Malibu’s ‘barefoot runner’ is fondly remembered

NT Alberto Perusset: Among many other things, Malibu Half Marathon and 5K co-founder Alberto Perusset was known for staying at the finish line and handing out medals to finishers. Photo by Erica Segel.

Alberto Perusset was known as Malibu’s “barefoot runner,” but he was so much more. 

The co-founder of the Malibu Half Marathon and 5K, who passed away unexpectedly in December, was remembered with a celebration of life at Zuma Beach recently. His loss has left a gaping hole in the running community he mentored.

Perusset arrived in the U.S. from Argentina in 1988. He had been a professional scuba diver and an endurance athlete. His achievements were vast. Before the age of 20 he accomplished a 19-hour swim between Uruguay and Buenos Aires. By the time he got to Malibu 20 years ago he became the community’s running “ambassador.” Since completing his first marathon in Los Angeles in 2004, Perusset quickly took to the sport. He finished 253 full marathons — that’s 26.2 miles each — and 214 of those marathons were run barefoot, establishing a world record. He also ran 60-some odd half marathons and 5K/10K races. 

Along the way he learned a lot about running and life and passed that wisdom on to others.

In 2009 Perusset, along with a group of Malibu residents, founded the Malibu Half Marathon and 5K. The scenic event has proven so popular it has sold out the last four years. The race also raises funds for the Boys & Girls Club Malibu. 

“It’s a unifying experience,” said race director Erica Segel who remembered Perusset as a constant presence at the finish line handing out medals until the final runner crossed.

“Alberto was an inspiration. He would see potential in people,” Segel said. “At a memorial paddle out at Zuma Beach March 27, those runners who considered Perusset a mentor spoke about how he encouraged their running and impacted their lives before spreading his ashes into the Pacific Ocean.”

Segel said Perusset’s influence extended beyond just running.

FRONT Alberto Perusset Photo by Erica Segel
The late Alberto Perusset, Malibu’s well-known running “amassador,” is shown in a race — without shoes, of course. Photo by Erica Segel

“He was there for people in their darkest times. He inspired people to run marathons and ultra-marathons. He had an appreciation for life and the moment and the breath,” she said. “In a world that’s so fast-paced, to have somebody that would take that time to make you feel special, to be there for you, to remember things about you, and send words of encouragement is huge. He was a very selfless person. 

“I’m sure if more people had the chance to come [to the celebration] it would have been hundreds. People sent us messages that he meant so much to them. They’re devastated. I’m personally still accepting that he’s no longer with us. He’s left a legacy. He was an incredible human. They don’t make many like him anymore.”

Elizabeth Lam and Jo Anne Trigo organized the life celebration at Zuma Beach where the Malibu Half Marathon typically starts and finishes. It was an important place for Perusset, whose three sisters from Argentina flew out for the memorial. 

The sisters had often begged their brother to move back home, but were rebuffed when the runner said he had found a new family, his running friends. Segel said after the memorial his relatives finally understood how much he was loved by this new family. She described it as an emotional event even though it was meant as a happy moment to celebrate Perusset’s life and achievements. “We heard how he was so important to people and heard such deep sorrow,” one of the sisters said at the memorial.

Lam first met Perusset at local races. She claims he had a great impact on her life. 

“He provided so many insights,” she said. 

As a 33-year vegan, Perusset advised Lam to also eschew animal products, which she did. Lam, who lost 150 pounds race walking, is dedicating her next 63 races to her late friend, who passed away at age 63.

“That way, other people will know his memory is not forgotten,” Lam said. “He’s still present around us even though he’s not here. He made my outlook on life so much more positive.”

Five runners paddled out to spread their mentor’s ashes, while others remained on the shore throwing flower petals. Dolphins even made an appearance. 

“It was a magical moment,” Segel said. “It really did feel like Alberto was there somehow. We all felt linked and united through him, like family.

“I miss him so much and want to carry on his legacy. It was his life’s mission to inspire others to run and be in the moment, appreciate life. We will keep his memory and legacy alive.”

This year’s 14th annual event will be dedicated to Perusset. One of his inspiring quotes is to be printed on the finisher shirt and medal.