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Benefield: Santa Rosa Marathon pacer plans to ‘keep moving forward’

Ardy Azadgan was in the middle of a chaotic scene and nowhere near where he wanted to be.

Azadgan, 34, of Corona Del Mar, was the 3:03 pacer at Sunday's Santa Rosa Marathon, meaning he was the volunteer to stick with if your goal was to finish 26.2 miles in three hours and three minutes.

As the guy leading the fastest pace group on the course — but by no means the leader of the most elite runners — it was Azadgan who found himself in the middle of a panicked scene on the streets of downtown Santa Rosa on Sunday morning and at the center of the swirling debate over exactly what went wrong out there as more than 100 runners went off course, some weaving through unbarricaded streets and adding nearly a mile to their race routes.

Azadgan was an unpaid volunteer. His only compensation was free entry into the race. His task? Support any and all runners whose goal was to finish the course in just over three hours. Pacers are part runner, part coach, part cheerleader. But in all of his years of pacing — he once paced two marathons in one weekend and has volunteered at more races than he can count — he's never had to play navigator.

'I have done this a long time,' he said in a phone interview Wednesday while taking part in a group run. 'In all my running experience, I have never been in that situation, I have never gotten lost.'

Describing Azadgan as a leader is a bit of a misnomer. He estimates there were at least 50 people in front of him when they all took a wrong turn. But in those moments of confusion, perhaps it was he who looked most official. Some have argued it was not Azadgan's job to navigate what some they described as a poorly marked course. Other say that as a pacer, he should have known the route better.

But it is clear now: Azadgan was far from the only one in a sea of runners who went off-course and he was not nearly the first.

It was about a mile an a half into the race, just after the first water station on Hope Street. Because the race started at 6 a.m., it was still dark. Runners were supposed to turn left at Fifth Street where it borders Santa Rosa Middle School. Instead, it appears that at least 100 runners turned right. From there, all heck broke loose.

There were runners on Brookwood Avenue, some reporting they had to deal with vehicles whose drivers were understandably unprepared for gobs of runners to be in the road.

Azadgan realized they were off course only when a pack of even faster runners were running quickly in his direction.

'I thought 'Oh they're out on an early morning run, like a club run,' he said.

But they were in a state of panic.

'That's when I totally freaked,' he said.

Azadgan sprinted ahead to try to find out more or locate some kind of race marker. Some runners came to a dead stop.

'When I took off ahead of everybody I saw nothing, that's when I knew we had to turn around,' he said.

Cognizant of race rules, Azadgan wanted to bring his group back to the point they had gone off-course.

'My first concern was for no one to get disqualified, that's why I didn't look for a short cut,' he said.

Emotions — already on high for a major event like a marathon — were frayed.

'At that point, people are so demoralized,' he said.

Some were angry, others were stressed. But everybody needed to make up time. The Santa Rosa Marathon is an official qualifying race for the hallowed Boston Marathon — and one of the very last chances to make the cut before that race in April. Many of the racers running at Azadgan's pace were hopeful that they would qualify.

'They asked 'What's the plan? What's the strategy?'' he said.

He had the runners take their pace down from around 7 minute miles to 6:30, then to 6:45. At the halfway mark, they would reassess.

By the end of the race, Azdgan said runners' emotions were a mixed bag. Some lauded his efforts to help them meet their goal. Others were angry.

'I had one guy who just went off on me. He just kept railing and cursing,' he said.

'I had some really awesome people,' he said. 'If it wasn't for them, I would have crumbled internally.'

Azadgan hopes their times will be corrected.

In the days that have followed the race, on the marathon's Facebook page and in correspondence with The Press Democrat and in online comments on stories, runners have come to not necessarily Azadgan's defense personally, but his role as a navigator.

His job is to run at a steady pace, to act as a bit of a cheerleader and a bit of a coach. But no pacer is a shepherd among lambs, they said.

In an interview Thursday, Orhan Sarabi, the marathon's race director, agreed.

'That pacer did not lead the people off the course,' he said.

'It definitely wasn't that person's fault. It wasn't even the first runner's fault,' he said. 'At the end of the day, on my race, my course is obviously on me.'

That said, Sarabi pointed out that the route through downtown has been used for years with no issue. He feels certain it was well marked.

On the morning of the race, Sarabi said when he was alerted to the confusion around the corner of Hope and Fifth streets, he arrived to find two sets of cones in place. One line of cones stretched from the southeast corner of Hope across Fifth, Sarabi said, and the other set stretched across Fifth along Brookwood to make Fifth Street impassable to vehicles.

'The cones that go across Fifth and Brookwood, you can't drive through them,' he said, adding 'Still, our burden is to make sure it's properly marked and I feel like it was properly marked.'

He called what happened 'a chain reaction.'

For his part, Azadgan said that he was running amid a sea of bodies. The very elite runners had a bicycle escort. He never dreamed he was going the wrong way until he saw that frantic group approaching.

'If I was looking forward, I saw bodies, not barricades,' he said, guessing that at least 50 people were ahead of him, going the same way.

'I didn't hear anyone question, 'Are we going the wrong way?' Nobody knew,' he said.

Runners I talked to said they never saw cones as barricades; that they too had no inkling they were going the wrong way until they saw others in a state of confusion. They also talked of a natural tendency to follow the person in front of you, especially in those early minutes of a highly-charged athletic event.

And participants also describe the scene as dark. If runners were launched at 6 a.m., those running at Azadgan's pace would have hit the turn in question at about 6:10 a.m. Those going faster would have gotten there even earlier.

'I saw a single cone,' one runner told me. 'Granted, there were a lot of people … It was still predawn. I can't imagine that everyone was running through the cones.'

I run at 6 a.m. At this time of year, I wear a headlamp, reflector vest and have little blinky things in my hands — it's that dark. On Thursday morning, the first driver I noticed that felt it was light enough not to use his lights (it wasn't) was at 6:45 a.m.

Runners suggested more cones or more vocal volunteers at the corners, constantly directing runners in the correct direction. But they also said race officials have been responsive, corresponding with runners on Facebook and collecting information to forward on to officials at the Boston Athletic Association, the group that runs the Boston Marathon.

Sarabi expected to send a 'comprehensive' package of information and documentation to Boston officials by the end of the day Thursday. He described Boston officials as 'willing and open' to considering time fixes for those runners affected. But no promises can be made.

'Everyone I have talked to, if the adjustment is made, they are more than happy,' he said. 'They understand human error.'

Sarabi has felt the heat that comes with being in charge before.

Last year, a woman was declared the winner of the full marathon before it was determined that though she signed up for the full course, she decided mid-race to run the half-marathon course and never made that clear to race officials.

In 2013, race officials disqualified the first three male runners to cross the finish line after learning they had followed an incorrect, and shorter, course.

There were about 4,800 runners on four different distance races Sunday, according to Sarabi. He had 250 volunteers helping put it on. He said Thursday that he's working on different ways to do course reconnaissance with pacers in advance of next year's race. He's also looking at the number and location of volunteers on course in addition to analyzing course marking.

'We will definitely look at all aspects of the race. What is the best way?' he said.

Azadgan doesn't relish being linked to the snafu as the now-notorious '3:03 pacer,' but he's taking the controversy in stride. Literally. When I talked to him Wednesday evening, he was leading a group run. His explanation of the race was interrupted by an occasional remark of 'Good job' to one of his runners. He hopes those in his group who wanted to make Boston will be granted admission. He did his best for them, he said.

'I've been losing sleep over this,' he said. 'I want to thank those people that spoke up.'

And he doesn't hold any grudges for how the race played out or whether or not he was falsely accused.

'That doesn't help anything,' he said. 'That doesn't do anybody any good.'

'I don't want to clear my name at anyone's expense.'

And he'd like to come back. He likes the course, likes the race. And he loves to share running with other people. And he's getting through this the same way he tells his runners to get through a rough patch on the course.

'Keep moving forward,' he said. 'That's the motto of marathon running.'

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

Have a story that is wild, wacky, bizarre or beautiful? Tell me about it. Have a question that starts with, “What’s the deal with…?” Let’s figure it out together. This column is about the story behind the story, a place to shine a light on who we are, what makes us a community and all of the things that make us special. With your help, I'll be tackling the questions that vex us: (the funny, the mundane, and the irritating.)

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