Tim Murphy, founder of San Diego’s Elite Racing, Inc., the man who reinvented running, not once but three times, succumbed to pneumonia Wednesday night (August 17, 2022) passing in hospice care at his home in San Diego, California. He was 77 years old.
Today, though much smaller than it once was, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series retains 10 events in the U.S., plus one each in Mexico, Spain, and the Philippines. But a quarter century ago, who knew what lay ahead in the wild open spaces of the first Rock `n` Roll Marathon?
Some observers even questioned the concept of rock bands strung along the marathon course altogether. What does rock`n` roll have to do with San Diego, much less with running a marathon, the ultimate test of endurance?
Well, on June 21, 1998 the world got its answer. With the snarl of a blistering guitar solo, the tight syncopation of a snare drum, and the slap of millions of accompanying footfalls, the second-wave running boom announced its arrival in San Diego with a carnival of music, endorphins, and sweat. It’s like Tim turned over the calendar two years early to introduce the new century.
“We created a theme marathon without intending to,” said Tracy Sundlun, Tim’s long-time partner at Elite Racing.
No new major marathon had sprung up in the U.S. or the world since the Los Angeles Marathon arrived in 1986. In its first year, LA registered 10,787 runners, making it the largest inaugural marathon in history. Instantly, that number became Tim‘s goal for San Diego to beat LA.
Even before its first steps were run, though, there was the feel of a major marathon about the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon. Tim had conceived the idea years before while running the final lonely miles of the Heart of San Diego Marathon out along Friar’s Road to Qualcomm Stadium in Mission Valley. 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.
After a decade of developing his reputation as an event innovator, beginning in 1986 with the Carlsbad 5000 just north of San Diego – the event that proved runners in a then 10k / marathon focused world would run a 3.1 mile race, while introducing “spectator running” where the professional field followed age and gender specific races over the same tight-looped course – Murphy’s idea of a musical marathon came to life, born out of two separate, but catalyzing events.
“When they opened the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland (1995), there was so much hype about it,” Tim told San Diego YuYu in 2004. “So I was running along one morning and I thought, “If I lived in Cleveland I would do a marathon that would start and finish at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and do a big concert afterwards.”
One year later 273 San Diegans were among the record 38,000 entrants at the 100th anniversary of the Boston Marathon.
“Afterwards, they had this get together and all they could talk about was why there wasn’t a major marathon in San Diego. And all the runners, some of them pretty important, just wouldn’t leave me alone about it. So I essentially dusted off the old idea I had for Cleveland and started.”
With the backing of a set of investors, led by Hollywood A-list producers Frank Marshall and wife Catherine Kennedy – “Jurassic Park”, “Indiana Jones” , “Jason Bourne” – along with celebrity ambassadors like basketball Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain, Tim promoted his concept relentlessly at race expos around the country, touting his new baby with posters and ads that said, ‘You missed the first Boston. Don’t miss the first Rock ‘n’ Roll!’
No longer a simple feat of speed endurance, the grueling marathon had been reinvented as a rollicking 26-mile long block party through America’s Finest City.
Despite a 37-minute delay at the start due to some perceived traffic issues 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.
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!
The makeup of year one’s field proved historic, as well. 50% of the field was women, far and away the largest such percentage of any co-ed road race of any distance to date, and a pivot-point in the history of the sport. Before RnR San Diego, the largest percentage of women in a major marathon had been just 23% at New York City. Most road races had only 10% to 15% women at the time.
Rock ‘n’ Roll’s runners were also slightly older than the norm, slightly wealthier, and slightly slower than the average marathon runners.
At a time when road race courses were designed to be minimally visible and impact their communities as little as possible, the initial Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon layout was designed to be an infomercial for the city, regardless of the potential inconvenience for some.
When city officials asked how long they would have to keep the streets closed, Tim based his projections on the New York City Marathon, saying, ‘we might have 50 or 60 runners who will take longer than six hours 30 minutes. But we’ll just direct them onto the sidewalk, so you can reopen the streets.’ As it turned out, 1500 runners took over seven hours to complete their 26.2 mile journey.
But Tim Murphy wasn’t just in it for the large participation numbers, important as they were. He always had his eye on top talent, too, and urged elite athlete coordinator Mike Long to pull in a world-class field, like he did every year for the Carlsbad 5000 where so many world records were set.
Nobody knew how fast RnR 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 products and prize money checks were handed out.
Not since the New York City Marathon’s first five-borough extravaganza in 1976 had a marathon come on the calendar with such dramatic impact: The largest first-time running event in history; the most ingenious show along the sidelines and at the finish ever produced; $18.6 million (net) raised by and for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training charity – the largest amount ever for a single-day sporting event; and to cap it off, world-class performances by its champions.
Though the race lost over $1 million in its first year, it instantly became the number one economic impact event in Southern California, generating $39.3 million in its inaugural year, as two-thirds of its entrants came from outside the region. With Murphy’s persistence and the continued backing of his investors, Rock ‘n’ Roll eventually broke even in year three. Thus was the foundation set for what has become a global phenomenon, the so-called second-wave running boom.
Born and raised with two sisters in Denver, Colorado, Tim attended high school in Nebraska where he competed in the 880-yard run and threw the discus. He then spent the first part of his professional life toiling in the health care industry, selling hospital supplies on the road while moving across the country time and time again. Finally, in the late 70s, he decided to abandon the rat race and settle in San Diego where his two sisters lived.
Though he ran track in high school, he wasn’t a distance man. But once in San Diego and introduced to the area’s vibrant running community, like so many before him, he got hooked on the sport. Tim often trained up to 10 miles a day, which led him into the race organization business and the founding of Elite Racing in 1988.
Always more of a behind the scenes workaholic than a flashy frontman, Tim did serve as interim race director for the troubled Chicago Marathon in 1989. But mostly he focused like a laser on the business side of Elite Racing. Tracy Sundlun, former head of New York City’s Metropolitan Athletics Congress, and a former collegiate and club track coach, joined as Tim’s partner in 1997, taking on the role of political go-between and liaison with the sporting world.
Through it all, Tim used his marketing and sales skills to build his race business from a fledgling local concern into the most successful for-profit organization in running.
“We have lost someone who – I don’t think many of the insiders even grasp his importance, his significance,“ said Tracy Sundlun. “Besides Fred Lebow in New York City, Tim was the best retail marketer the sport has ever known. It makes me happy all the people who’ve reached out from all over the world when they heard news of his passing. Tim would’ve felt good knowing the people recognized what he built, what he reinvented.”
Beginning with the Carlsbad 5000 in 1986, Tim bucked the conventional norms of the sport. Nobody thought people would pay to run a 5K. Running at the time was a 10K and marathon trade. But Tim turned it into a 5K and half marathon business and the sport soon followed along.
The success of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in San Diego changed Murphy’s fortunes for good. Over the next several years, Tim developed the brand into a seven event juggernaut that spread from San Diego to Virginia Beach, Nashville to Phoenix, San Jose, California to San Antonio, Texas.
Elite Racing was the first organization to stage more than one marathon in a year, and the first to put on events outside their own home city. Designed as a for-profit company in a not-for-profit industry, Elite Racing was the first organization to build a brand in the sport, though, initially they didn’t realize they were doing it. They were also the first to buy events and the first to sell to private-equity.
When the City of Virginia Beach, VA wanted to start a new marathon on Labor Day weekend in 2001, Tim made a site visit. He realized that with the heat and humidity of late summer in Virginia Beach, and not wanting to conflict with the fall marathons which had been so supportive of his races in San Diego in the summer and Nashville in the spring, there was no way that a full marathon would work. So Tim convinced VB to create the first destination half-marathon, The Rock ‘n’ Roll Virginia Beach Half Marathon. Until then, half marathons were just local training races for marathons.
“Just like with Carlsbad in the 5K, nobody thought people would travel to run a half marathon,“ remembered Sundlun. “When we proposed Virginia Beach, we were one of Runner’s World Magazine‘s biggest advertisers. We said we were going to sell out at 12,000 for the Labor Day weekend race. People at Runner’s World said we were nuts. At the time, the largest half marathon was the Philadelphia Distance Run at 6000, the largest inaugural half marathon was on Long Island at 2900.
“Runner’s World bet us a full, center-spread, double page ad that we wouldn’t hit our number. They didn’t even think vendors would come to a Labor Day weekend race in Virginia Beach. But we sold out by July and eventually got 14,990 entrants. Getting that check back from Runner’s World, that was really something.”
Deena Kastor headlined the inaugural Rock ‘n’ Roll Virginia Beach Half Marathon in 2001, setting an American debut record as a prep race for her marathon debut in New York City that fall. Kenyan superstars Martin Lel and Paul Tergat both tuned up for fall marathon victories with wins in Virginia Beach.
Records were always important to Tim. He would often have side bets with Mike Long about the outcome of races. Two-time Olympic champion and multiple-time world record holder Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia broke the half marathon world record at Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona in 2006 (58:55). And with 16 World Records / Bests and 11 American Records, Carlsbad was always recognized as The World’s Fastest 5K.
“Tim felt if you created special events with a team of people who were passionate about the space they were in, the money would follow,” Sundlun told me. “He also understood that an event was only as good as its weakest link. So he was laser-focused on every aspect of the event, from the expo to the medal to the course to the elite athletes to the give-a-ways to the ads to the water stations, you name it.
“We never had a meeting about what to cut, just about how to improve. Tim understood you had to invest and promote relentlessly. He was tireless in his pursuit of greatness. Good people would join him and he empowered them and got out of their way. But he refused to take no for an answer, and had a single-minded focus.”
Tim even bought television’s Road Race of the Month from Salmini Films in 1991, the series that aired on ESPN for over a decade featuring the best races in the country and around the world. Tim understood that with television as a promotional arm, he could sell more advertising and attract more runners.
The string of happy days ended abruptly in July 2007, however, when Elite Racing’s beloved athlete recruiter Mike Long died suddenly of a heart attack. Mike’s passing seemed to take the spark out of Tim.
Later that year he sold the business to Falconhead Capital for more than $40 million. Elite Racing essentially became the event division of the new Competitor Group, Inc., and Tim moved on. Eventually, after Tracy also left, CGI abandoned the elite aspect of running altogether, before leaving San Diego, as well.
At times, Tim could be a volcanic boss, as his business was his life’s passion. Yet he engendered a deep dedication and respect from his Elite Racing family, out of which 17 marriages were spawned (including my own with Toya), growing families, and lifelong friendships.
Tim’s final years were spent quietly, visiting with friends and his two sisters who were with him at the last.
R.I.P., Tim. You were a true visionary who has left a legacy that moved us all both body and soul.