The day after three runners were disqualified from the Santa Rosa Marathon for making a wrong turn, race organizers said they're going to review the course layout and consider improving signs and staffing to prevent such mistakes in the future.
Race director Orhan Sarabi stood by the changes to this year's course that brought marathoners through additional scenic vineyard properties west of Santa Rosa but required them to turn off on a nearly mile-long dirt loop at mile 21.
"This course, from the feedback we've gotten, is A-plus," Sarabi said.
But as he and race coordinator Arthur Webb retrieved cones and signs along the course Monday afternoon, they said they've been wracking their brains to figure out how three experienced runners could have gotten confused and bypassed the clearly marked mile-long loop on their way back into Santa Rosa.
"I stayed awake all night trying to figure out what the hell happened out here," said Webb, a 71-year-old ultra-marathoner.
As best they can tell, Ollie Ehlinger, a first-time marathoner from Sacramento, Andrew Grant and a third runner, were on their way back toward Santa Rosa running east on the Santa Rosa Creek Trail about four-tenths of a mile west of Fulton Road. Based on witnesses and timing equipment located at the 13.1-mile mark, they were running several minutes behind then race leader Benny Madrigal of Fresno.
But instead of turning off the paved trail to run the nine-tenths of a mile dirt loop as they were supposed to, the runners stayed on the paved trail, crossed a metal trestle bridge over Piner Creek and headed for home.
Runners were only supposed to take the loop on the way back, but not the way out. Having shortened their run by nearly a mile, they eventually overtook Madrigal, with Ehlinger and Grant crossing the finish line first and second and Madrigal third. Ehlinger acknowledged his error to race officials, who had no choice but to disqualify all three men identified as making the error, Sarabi said.
Ehlinger told race officials he had been confused about the dirt loop earlier, turning onto it briefly around mile 5? before realizing his error and getting back on course. It's not clear how far he went on that detour or how many runners followed him, Webb said.
The errors occurred despite course maps distributed to runners beforehand, colored-coded arrows along the route to help distinguish between the out and back routes, and volunteers giving directions at key points along the course.
There were teenager volunteers at the bridge, but next year the marathon may decide to place paid workers at that location, Sarabi said. Larger, clearer signs may be in order as well, he said.
But ultimately the responsibility is on runners to know the course, especially elite runners who are often unable to see the runner ahead of them, Webb said.
"We're responsible to a certain extent, but they screwed up," Webb said.
Runners at that stage of a marathon are "pretty zonked out" and can make bad decisions, which is understandable but also underscores the importance of studying the course beforehand, Webb said.
Sarabi said he's disappointed so much attention has been placed on the mix-up and that media coverage of the fast-growing event that brings thousands of visitors to the city focused on the confusion at the finish.