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Pilkington a true pace setter

By Barbara Huebner, Globe Staff, 4/14/2000

erhaps the most famous rabbit in history is Paul Pilkington, who in the 1994 Los Angeles Marathon found himself so far ahead that he just kept going, and went on to win.

''That's probably what I'll be remembered for,'' acknowledged Pilkington, now 41, this week from his home in Roy, Utah. Chuckling at his legacy, he said: ''I don't think anyone is going to let the rabbit get away again.''

Pilkington, then 35, came into LA with a stellar reputation as a pace setter, as well as boasting a personal best of 2 hours 11 minutes 13 seconds. From his first gig in the 1992 New York Marathon, when he was charged with bringing the leaders to the 13.1-mile mark in 1:04 and he hit it in an evenly paced 1:04:02, a reputation was born. By 1994, he was supplementing his income - he declined to specify by how much - by pacesetting two or three marathons a year, in addition to racing a couple of his own.

March 6, 1994, turned out to be an ideal day for running a marathon in LA, cool and calm. Paid to take the pack through the halfway point in 1:05, Pilkington was only 7 miles into the race and running precisely on pace when it dawned: ''Nobody's going to catch me.'' After hitting the halfway point right on target - but all alone - he decided around Mile 15 not to drop out, and was on his way to victory in 2:12:13. It was the only race in which he was paid to be a rabbit that he ever finished, either before or since.

''You have a minute and a half lead and you feel good, you should stop?'' asked Pilkington rhetorically. ''That's a pretty easy decision to make.''

Although most observers agree that it is a pack's responsibility to keep up with the rabbit as long as he's not running faster than planned, Pilkington's win was not without controversy. Runner-up Luca Barzaghi of Italy crossed the finish line in triumph, believing he was the winner, only to learn to his dismay that he had finished 39 seconds in arrears of an out-of-view rabbit.

''He was sure the rabbit had dropped out,'' his interpreter said at the time.

The elite-athlete coordintor of the race, however, was quoted at the time as saying no promises were ever made that Pilkington would step off the course. What it comes down to is, everyone thought wrong.

These days, Pilkington might be nearing the end of his competitive career, which included a spot on the 1995 World Championship team because of his win in LA. Although the 19th-fastest qualifer for the men's Olympic Marathon Trials next month, he is injured and won't be competing. But even after LA, he said, he got plenty of work.

''I was actually in more demand,'' he said, ''because they knew no matter what I ran, the others were going to go with me.''

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