BILL PLASCHKE

At 77, he's running marathons for two

John Creel's thoughts are never far from his wife, who is confined to a wheelchair by multiple sclerosis. Sunday's L.A. Marathon will be his 60th.

He runs with a cellphone pressed tightly against his hip, but she never calls, so for 26.2 miles he runs with his memories.

In the first hour, she is walking again through the German countryside. By the middle of the race, she is dancing again to their classical favorites. At the finish line, she is strolling with their two children into the best years of her life.

Then John Creel, 77, towels off, catches his breath, and returns to the marathon that is his life as a full-time caregiver for wife Ingrid, whose body has been rendered helpless by the evils of multiple sclerosis.

PHOTOS: A marathon as a full-time caregiver

"My life is pretty simple," Creel said. "It's all about taking the next step … just take the next step."

The Brea man's next official step will be taken in the Dodger Stadium parking lot Sunday as one of 24,000 runners in the 28th L.A. Marathon. In what is annually trumpeted as the human race, Creel will be one of the most human of runners.

When his wife's degenerative illness confined her to a wheelchair in 1995, Creel made the decision that he would be her primary caretaker. When the stress from that decision became overwhelming, he began running for relief.

Tips on running and recovering from the L.A. Marathon

That was 59 marathons ago. He has run at least one marathon in each state. He transports her in her wheelchair to most of his races, twice even making sure somebody pushed her to the finish line. She doesn't understand running, but she likes the company. He sometimes weeps over her losses, but he still loves her smile.

He feeds, bathes and clothes her. Yet after 53 years of marriage, he says she is his strength.

"Honestly, I don't know what I would do without her," he said.

And he doesn't know what she would do without him. If he dies first, she probably will have to go into an assisted-living facility, and he can barely tolerate even the thought, so he keeps running, for her, for him, for them.

Said Ingrid with a grin: "Sometimes I don't understand why he has to run so much, but it makes him happy, so let him run, let him run."

Said John with tears: "She's the best thing that ever happened to me."

You can glimpse strands of their enduring affection in a back room of their Brea home, the place where Ingrid spends her days watching television, the channel tuned to episodes of "Little House on the Prairie" and "Bonanza."

All around the room there are vases with purple orchids, some blooming, some decaying, gifts from weekly visits to Trader Joe's.

"I love orchids," said Ingrid. "He still brings me orchids."

She still calls him "Johnny." He sometimes calls her "Mom." During a recent weeknight interview they giggled at each other from across the modest living room, he in his shiny running shoes, she in her black wheelchair, their lives having taken them to different worlds, their spirit forever connected

"When you get older in a marriage, things change, but the caring just gets deeper," John said.

They still laugh about how they met in 1958 on a snowy night in a small town in Germany. She didn't speak English, he barely spoke German, yet a year later they were married. At the time he was a member of the U.S. Army's Green Berets. Today he runs his marathons with the actual green beret atop his balding head. It reeks of sweat and has been tattered by moths, but, like his devotion, it is unmoving.

CHICAGO