This year's Los Angeles Marathon has been nothing short of brutal. Temperatures are in the upper 70°s, and runners are weaving across the finish line like Groucho Marx underwater. They are the lucky ones: 200 others have fallen victim to dehydration along the way. Now here comes Richard Bird, middle-aged and in the middle of the pack, limping from a broken blister but laughing.

"Whew, nearly cooked out there," chortles the 42-year-old Briton. Someone hands him a cup of water. "Where's the champagne?" he cries.

Champagne, for an overall 2,765th-place finish? Why not? Every marathon Bird completes now adds 26.2 more milestones to a remarkable feat of endurance. Last April 23, Bird set out to eclipse the Guinness Book of World Records mark for most marathons run in a year. When he finished his 54th marathon in Tallahassee on Feb. 11 (time: 3:29:55), Bird had his record, with more than two months left to run up the score. Last week in Belgium he tallied Nos. 66 and 67. Last weekend his schedule included marathons Nos. 68 and 69 in Yonkers, N.Y., and Boston on successive days. And starting April 22 (his 43rd birthday) Bird plans to finish his quest with a stupefying double play: one marathon in London in the morning and then, after a quick helicopter jaunt, another in Stratford-upon-Avon that afternoon, for a grand total of 71.

"All records are made to be broken," says Bird with a laugh. "I just want to make it a little harder for the next guy."

What is most amazing about Bird's flight is that only six years ago he couldn't run 200 yards without wheezing to a halt. He stood 5'10", weighed a flaccid 190 lbs. and smoked and drank more than he should. "I was a blimp," says Bird in disgust. "I had this tiny head atop a huge body. I looked ridiculous."

But this son of a London greengrocer, a high school dropout who had married at 18, was not ready to settle for the soft, bloated existence. He had made two fortunes in his 37 years—first with a chain of hardware stores when he was only 23, then in the mail-order business. And though he had managed to blow his money both times, he was still ready to rise to a challenge. Six months after enviously watching runners in the 1983 London Marathon, Bird had pared down to 150 lbs. and completed his first marathon in a respectable three hours, 42 minutes.

And that should have ended that. But Bird had been training with a friend who could finish a marathon in only 2½ hours, and Bird thought there was a way he could beat him. So he challenged the friend to run a marathon plus a 10-kilometer race in one day, or two marathons in two days. The friend accepted both of Bird's dares. "I blew him away in the second race every time," Bird says. "God did not make me fast, but I found out he did give me this remarkable ability to recover."

Again, that should have been that. But shortly after Bird hit 40, in 1986, he began to feel antsy. He and his wife had been separated for two years, their three children were grown and on their own, and Bird was prospering as a housewares salesman. "Life was extremely settled," he says. "It was no challenge." By that time Bird was running three marathons a year and still felt like a couch potato. So he cracked open Guinness and saw the record of 53 in one year, set by Jay Helgerson of California in 1980. "I'd gotten to that age," he says, "where I need to prove I was here. To leave a mark."

He began his training in 1987 by running one marathon a month and about 70 miles a week. In February 1988, training at night in his hometown of Luton, he came across the body of a middle-aged man in running togs lying face down in the road. The man had apparently died running. "I thought this was an omen," says Bird. "I wondered, 'Am I too old? Should I slow down?' "

Deciding that he wasn't, Bird quit his job in March 1988, sold some property to raise $36,000 and got himself three new credit cards and a used camper. He began his quest with the Shakespeare Marathon in Stratford-upon-Avon last April 23. He put 17,000 miles on the camper until its brakes gave out near Baton Rouge last February, and he reckons he ran up some 100,000 miles in the air. When he overslept on Jan. 27 in New York, missing a race there, he jumped on a flight to Holland to compete over there the next day. Then he caught another flight back to Las Vegas, where he recorded one of his best times ever (3:10:35) a week later.

But it hasn't been all tulips and sunshine. Bird ran through sleet in Tulsa last Nov. 19 (No. 40) and four inches of snow in St. Louis the next day. Then, after completing marathons 43 and 44 in two days just after Thanksgiving, he had to fly back to England for his ex-father-in-law's funeral. He ran again Dec. 3, then his legs and knees went on strike. Doctors told him he shouldn't try to walk, let alone run, for at least a month. Instead of taking to his nest, Bird flew to New Jersey to commune with his brother Bill, 47, who lives in Bayonne. Bill introduced Bird to a friend, Bethany Chapple, a former offensive lineman for the University of Texas at El Paso, who had become a high school athletic trainer.

After an examination, Chapple informed the marathon man that since he gave up the wheezy life he had run about 13,000 miles on a pair of mismatched legs—the right was half an inch shorter than the left. Chapple recommended weight training and water therapy. Massaged and stretched back into shape, Bird completed Marathon No. 46 in Tampa on Dec. 10.

For all the calories he burns, Bird does not have a big appetite. In fact, he takes in only 2,000 calories a day—mostly in pasta, fish, potatoes, eggs and fruit juices. No red meat. "I have to watch my calories," he says. "My body has become totally adjusted to the running. I can't eat whatever I want, or I feel incredibly sluggish."

After time runs out on April 23, Bird plans to cut back to a mere 50 training miles a week, building to a lifetime total of 100 marathons later this year. He also wants to spend more time with his girlfriend, Lorna Cullen, 30, whose avocation is standing in a harness atop biplanes and flying across the English Channel. Says the mad marathoner with just the hint of a smile: "Now, that's crazy."

—Jack Friedman, Lorenzo Benet in Los Angeles