No brakes

No brakes

Wheelchair racers on their marks for Sunday's LA Marathon

By Nathan Solis 02/28/2008

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Peter Lassen can't remember exactly how many times he's raced in the LA Marathon - 19 or 20, he thinks. With 46 marathons from the West Coast to Toronto under his belt, can you blame him for not remembering?

Worth noting, also, is that Lassen has run all of them using his hands.

Lassen, 68, lost the use of his legs while fighting in the Vietnam War and now competes using a special wheelchair powered by a hand crank.

He's not alone. While it's usually runners who come to mind when people think of marathons, wheelchair and bicycle racers have been competing in the LA Marathon since 1986.

Serious athletes like Lassen use the hand-crank chairs, which can cost several thousand dollars, but plenty of others embark on the 26.2-mile journey or a shorter five-kilometer run in a more conventional wheelchair.

"I do it because I still believe in the original idea of the marathon - namely that this, our largest outdoor sporting event, should tie many of the diverse neighborhoods of the city together into a unified whole. I do it because I feel that the participants and the spectators join together in a unique way that very few other events can support," said Lassen, an architect and Echo Park resident.

For Leonard Carlson, who has participated in all 22 previous LA Marathons, using a hand-crank bicycle was his best option to stay in the game after doctors told him that he would need ankle surgery or replacement if he kept running.

"When they said you really shouldn't do marathons anymore, I looked into the wheelchair,"

said the 56-year-old dentist and Burbank resident. But, "I really couldn't do a wheelchair either, because you have to tuck your legs - it's really for people who are paraplegics or amputees. So, I was told that I would have to do a hand-crank bicycle. It's just like a recumbent bicycle, where you sit back and you pedal with your hands. It's quite a workout."

Exhaustion, however, isn't the only challenge a hand-powered racer may face, according to Lassen. "One year the race starting line was extremely far away from where the handicapped people parked. And then there was an elevator that had to take the racers to where the race started. Anyone who knows about hand-crank wheel chairs will tell you that they're too big for elevators," he recalled.

"Last year's race started almost uphill. That's a lot to start off for people who have to pedal with their hands," Lassen continued, adding that there was also no warm-up shelter at the start of last year's race, leaving racers waiting out in the cold for about an hour.

Complaints from racers on foot and on wheels alike aren't new, as accommodating thousands of athletes is no small task, said Laurence Cohen, a spokesman for the LA Marathon.

"We have 26,000 racers, and you're going to have a variety of opinions," said Cohen, who said he will speak directly with Lassen about specific improvements.

That the LA Marathon provides opportunities for people with disabilities is an accomplishment in itself, says Jon Ross, head of the Venice-based Achilles Track Club, which trains members of the disability community for race competitions.

"They don't design the race course for wheelchair racers in mind, but that's fine, because there are 20,000 runners and 100 wheelchair racers," said Ross. "The course is laid out for fast records from fast runners. That's why they can bring in big sponsors."

Personal concerns aside, Lassen believes the cultural benefits of the race are bringing the city together. "You're supposed

to go through black neighborhoods, white neighborhoods, Latino neighborhoods, Korean neighborhoods - I think it's the one sport that tends to bind the city of Los Angeles, and I like doing that," he said.

Carlson has his own best reason: "It's a lot of fun." 

The 23rd annual Los Angeles Marathon starts at 8:15 a.m. Sunday from Universal Studios and finishes downtown at the intersection of Fifth and Flower streets. For more information, visit www.lamarathon.com.

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