L.A. Marathon: Montana teacher enjoys hanging with top runners — and finishing among top Americans

Runners crossed the finish line with excitement at the 33rd Los Angeles Marathon. (Video by Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

After 14 miles, Heather Lieberg, 38, a mother of three from Montana, looked up to see no one in front of her Sunday at the Los Angeles Marathon.

Although others felt the 47-degree temperature at the race’s start was too cool, she considered the light snow and 20-degree conditions at home and thought, “Perfect.”

“I felt awesome, it was fun,” Lieberg said, turning to spot onetime L.A. Marathon champion Hellen Jepkurgat and Jane Kibii, both of Kenya, to each side, with elite American runner Joanna Reyes just behind.

“I just wanted to hang in as long as I could.”

What would be a story beyond fathoming for the second-grade class Lieberg will teach Monday back home in Helena, Mont., became something nevertheless inspiring.

By finishing ninth in the women’s marathon in 2 hours 38 minutes 29 seconds, Lieberg was one of five American women to finish in the top 10 in Los Angeles for the second consecutive year.

Lieberg said that just after the 15-mile marker, when the course began a downhill slope toward the Pacific Ocean, she felt sharp discomfort in her quadriceps.

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“Being in Montana, I do all my training on the treadmill, so my quads just weren’t ready for it,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh, that hurts,’ so I had to back off a bit.”

A pace eight minutes slower than the marathon’s record time helped 5,000-meter specialist Sule Utura Gedo win the women’s event in 2:33.49, with Lieberg taking heart that she was so close while slowing through a seven-minute mile due to the quadriceps pain.

“I really didn’t start professional running until I was about 35,” Lieberg said. “I grew up playing basketball, at Northwest College in Wyoming. … Running was something I did after I had my daughter. People said I was fast. I did a couple relays, then signed up for a marathon and ran it under three hours without training, so I thought, ‘This could be fun.'”

Her mother and father cheered her on Sunday. Her children, ages 8, 11 and 18, remained at home due to school and work, and Lieberg was due to board a flight home Sunday night so she wouldn’t miss a class.

“When I started falling apart, I had a seven-minute mile, started getting passed and was like, ‘Damn it … ,’ but this was a good day,” she said.

AMERICAN PRIDE: The best finish by an American woman was the fourth-place showing in 2:34.24 by Christina Vergara Aleshire of Henderson, Nev.

Five months after New York Marathon winner Shalane Flanagan was the first American in 40 years to win that event, the state of women’s distance running is peaking with the Boston Marathon coming next month.

Brittany Charboneau of Littleton, Colo., was sixth, followed by San Jose’s Reyes in eighth, with Brittney Feivor of Goodyear, Ariz. following Lieberg for 10th place.

 Building her endurance in the hills outside Las Vegas near Green Valley, Summerlin and Red Rock, Vergara Aleshire began seriously running four years ago and completed the Chicago Marathon in October.

“I kept pushing myself to see what I could achieve, kept getting better and I love that feeling of accomplishment … I can’t stop smiling,” she said. “I still want to see how much speed I can pick up and see how far I can take it.”

Some of the answer materialized in the second half of the marathon, as Vergara Aleshire surged past all the Americans and fifth-place Kibii, edging her by 10 seconds.

“The last three miles — the crowd, everyone cheering for me — gave me a kick and I just managed to push through to the end,” she said said. “I was running with four Americans throughout and was so excited to see us all up there. Really special.

“It’s always so motivating to see American women finish strong and prove they can be competitive. It keeps us all hungry to compete and stay in the lead pack.”

WHEELCHAIR WINNERS: Boston’s Krige Schabort, who has participated in more than 100 marathons, won his fifth Los Angeles Marathon in 1:35.38, and Chicago’s Michelle Wheeler won her first event in L.A. in 2:16.36.

A DAY TO ASPIRE: Mayor Eric Garcetti basked in the turnout of more than 24,000 runners, and thousands of spectators lining the course, to nudge Southland citizens to embrace the good health attached to a running lifestyle.

Marathon officials have worked to make the course as visibly engaging as possible, as many area 5K, 10K and half-marathon events that pepper the Southland each weekend do.

“It’s a reflection of L.A.,” Garcetti said, telling a television reporter he’d like the city to stand as the healthiest in America.

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