Santa Rosa Marathon race director issues apology for course mix-up

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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.”

One major question is whether the turn was properly marked. Sarabi said it was.

“The first time I went across the corner, I didn’t note any markings,” the anonymous runner said. “As I was running through the second time, someone said, ‘Now we’re on the right side of the cones.’ I saw the cones at that point. In recollection, when I was running the first time I can kind of recall seeing something in my peripheral vision. It was a cone. But I just did not notice the barricade.”

Markers and pacers might not be the only issues from 2016, though. In an effort to beat the heat, the marathon started at 6 a.m. this year.

“(Kinley) told me he couldn’t really see the marks because it was so dark,” Aldridge said. “Maybe that’s an issue they need to address. Maybe make sure there’s light.”

More generally, some observers think Sarabi and his staff overextended this year. They added a fourth race, a 10K, to the three that were already in place: marathon, half-marathon and 5K. Multiple races overlapped in time.

“People were running in all different directions,” Aldridge said. “Monitors see one race going one way, and another race going the other way. Maybe they put a little too much on their plate. It’s not for me to decide. But I had questions before the race: How are they gonna pull this off?”

Most troubling, there may have been more irregularities involving improper routes.

“Some people ran short, we believe,” Aldridge said. “You run about a 3½-mile or a 3-mile loop downtown, then start out on the Prince (Memorial) Greenway. The lead runner (Kinley) said he went on the greenway and there were about 30 people ahead of him. He didn’t know where they came from.”

Sarabi said the marathon will do everything it can to make things right with aggrieved runners. He is offering anyone incorrectly led off course a free 2017 Santa Rosa Marathon entry, or a refund of their 2016 entry fee. Interested parties should email him at at srmarathon@gmail.com.

Sarabi added that race organizers are currently working with the Boston Athletic Association to sort out complications with those Boston Marathon qualifications. That might be easier said than done, though.

Jack Fleming, director of communications for the Boston Athletic Association, explained that his organization doesn’t do detective work. It lets USA Track & Field sanction the qualifying marathons, and it relies on official results forwarded by those individual races.

“We do not go out and have a representative at each of these races. There are probably 250 to 300 in the U.S. alone,” Fleming said. “We generally rely upon the race management itself.”

With a mounting catalog of troubles, it’s fair to question the future of the Santa Rosa Marathon.

Santa Rosa Recreation and Parks department marketing and public outreach coordinator Adriane Mertens said the city would likely compose a standard review of the marathon sometime in the next two weeks after consulting with other departments involved in permitting and planning. These would include police, the fire department, traffic control and the parking division. Staff will then go over the review with marathon organizers, advising on how to improve the event.

Mertens emphasized that the city’s main concern is the safety of its residents and race participants. Beyond that, city staff probably won’t get involved in managing or rebuking the marathon.

As for local runners, they aren’t turning their cushioned heels on the Santa Rosa Marathon just yet. Kenny Brown, who works with Aldridge at Heart and Sole and trains groups for the marathon and half-marathon here, noted that last year’s mix-up seemed to be the work of a confused or deceptive runner, not the organizers.

“I know it was corrected almost immediately,” Brown said. “After the one (in 2013), the race made a course change to make sure runners from different races weren’t coming in the same direction together. If they weren’t trying to learn from mistakes, that would be an issue for me. But they are learning.”

However painful those lessons might be for some participants.

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