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.