Finding Strength to Go the Distance


By Robert Campbell | LB Indy

Laguna Beach’s Exchange Club president Michael Cook and his daughter, Aralyn, after the finish of the LA Marathon. Photo courtesy of Michael cook.
Laguna Beach’s Exchange Club president Michael Cook and his daughter, Aralyn, after the finish of the LA Marathon. Photo courtesy of Michael cook.

When it comes to why people run marathons, it’s probably safe to say there are as many reasons as there are runners. Among the 21,829 who lined up for the start of the Los Angeles Marathon last Sunday, local optometrist Michael Cook, his daughter Aralyn and Laguna lifeguard Mitch Ridder found the inspiration and the strength they needed to carry them through some of the most brutal conditions in the event’s 29-year history. “That was probably the hottest marathon I’ve run in,” said Ridder.

Heading into his 37th year patrolling the local beaches, the 53-year-old Ridder is the longest tenured seasonal lifeguard in Laguna. Up until two years ago, he was an avid runner, logging 47 marathons in 10 states over a 14-year period, including the country’s biggest three in New York City, Chicago and Boston. “I had never laid off of running for that length of time,” he said.

Before Sunday, Cook’s last marathon was in Philadelphia, 30 years ago. “Never thought I’d ever run one again,” said the 61-year-old Laguna Niguel resident.

He decided to break his self-imposed hiatus after he and Aralyn heard a news report last summer about a centenarian who ran a marathon under six hours. “If a 100-year-old guy could do it, you can do it,” Cook recalls her saying. To which he replied. “If you run it, I’ll run it. We’ll run it together.”

Aralyn, a 21-year-old college student in Los Angeles, had never run a 5K, let alone a marathon. “She had to change. She couldn’t be the typical college student,” said Cook, who set up a training schedule and equipped her with all the necessities of a serious runner, including a heart monitor.

A former high school athlete with a serious competitive streak, Cook used to run year round with his friends. “It was just a testosterone thing,” he said, admitting that he gave up the sport so he wouldn’t wind up with a limp, like all the life-long runners he knew.

Local lifeguard Mitch Ridder at a recent marathon in Carlsbad.
Local lifeguard Mitch Ridder at a recent marathon in Carlsbad.

Ridder, a talented illustrator who once exhibited at the Festival of Arts, took up running as a way to strengthen an ankle he broke when he was 27. He ran the Laguna 10K for a decade before graduating to marathons. He ran a personal best of 2:59:12 in the 1999 New York Marathon. These days he runs more for fun than time. “If you can imagine running marathons for fun,” he said, laughing.

Tired of being “stuck at 47 marathons,” Ridder decided to bring his total to a nice round 50. He ran the Carlsbad Marathon in January before heading to LA for number 49. He expects to reach the milestone this May at the Orange County Marathon.

Although they weren’t able to train together, Cook was able to keep his late-rising daughter motivated by sharing his early morning workouts with her. “His text message results were inspiring to get out and do my run,” she said.

With six months of training and sacrifice behind them, Cook and Aralyn were ready. But when Cook went outside on the morning of the race, he got a nervous feeling in the pit of his stomach. “I could taste the Santa Ana,” he said, referring to the dry, warm breeze that would make running 26 miles nearly impossible unless he adjusted their race strategy.

He instructed Aralyn to reduce her target heart rate to between 50 and 70 beats per minute, down from the 60 to 80 they had been training for. It would make for a slower race but at least they would have a better chance to finish, which was the ultimate goal. Still, the 80-degree temps and dry air took its toll.

Santa Monica firefighters aided 95 runners at the finish line, sending 16 to area hospitals for such problems as dehydration, cramps, chest pains and exhaustion. Hundreds more dropped out along the course, unable to overcome the brutal conditions. “I never ran in a marathon that was as depressing as the end of this one was,” said Cook. “It was the walking dead. You couldn’t go more than a quarter mile without seeing somebody on the side laying down.”

Both father and daughter hit the “wall” around the 19-mile mark. Worried for her dad, who was somewhere behind her, Aralyn summoned up the strength to finish. “I didn’t think I’d make it through,” she said. “It definitely took all of me.”

Thinking of his daughter and all those who supported him by donating to the Laguna Beach Exchange Club to help prevent child abuse, the Club’s president fought off fatigue and said to himself, “Yeah, I can finish.”

When it was over, the two shared a few tears and a long embrace. “It’s something that we will always remember,” Cook said.

Only two years removed from his diagnosis, the cancer survivor reflected on the past six months, “It kind of gave me a challenge to feel like I was whole,” he said.


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