Marathon making its return to San Luis Obispo

Organizers say the marathon, half-marathon and 5K are all sold out

jscroggin@thetribunenews.comApril 20, 2012 

Calling this one a marathon would be no metaphor.

Since 1986, the city of San Luis Obispo has hosted plenty of five-set volleyball matches, a ton of tennis tiebreakers, an array of extra-inning affairs.

They might have been referred to as marathons, but in those 26 years, there hasn’t been anything close to the 26.2 miles that make up the real thing.

Come Sunday morning, 800 people are registered to run or walk a full marathon course starting at San Luis Obispo High, weaving through downtown and ending at the Madonna Inn during the inaugural San Luis Obispo Marathon — an event that also includes half-marathon and 5K races throughout the weekend.

The first of its kind since a Red Cross-sponsored marathon ended its eight-year run at Meadow Park in 1986, the SLO Marathon is not offering a winning prize and hasn’t drawn the big-name runners in its first year that organizers say could be coaxed to future events.

But the course is USA Track and Field certified, serves as a qualifier for the internationally renowned Boston Marathon, and here is one guarantee: A course record will be set.

“This community, this area on the Central Coast, there was a big gap,” said race director Samantha Pruitt, herself a 50-mile ultra runner and IronMan Triathlon participant. “It was just kind of off that we didn’t have a national marathon.

“Getting to see a national-caliber race in this community is not a common thing. Getting a chance to see that, especially at the finish line and seeing the finish-line drama, is huge.”

Charging a $110 registration fee, the marathon, which starts at 6 a.m. at San Luis Obispo High, sold out at 800. Another 2,000 participants sold out the half-marathon at $85 a piece. Eight hundred more runners signed up for today’s 5K at $35 each.

Race expenses include a professional company to handle road closures, shuttle buses for participants, course calibration by a scientist from Vandenberg Air Force Base and a large undisclosed sum to carry the title of a Boston Marathon qualifier.

Aiming to make the SLO Marathon an annual event, organizers hope to grow the numbers each year, and next time, Pruitt said, there could be prize money.

Offering a reward would be the key to making future marathons bigger spectator events rather than races geared more toward participation than competition.

But the key to success lies with more than just the appeal to professionals. The challenge to the longevity of the race, San Luis Distance Club co-founder Stan Rosenfield said, is to make regulars out of regular people.

“When we had the Red Cross one years ago,” Rosenfield said, “everyone wanted to do it once, and then interest kind of tailed off.

“That should carry them through the next year or two.”

Advances in technology and social media since the 1970s could also play a role.

Featured on Active.com, the nation’s premier online directory and registration resource for recreation events, the SLO Marathon was called the best new Boston Marathon qualifier of the season.

It’s helped spread the word. Of the 3,600 participants, 65 percent will come from outside San Luis Obispo County, according to Pruitt. That includes representatives from nearly half the states in the United States and three foreign countries.

There is even a black market of Facebook posters on Active.com willing to pay more than face value for a spot in the race.

Cal Poly track and field coordinator Mark Conover was an All-America distance runner at Humboldt State in the early 1980s and came to San Luis Obispo after graduation to train for the Olympic marathon.

Overcoming devastating Achilles tendon injuries and a bout with cancer, Conover made the U.S. Olympic Trials four times and then made San Luis Obispo his permanent home.

Long retired from competition, he knows as well as anyone how a marathon can bring people to the Central Coast and keep them coming back.

“It can definitely highlight the city and the county,” said Conover, who will have Mustangs athletes manning an aid station on the course. “Certainly, I think a lot of people from all over would be interested in coming out because they know it’s a beautiful area.”

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