grabbed, my legs stayed light. It was scary. Things aren't supposed to be that way in a killer marathon."
Things were not quite so transcendental for Cindy Dalrymple or Doreen Ennis-Schwarz because they found themselves in a pitched battle for the women's prize. Ennis-Schwarz runs up on the balls of her feet and, thus, gets severe blisters in long races. But she immediately took the lead along with Gayle Olinekova. If that name seems vaguely familiar, it's because it used to be Gayle Olinek, 12th fastest female marathoner ever, at 2:35:12, and possessor, as an SI headline (Jan. 5) put it, of the "greatest legs to ever stride the earth." She has had it lengthened—the name not the stride—to the full Ukrainian version of her grandparents.
At 10 miles, Dalrymple trailed the leaders by 150 yards. She won the 1977 Honolulu Marathon, but she's now 39, divorced, has two children and, until four months ago, had never had the luxury of being able to train without the drain of a full-time job. She worked as a 911 Police Emergency operator in Seattle before returning to her beloved Honolulu last November. That same month she entered and won the second pro race staged by Jordache, in Pasadena, and took home $12,500. Everything changed. "Now I can eat and sleep and train," she says. "It's exactly what I've wanted to do all my life."
After 11 miles, Olinekova dropped back with a severe nerve inflammation in her left foot. She wouldn't finish. Dalrymple sensed she was gradually closing on Ennis-Schwarz. "I seemed to be gaining on the uphills. Now I'm not at all fond of hills, but when I saw that, I kept saying, 'I hope there's another hill, and another...."
Ennis-Schwarz was game. "But at 17," she said, "my blisters started breaking. It was hard from then on."
Dalrymple caught Ennis-Schwarz at 22 miles, not far from the house President Reagan has for sale, and pounded down the last hill to win in a personal best of 2:39:55. Ennis-Schwarz, her shoes and socks bloody, was second in 2:40:57.
The race had begun at 8 a.m. on what would remain a cool, overcast Sunday and had passed through a still nodding cross-section of Los Angeles communities, from the streetwalkers near Sunset and Vine to the elegant desertion of Beverly Hills. There were none of New York's or Boston's cheering millions. "Sure, there was a long way between people," said Dalrymple. "But there was the money to think about. I kept recalling that $12,000 for second isn't bad, but $25,000 will go a lot further."
There was such a sense of Tightness to Dalrymple's good fortune and Fleming's pure virtuosity that it forced a closer look at this event. Was this, finally, a pro race good enough to begin a movement? Would this be the start of delivering road racers from the company of bootleggers and numbers runners and others who take their pay on the sly?
There had been a couple of previous attempts at pro racing, roads paved with good intentions that had turned distinctly hellish. Jordache had sponsored $50,000 events last fall in Atlantic City and, as mentioned, in Pasadena, but heat and terrible organization had so scarred the races that although Dalrymple won her $12,500 and double men's winner Ron Nabers got $27,500, the company and the events attracted little goodwill. "If Jordache makes jeans like it puts on marathons," growled one thirsty runner after being unable to find an aid station in the Pasadena race, "you should keep a needle and thread in your pocket. Your shirt pocket."
But Jordache hadn't really made those marathons; it had acted only as sponsor of events organized by others. Kindly put, they were the wrong others. For the company's third event, the one it looked to as a test case for continued sponsorship, it got lucky. Michael Grandi, Olinekova's boyfriend, had been studying Los Angeles for a couple of years—and feeling embarrassed for it.
"It's such a fine running area, in terms of numbers and quality," he says, "that I was amazed it had no first-class races. Nothing like Boston or New York or Atlanta or 20 other places. I decided that what we could contribute was a great race."
"We" were Grandi, Olinekova and a young boxing and body-building promoter named David Zelon. Together they formed a company called Sun Runners Sports Promotions and bent to such essential details as finding a route to run. "People told us you can't run down Sunset Boulevard," says Grandi. "They said, 'This is California where the car is king. You'll never get permission.' That got us more excited. But it turned out not to be hard at all. We made presentations and got clearances from the LAPD, Bel Air. West Hollywood, Westwood, the Highway Patrol. It was just that nobody had asked before. Beverly Hills took the longest. We couldn't have a refreshment station in Beverly Hills or a clock—these were ruled excessively garish displays—but we got the streets."
Zelon turned out to be a whiz at solving the complex problems of support and safety posed by a major marathon. Police protection was so thorough that in the quiet of the sleeping streets it seemed like overkill. Six hundred cops closed all the cross streets, and the runners were further guarded by 2,000 barricades and 8,000 orange cones. Grandi said he personally went from door to door along the length of the route to let people know what was going to happen. He said he gained five pounds from the snacks they fed him, but lost two running from the guard dogs in Beverly Hills.
"So we had a race," says Grandi, "but no sponsors." There had been interest from Twentieth Century-Fox and Playboy Enterprises, but instead of a commitment there was a lot of wait-and-see talk. Grandi then remembered that Jordache had offered $250,000 as prize money for last year's New York Marathon, only to withdraw the offer when The Athletics Congress ruled money would have to be given not directly to the runners but to their clubs. Grandi went to the giant designer jeans company, which does some $250 million in annual sales, and found a warm reception from Chairman Joe Nakash and his brother Avi, both of whom saw no good reason why runners shouldn't have a chance to benefit from hard-won excellence. Said Avi, "I want them to know that when they're finished with amateur competition, there's a place for them to go and be rewarded."
Grandi, in fact, envisions—and has done groundwork on—a continuing circuit of professional races. "These people have to have some kind of competitive future after sacrificing their amateur standing," he says.
In assembling his field, Grandi reached out to the six-month-old Association of Road Racing Athletes (ARRA), a remarkably cohesive runners' union that has as its goals a circuit of money races and open (meaning pro-am) competition in the Olympics and everywhere else. "The ARRA has the big names," he says, "Rodgers, Frank Shorter, Herb Lindsay, Garry Bjorklund, Ellison Goodall, Mary Decker." If ARRA had come in, Grandi would have had a coup. But it didn't. The sticking point was Jordache.
Don Kardong, a 1976 Olympic marathoner, is the present chairman of the board of ARRA. He had met in October with Jordache Executive Vice-President Paul Agner, whose gold-and-diamond neck-chain style can be disconcerting to the more subdued souls of the road. "Agner was honest about it," says Kardong. "He said if after their third marathon it was better for them promotionally to shift their money to some other attention-getter, they would."
Because of the seeming absence of a long-term commitment from Jordache. ARRA advised its members against competing in Los Angeles. "Once an athlete runs in a pro race and is declared ineligible as an amateur, we lose a little of our bargaining power to force The Athletics Congress and the international bodies to reform amateur rules," says Kardong. "We're holding off until we can put together a circuit good for a dozen races a year for three years."
Dalrymple had no qualms about the loss of her amateur standing (if, indeed, pros will be disqualified from amateur events; several runners theoretically tainted by the earlier Jordache runs have been welcomed into amateur races). "I'll be 42 in 1984," she says. "I figure I'd better win as much money as I can now before the really good people get in."
Her words seemed to assume a future for such races, and Joe Nakash was there in the emotional scene at the finish line to pledge just that: "We'd poured $575,000 into these things—not just for prizes but for the whole complicated organization—and until today there were just problems for it." His face was a study in joy breaking through relief. "This is great. We're definitely going to continue. We support this kind of running not even so much for the promotion but because it's a good thing to be doing. I hope other companies will come in now. I don't want to be alone here forever." Nakash went on to say, "If the New York Marathon will allow the prize money to go straight to the athletes, then we'll renew our offer of $250,000."
For Fleming, his $25,000 worked out to about a dollar per footstep. But he swore that not once during the race had he so much as thought about the money. "I was just wrapped in the running," he said, swigging his first beer in seven weeks, an abstinence, coupled with his 150 miles of training every week, that had driven his weight to his adult low of 148 pounds. "People who know me will know that it isn't the reward for winning, it's the actual winning that is all I seem to care about. I'm famous for being second. How many races have I lost? We won't go into that. So you give me a day like this, a run like this, a win, and the money is just a nice surprise at the end." Obviously, pro marathoners don't sound like pro baseball players just yet. And, if Fleming is any example, they might never. He didn't show up for the publicity ceremony near the finish line at Will Rogers State Beach where Dalrymple and the other pros who finished in the money were presented with distinctly non-traditional checks.
Tom Fleming's perfect race was good enough for a 2:13:14.4—and $25,000.
While the women's winner, Dalrymple, and others cashed in, Fleming missed the publicity ceremony.