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Boston Marathon won't adjust times for Santa Rosa Marathon runners who went off course

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Confusion and frustration turned to disappointment for some runners Thursday when they learned that a wrong turn in the Santa Rosa Marathon on Aug. 28 is likely to exclude them from participating in the 2017 Boston Marathon.

“Unfortunately, after reviewing the information received from the Santa Rosa Marathon’s organizational team, the B.A.A. is unable to accept adjusted finish times from — or make adjustments to — the 2016 Santa Rosa Marathon. Official times must be kept intact and based on the course which each participant ran,” Jack Fleming, marketing and communications director for the Boston Athletic Association, wrote in a statement that Santa Rosa Marathon race director Orhan Sarabi forwarded to affected runners.

Entrants must hit time standards within their age-and-gender categories to qualify for the Boston race, one of the most prestigious in the world. Some runners did officially meet those standards in Santa Rosa two weeks ago. But a few are convinced their chance of qualifying for Boston went off course.

To recap the event in question: An estimated 130-150 runners turned right instead of left at the corner of Hope and Fifth streets in downtown Santa Rosa while running the full marathon early on the morning of Aug. 28. Some of them continued for close to a half-mile before realizing their error. Most, but not all, then retraced their steps back to the intersection.

By the time they crossed the finish line, some runners had covered 27 miles or more, rather than the 26.2 of the standard marathon. Obviously, this inflated their times.

One of those runners was Abe Sheppard, who lives in Irvine and has relatives in Santa Rosa. Sheppard is 41, meaning his time standard for the Boston Marathon is 3 hours, 15 minutes. Sheppard has run Boston nine times, including the past eight editions. But he has fought through injuries recently and was relying on the Santa Rosa race to qualify.

Sheppard was charting carefully on his watch that day, and says he ran 26.2 miles in 3:10:30. But after his unplanned detour, his official time was 3:16:38.

“Other people might be in my position but already qualified in another race,” Sheppard said. “I’m stuck right in the middle.”

Even hitting the qualifying standard is no guarantee a person will get an opportunity to run Boston. Registration begins Monday. Organizers will fill the race roster in stages, with the fastest qualifiers being accepted first. Once the race is at capacity — last year it took about a week and a half — no one else gets in.

It’s hard to know the cut-off line in advance, but some relatively slower qualifiers are almost certain to be left out. Last year, Fleming said, you had to beat your qualifying mark by about 2 minutes, 30 seconds to get in.

That’s bad news for someone like Duane Howard of Los Angeles. Howard, in the 35-39 age group, needed a 3:10 to qualify for Boston. His Garmin device told him that he ran 26.2 miles in Santa Rosa in about 3:03; unfortunately, he ran 27.1 miles overall. Howard’s official time was 3:09:37. He qualified for Boston, but just barely.

“There is very, very little chance I will get into Boston,” said Howard, who referred to running the famed marathon as a “bucket-list item.”

Advocating for his clients, Sarabi forwarded such information for the BAA to evaluate.

“We did our best with Garmin and Strava (GPS) data, to at least give us a baseline of where people went and what they did,” Sarabi said Friday.

But Sarabi and his aggrieved runners never really stood a chance. Reached by phone, Fleming said that if the Santa Rosa course had been improperly measured, or if some sort of emergency had occurred during the race, the Boston Marathon group might have accepted time adjustments. They could not do so, he said, for runners who left the route.

“I’m not aware of us ever making that sort of adjustment,” Fleming said. “There are USA Track and Field rules in place for something like that. Everyone in a marathon is racing against the clock. That clock doesn’t stop when they go off course and start again when they come back. The clock starts when they leave the start line and stops when they reach the finish line.

“If someone were to run a quarter-mile to use the men’s room and then come back, for a total of say an extra half-mile, we’re not gonna make that adjustment.”

In the days after the race, debate centered on who was responsible for the wrong turn, whether it was race organizers (who might have marked the turn more clearly), or a particular pacesetter (who followed, and led, others into that right turn), or the wayward runners themselves (who could have studied the course more diligently).

The only certainty now is that a small number of marathoners ‑ no one is quite sure how many — were adversely affected by course confusion.

Howard said he loves the Santa Rosa course and is happy with the race swag he has received here. His beef is with the response of the race organizers.

“I think my main grievance is sort of the attitude of, ‘Well, this happened but the course was fine, the pacers are volunteers and they are not responsible,’” Howard said. “There is a sort of a half apology. A sort of, ‘Well, it sucks for you but it’s kind of not our fault.’ That is sort of the tone of the communication.”

Sarabi rejects this assessment, and feels like the Santa Rosa Marathon has been unduly maligned for the wrong turn, just as it was when a woman who ran the half-marathon course was mistakenly declared winner of the women’s full marathon, at least initially, in 2015.

“For these affected runners, we feel we’ve done everything we can to support them,” Sarabi said. “The majority I’ve spoken to feel positively about how we’ve handled it. This could even be a little bit of a blessing. That problem won’t occur again, because we’ll be even more hyper-focused on that. Moving forward, it’s something that can be corrected.

“A lot of runners have multiple years of repetition here, they’ve come seven years and had a great time. It’s still unfortunate, but it wasn’t like we had 1,300 people go off course.”

As for the runners who were negatively impacted, not all are giving up. Sheppard said he plans to explore every option with BAA officials.

“I don’t know if I’d want a courtesy entry or to be awarded my qualifying time from two years ago. Maybe they can use that,” Sheppard said. “But no, it’s not my personality to give up — when I’m right.”

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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