Who knew what lie ahead in the wild open spaces of the first Suzuki Rock `n` Roll Marathon? Some even questioned the concept of rock bands strung along the marathon course. What does rock `n` roll have to do with San Diego much less the marathon, they asked?

Well, on June 21st 1998 the world heard loud and clear what rock `n` roll had to do with San Diego and marathoning.  With a resounding P-A-R-T-Y! the second running boom announced its arrival.


No longer a simple feat of speed and endurance, the marathon had been turned into a 26-mile block party by Elite Racing’s Tim Murphy, who could be rightfully called the father of the post-modern running boom. Even before its first steps were run there was the feel of a major marathon about it as Tim brought on high profile Hollywood investors and celebrity ambassadors to help generate funding and interest.  Runner’s World also helped turn out 6000 Team In Training runners for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Yes, there was a disconcerting 35-minute delay at the Balboa Park start due to parked cars on the course, leading many a  bladder challenged runner to anoint Sixth Avenue before the gun.  Then after they were set free, runners overwhelmed the first water stop in the subsequent heat, causing back of the packers to come up dry.  Yet the music rocking the sidelines for 26.2 miles caused an immediate sensation.  Afterwards the nearly 20,000 entrants from 30 countries and all 50 states passed the word, ‘You gotta try this one!” And that was before they got to the post-race concert that night featuring Huey Lewis and the News, Pat Benatar, and the Lovin’ Spoonful!

Late, great Mike Long, Elite Racing's legendary athlete recruiter with early RnR winners Irina Bogacheva and Philip Tarus
Late, great Mike Long, Elite Racing’s legendary athlete recruiter with early RnR winners Irina Bogacheva and Philip Tarus


So, too, was year one’s field a group of intrepid explorers, 55% of which were women, the largest such percentage of any marathon to date. The course, much around Mission Bay, had a new-car smell about it, or was that newly cut wood?  City business owners balked when the course design closed traffic on Harbor Island Drive, the main access to Lindbergh Field, San Diego’s major international airport.  The last-minute compromise was a temporary plywood bridge that took the runners up and over the traffic, but whose steep cost set Elite Racing back tens of thousands to build, and tested tired runners more than they might have hoped at 23 miles. 

Nobody knew how fast the route would be until young Kenyan Philip Tarus busted a 2:10 opener for the men, with Russian women Nadezhda Ilyina and Irina Bogacheva battling just nine seconds apart at the finish for the women in 2:34. That told the athletes of the world, ‘This one is worth having a go,” especially after all the Suzuki prizes and prize money checks were handed out.

No marathon had ever come on the calendar with such dramatic impact: the largest first-time marathon in history, the most ingenious show along the sidelines ever conceived, $15 million raised for charity – the largest amount ever for a single-day sporting event — and to cap it off world-class performances by its champions. Thus was the foundation set for what has become a global phenomenon.

Spirit along the course from local high school cheer squads
Spirit along the course from local high school cheer squads

By year two more bands were added, a new course designed and cheer squads from the local high schools came out to play alongside. The atmosphere was part Woodstock, part Olympics. Philip Tarus returned to the sight of his greatest triumph and vowed to challenge the outside limits of the course.

Running with pace setters for the first 16 1/2 miles Tarus passed the halfway mark in 64:22 before surging to a 4:39 17th mile.  That left him alone and cranking as he ripped off ten consecutive sub 4:50 miles to scream home in 2:08:33. It was the fastest time ever run west of the Mississippi River, faster even than Portugal’s Carlos Lopes 2:09:21 at the 1984 Olympic Marathon. Finishing a distant second was Kenya’s Mbarak Hussein in 2:10:45.

For his victory, Tarus earned $60,000 in cash and products from title sponsor Suzuki, including a $5,000 bonus for breaking 2:10. Instantly, Suzuki Rock `n` Roll was elevated to world-class status. First year women’s runner-up, Irina Bogcheva, returned from her second place at Boston in April to clock a 2:28:46 for the women’s win. The only thing missing was tradition. And that was just a matter of time.


Now in its 17th year, the Suja San Diego Rock `n` Roll Marathon & Half-Marathon has been joined by more than two dozen other cities world-wide where the Competitor Group has stamped out its RnR brand – Tim Murphy sold Elite Racing to Falconhead Capital in late 2007, which in turn re-sold the newly named Competitor Group company to Calera Capital in December 2012.

The San Diego course has undergone significant changes over the years.  The finish has moved several times from what had become its traditional terminus on the parade ground of United States Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) alongside Lindbergh Field.  For the second straight year 2014 will see the race will finish downtown near Petco Park, home of the baseball Padres.

MCRD Parade Ground finish in 1998
MCRD Parade Ground Finish

Also, the total prize money in San Diego has been scaled way back as the number of cities hosting RnRs events has risen.  Both local and national TV, once a staple of Elite Racing events, have gone dark, while the post-race concert now takes place at the finish line festival, this year featuring Aloe Blacc.

So successful has been the RnR model that the sport has embraced its format in full, from entertainment along its sidelines, to a major charity partnership.  And brand new events like mud, color, and warrior runs are direct descendants of the Murphy brain-child. Even the fledgling track circuit, American Track League, has incorporated the music model.

New management arrived at the Competitor Group in early 2014, suggesting that a closer association with the original Rock `n` Roll strategy of tying together the first running boom emphasis on racing with the second boom’s focus on participation may be underway.

Meb lifted by dad Russom after winning 2012 RnR Half
Meb lifted by dad Russom and saluted by mom Awetash after winning 2012 RnR Half

On Sunday Boston Marathon champion Meb Keflezighi will make a rare appearance in his hometown as he continues a cross country celebration of his historic Boston win.  In his first race date since becoming Boston’s first American male champ in 31 years Meb will pace the 1:30 half-marathon group over some very recognizable territory.  Meb won the event in 2012.

Long-time rival and 2012 half runner up  Ryan Hall will lace up his racing flats for the 13.1 mile distance after finishing 9th last weekend at the Bolder Boulder 10 Km.  There had been hopes of pitting Edna Kiplagat and Rita Jeptoo, the London and Boston Marathon women’s champions, against one another in the half-marathon.  But London winner Kiplagat pulled out last week, not fully recovered from a recent trip to Japan.  The rest of the elite field will be announced Friday at a downtown press conference.

The new smell may be gone, but the brand still thrives.


2 thoughts on “ROCK `n` ROLL HISTORY

  1. Great write-up, Toni. Good memories despite the inauspicious start. I ran that first RnR back in ’98. I remember seeing Wilt Chamberlain on the side of the road as one of the official race starters. Yeah, the race started late since they were still towing parked cars along the route to clear the roads from 20,000+ runners. And the delay caused everyone who was fully hydrated to have to go… and they were going, everywhere… bushes, trees, underpasses… everywhere. And then with the late start, the sun was out full force and the day grew hot… and they also ran out of water on the course which is the unpardonable sin of marathon directing. It was an interesting course. Somewhere out near the airport, we ran over a wooden bridge constructed just for the race that was made out of 2×4’s and plywood… and I still remember the finish downtown being uphill. At some point around mile 5, I crossed some RR tracks and looked up the line and saw a train with its lights on… I never heard any reports that it blocked the tracks or impeded runners, but I did wonder about that as I saw it up the line. Nonetheless, good memories.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.