Sonoma Coast Marathon proposed along Highway 1 from Fort Ross to Bodega Bay

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A new venture seeking to capitalize on Sonoma County’s reputation as a premier destination for athletic endurance events is proposing to stage a marathon on Highway 1 this fall, shutting down the scenic coastal highway in both directions during the race from Fort Ross to Bodega Bay.

Former west county Supervisor Efren Carrillo is leading the drive to create the Sonoma Coast Marathon, modeled on a similar race held every spring in Big Sur.

The inaugural event, planned for Sept. 29, would start on the north end at Fort Ross State Park at 7 a.m. and take runners south on Highway 1 to the finish line at Westside Regional Park in Bodega Bay, Carrillo said.

A shorter race, something just longer than a half-marathon, would begin at the recently opened Jenner Headlands Preserve. Both runs would dog-leg into Goat Rock State Beach below Jenner and back out to Highway 1 for the remainder of the course.

Carrillo said he wants to celebrate the spectacular Sonoma coastline and build on the region’s reputation for well- organized, successful events that have made the county a destination for runners and cyclists. Organizers hope to attract about 4,000 to 5,000 participants in the first year, he said.

“In our research, there seems to be a significant amount of interest for folks in the Bay Area, in the region and across the state and elsewhere for healthy events like this one,” Carrillo said. “And what better place than the Sonoma Coast? I do believe that this will be a one-of-a- kind experience.”

While few locals have yet heard about his plans, some already are concerned about a key component: the closure of Highway 1 in both directions beginning early that Sunday morning and, at least on the south end, into early afternoon.

The effect, they said, would shut down all movement in Bodega Bay north of Eastshore Road, since almost everyone needs to travel on Highway 1 to go anywhere, except those living right off Coleman Valley or Bay Hill roads.

Everything from state campground checkouts, vacation rentals, restaurants and stores, the Sunday farmers market at the local community center, and even a wedding at the Secret Garden on the race route that day would be impacted, they said.

“Highway 1 is the only way we have to move around here,” said Diana Bundy, who, with her husband, stewards the Bodega Bay Community Center on Highway 1 and manages the farmers market there. “In other places where they do these races, they can go around the main arteries and have access, but not here. This is not well thought out in my opinion.”

Robin Rudderow, who manages the community center gardens, said the general response from people she has told about the marathon has been mostly, “Are you kidding me? Closing Highway 1 on a busy fall Sunday? ... It would just be gridlock.”

Carrillo said Caltrans and CHP requested the complete highway closure so that race participants could utilize the western, southbound lane and the eastern, northbound lane could be reserved for emergency vehicles serving the event and the region.

Runners will be given cut-off times for each leg of the race, so that the northernmost sections can be reopened earlier than the remainder of the course. Participants would have a maximum of six hours to complete the course.

Carrillo, 37, served two terms as Fifth District representative to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and has worked since 2017 as director of government and community relations for nonprofit Burbank Housing.

He said he had envisioned a coastal marathon for a while and started working on it in earnest last year, reaching out to stakeholders and forming Sonoma Coast Marathon LLC in June. A nonprofit arm, the Sonoma Coast Marathon Foundation, was registered with the secretary of state last week to benefit mostly coastal entities, though “we’re not going to limit ourselves,” he said.

The event would be the fourth full 26.2-mile marathon in Sonoma County, joining Ironman, which includes a full marathon along with bike and swim events in May; the Santa Rosa Marathon in August; and the Cloverdale Vineyard Races marathon in October. Carrillo said it is roughly modeled on the 33-year-old Big Sur Marathon held each April on Highway 1 along the Central Coast.

The popular marathon — along with 21-mile, 11-mile and several smaller races — draws about 8,500 participants from all 50 U.S. states and 30 countries each year, according to race director Doug Thurston, who also serves as executive director of the Big Sur Marathon Foundation.

“So the economic impact of the event I think we judge is about $15 million in our area,” he said.

The organization, which is wholly nonprofit, also raises hundreds of thousands of dollars for local charities, he said.

Thurston said Highway 1 from Carmel to Big Sur Station is closed for the race in both directions so that runners can take one lane and emergency vehicles the second. Only a few businesses are affected during the first couple of miles of the race course, he said. State parks and private ranchlands line the rest of the highway, he said.

To mitigate the impact of the closure, the marathon organization runs CHP-escorted convoys of 200 to 300 vehicles both north- and south-bound on Highway 1. The convoys comprise everything from volunteers and spectators to residents and through traffic, running on schedules published in advance.

Some people are still caught by surprise, he said, but “the number of complaints we get is relatively small.”

Permits for the Sonoma Coast Marathon have yet to be obtained, though Carrillo and unidentified partners have been meeting with assorted permitting agencies including Caltrans, CHP, Sonoma County Permit & Resources Management Department, county and state parks. Some permit applications already have been tailored based on input from advance meetings and will be submitted beginning this week, he said.

State Park Superintendent Terry Bertels, who oversees the Sonoma-Mendocino Coast District, has met with Carrillo but said there remained substantial impacts to address in relatively little time, given the proposed event date.

“I saw enough organization and an intent to get all the right people and agencies involved to let me know that they are on the right track,” he said via email.

None of the permits require public hearings that would allow for public input. Carrillo said he planned to present his proposal to still-unscheduled meetings of the newly created municipal advisory councils for the Sonoma Coast and the lower Russian River.

“We have to prove that we can pull it off and pull it off not only safely but in a way that the local community is benefiting,” he said.

Cea Higgins, executive director of Coastwalk California, said she hoped the marathon might be a demonstration of new green ways to enjoy the coast responsibly, without the plastic water bottles and other litter of so many races.

“It feels like the wheels are just spinning really fast, and it feels like it always does out here, which is that we always find out things after it’s too late,” she said.

The race website, sonomacoast marathon.com, should be live by next week, Carrillo said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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