San Diego, CA. — Who knew what lie ahead in the wild open spaces of the first 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 with running a marathon?
Well, on June 21, 1998 the world got its answer. With the snarl of a blistering guitar solo, the tight rhythm of a snare drum and millions of accompanying footfalls, the second wave running boom announced its arrival in a rollick of music, endorphins, and sweat.
Even before its first steps were run, there was the feel of a major marathon about it. Elite Racing founder Tim Murphy had conceived the idea while running the final lonely miles of the Heart of San Diego Marathon one year out along Friar’s Road to Qualcomm Stadium. Wishing there were some kind of support along the road to help out, Murphy thought, wouldn’t it be great to have music to run to.
It took a long time for his idea to gestate, but the seed had been planted, and after a decade of developing his reputation as an innovator, Murphy saw his grand design come into full blossom in 1998.
No longer a simple feat of speed endurance, the marathon had been transformed into a 26-mile long block party through America’s Finest City. Though there was a 35-minute start delay at Balboa Park due to some traffic issues out on the course, which led to a water-dousing through the first aid station, the high-spirited music rocking the sidelines 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!
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, and pivot-point in the history of the sport.
The course, mostly around Mission Bay, still had a new-car smell. Nobody knew how fast it could be run 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 except New York’s five-borough extravaganza in 1976 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 produced, $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, the so-called second running boom.
By year two more bands were added, 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.
Passing the half-way mark in 64:22 while running with the pace setters for the first 16 1/2 miles, Tarus then surged to a 4:39 17th mile that left him alone and cranking. 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, 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 win in June. The only thing missing now was tradition. And that was just a matter of time.
Now in its 19th year, the Suja Rock `n` Roll Marathon has been joined by more than 30 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 company to Calera Capital in December 2012.
The marathon course has undergone significant changes over the years, the finish has moved several times, and a half-marathon has been added to the schedule, which is now what the majority of the runners sign up for (this year led by American Rio Olympic marathoners Amy Cragg and Shalane Flanagan).
While Tim Murphy engineered a balance in the sport-festival format, the arrival of private equity in 2008 coincided with the long-standing stagnation in the international racing model. Without a compelling front-end narrative, without a developing professional class, the tilt toward festival (understandably) began to out-pace the sport.
Compared to its first decade, prize money has diminished significantly, the marathon fields are no longer world-class, and television doesn’t cover the race anymore. That investment proved too big a lift for any outside the major city marathons.
Since its inception Rock ‘n’ Roll has been an industry pace setter. Today, no event seems devoid of entertainment along its sidelines. The new race smell may be gone, but the brand still thrives, and the music plays on.