Santa Rosa Marathon runners doubt pacesetter was at fault for detour

In the immediate aftermath of the Santa Rosa Marathon on Sunday, a pacesetter emerged as Public Enemy No. 1.

Several runners complained that he had taken them in the wrong direction, and that it might have ruined their chances of qualifying for the prestigious Boston Marathon. In a message to runners posted on the race’s Facebook page Monday, race director Orhan Sarabi praised the event’s volunteers but hinted that the pacesetter was at fault. And three days after the race, the front page of still included a link to a story titled “Santa Rosa Marathon Pacer Leads Runners Off Course.”

As more information comes to light, though, it is increasingly clear that the foul-up cannot be laid on the shoulders of one pacer.

Several people have confirmed what one anonymous marathon participant told The Press Democrat previously - that runners had begun to veer off course well before the 3:03 pacesetter, who runs holding a sign with his pace time of 3 hours, 3 minutes, reached that section of the race.

“To make this one individual responsible for your action on the course felt like too much,” said Chuck Mullane of Sunnyvale, who wound up in the off-course group. “He’s more focused on pace. And you’re following the people in front of you. I felt it was really hard to blame him. I know people get emotional, but when you stop and think, I want that guy to come back and pace again next year.”

The controversy started at the intersection of Hope and Fifth streets, site of one of the marathon’s aid stations. After making a left turn from Fourth Street onto Hope, runners were supposed to go left again on Fifth. For whatever reason, a number turned right instead.

Two runners, Abe Sheppard of Irvine and Jeremy Wilkinson of Burlingame, supplied the Press Democrat with images created Sunday on their Garmin mapping devices. Both clearly show the runners making a right on Fifth and another right on Brookwood Avenue. Each went as far as Santa Rosa Creek before discovering his mistake.

Those two participants both were behind the 3:03 pacer. But others who made the wrong turn were ahead of him. One of them was Mullane.

“One of the folks at the aid station said something to the effect of ‘stay right at the cones’ and we followed other runners to the right on 5th Street (not sure how many runners preceded us),” he wrote to Santa Rosa Marathon organizers in an email he shared with the Press Democrat. “As we passed through the cones someone mentioned out loud that its probably not a good thing to go against cones. We continued to follow the other runners and as we were turning right (off of) Hope St, we asked two volunteers if this was the right way. They said yes, but timidly.”

Wayward runners realized something might be wrong when they began to encounter traffic. Finally, a police officer told them they were off course. They doubled back, bumping into other confused runners along the way.

Estimates by those involved put the number of misdirected runners at somewhere between 100 and 200.

Matias Negatu of San Diego said he had been running right alongside the 3:03 pacer. Negatu called him “a really nice guy,” noting that the pacesetter was giving runners advice on shortening their turns and relaxing their shoulders when they ran.

“It was rather dark. The sun hadn’t come up,” Negatu said. “There was no doubt in my mind that we were going in the right direction. I remember making a right turn, and there were cones. We were running in the street, and right in front of us was a group coming right at us. At that point my stomach sank. They stopped, we all stopped, for what felt like an eternity.”

They, too, retraced their steps and warned other misdirected runners - including another pacesetter.

Negatu’s only criticism of the 3:03 pacer is that he sprinted off to get information and never came back to pass it along.

The error added nearly a mile to some runners’ routes. A standard marathon is 26.2 miles. Sheppard’s Garmin map showed his distance traveled as 26.95 miles. Wilkinson’s was 27.11.

The screw-up is potentially significant. Some runners claim they would have qualified for the Boston Marathon on Sunday, but finished below the cut line after their unplanned detour. They were told after the race that their logged chip times would remain official.

“I was just in a state of panic,” Sheppard said. “That sounds overboard, but I was. I needed to qualify and I haven’t run another marathon this year.”

Wednesday, Sheppard and Wilkinson both heard from race director Sarabi, who told them he was working with the Boston Athletic Association (the group that stages the marathon there) to negotiate some sort of time adjustment for the victimized runners.

BAA representative Jack Fleming said that he received an email from Sarabi on Monday evening. The BAA then asked Sarabi to supply as much detailed information as possible, and to state in clear terms what he was requesting. As of Wednesday afternoon, Fleming said, they had not heard back from Sarabi.

“I don’t know this, but from reading your article (published Tuesday), this went beyond the pacer,” Fleming said. “That’s the kind of detailed information we would need to be receiving in order to figure out what happens.”

Sarabi has already promised refunds, or credits toward the 2017 race, to anyone affected by the wrong turn.

Meanwhile, USA Track & Field chief marketing officer Jill Geer said that her organization certified the official distance of the 2016 Santa Rosa Marathon, but did not officially sanction the event. USATF, therefore, would not be involved in handing down any judgments.

This was not the first black eye for the Santa Rosa race. Both the 2013 and 2015 editions involved incorrect race results, at least initially, when some people ran the wrong route.

There were additional issues this year, too. Some entrants felt the marathon started too early, making it hard to see course markers. Negatu complained that race organizers provided calorie foods and drinks only at the halfway mark, not every two miles as they had promised. A veteran of 59 marathons, Negatu said he logged his worst time ever in Santa Rosa on Sunday. Depleted by lack of calories, he said, he wound up walking most of the last several miles.

And once again, some participants seem to have modified the course. Negatu believes they did so in an attempt to make up for the snafu at Hope and Fifth.

“I was in the changing area after the race and another fast runner walked up,” Negatu recalled. “He looked pretty wiped out, and he said that he hadn’t run 26.2 at first, so he was trying to make it up by running loops around the aid station.”

Negatu said he wouldn’t run the Santa Rosa Marathon again unless someone else organized it. Other runners were more forgiving.

“In the end it was really a good experience for me,” Wilkinson said. “It was a really fast race, the weather was perfect and the people were really friendly. I would come back and do it again. I would hope that they would learn from some of these things.”

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