Santa Rosa Marathon race director issues apology for course mix-up
A day after the latest snafu to hit the Santa Rosa Marathon, competitors and spectators were wondering what in the world had happened Sunday, how dearly it would cost the affected runners - and whether this embattled race has a future.
“We offer you our sincere apologies for the course error that occurred during the full marathon on Sunday morning,” race director Orhan Sarabi said in a statement that he shared with The Press Democrat on Monday. “While most runners experienced a smooth race, several of those in the fastest groups were led off course and ran extra distance during the event. We understand that this was a critical error for everyone attempting to achieve their best performance, and we are deeply committed to improving our approach going forward.”
What we know is this: A number of runners turned right at the first aid station at Hope and Fifth streets when they were supposed to turn left. By the time they had discovered their error and retraced their steps, some had added nearly a mile to the official distance of 26.2 miles.
For some, it was an annoyance. For others it was much more significant. Santa Rosa is an official qualifying race for the hallowed Boston Marathon. And several runners stood a good chance of establishing their qualifying standard for Boston, only to finish behind the cut line after their unplanned detour. They were told after the race that their logged chip times would remain official.
“I ran 26.2 miles in 3:11, which qualifies me by four minutes,” said one of those runners, Abe Sheppard of Irvine. “But my clock time here was 3:16, which means I don't qualify. … Yeah, it's crap.”
Adding to the embarrassment, this was the third time in four years that the Santa Rosa Marathon experienced logistical or timing problems. 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. Last year, Wendy Jennings of Huntington Beach was declared the women's winner until competitors expressed suspicion, and it was determined she had run the half-marathon course.
Danny Aldridge, cross country coach at Sonoma Academy and an owner of the runners' equipment store Heart and Sole, feels torn about this latest black eye. On one hand, he knows that no matter how well you design a race, there's a chance something will go off the rails.
“A meet of this size, though, you would think they should probably take extra precautions to make sure nothing goes wrong,” Aldridge said. “I don't know if somebody was at this corner (to direct runners). I don't know that. I don't know how the lead sign person didn't know the course. It seems like he should have. But it does happen. You can't control everything.”
Details of the misdirection remain unclear. Aldridge said participants told him that a large gap developed between eventual race winner Jordan Kinley and the rest of the pack. The lead bike and Kinley followed the correct route; behind them ran a volunteer pace-setter, running at a clip designed to produce a 3-hour, 3-minute marathon finish. The 3:03 pacer and most of the people directly behind him took the wrong turn.
Aldridge and some associates charted the marathon on a mobile app called Strava that allows you to follow specific runners.
“We looked up people in the 3:03 group to see where they went wrong,” Aldridge said. “You could see them make that wrong turn. Then at one point they branched out like a tree and people were running in different directions. The race organizers didn't even know anyone went the wrong way for a while.”
The obvious target of blame is the unidentified 3:03 pacer.
“Our pace teams are led by volunteers who are avid runners and who are enthusiastic about helping Santa Rosa Marathon participants reach their goals,” Sarabi wrote. “The entire pace team works hard to improve its performance each year. To that end, the team has agreed to pre-run the 2017 course in any areas where turns and special instructions are needed. The team will also take additional steps to increase its accuracy in course knowledge, while continuing to provide a course-consistent pace and the instructive services that you expect from them.”
But one runner who made the wrong turn at Hope and Fifth insists the pacer can't be held fully responsible.
“In all humbleness, I was ahead of the 3:03 pacer,” said the runner, who asked to remain anonymous. “Someone had told me it sounded to him like the press thought the 3:03 pacer was the first entity to go off course. From my observations, that's incorrect. I never saw the 3:03 pacer. People were making the wrong turn before the 3:03 pacer went through. I don't know at what point that started.”