The Oakland Running Festival Goes the Distance 

Oakland proves its mettle as a bona fide marathon town.

Oakland's got gorgeous natural scenery, a climate perfectly suited to outdoor running, and a populace that is, statistically, among the most running-happy in the country. And yet, until last year, the city hadn't hosted a marathon of its own in more than two decades.

It didn't make sense to Lee Corrigan, either. As the president of Baltimore-based Corrigan Sports Enterprises, he'd seen marathons work in all kinds of places, even in cities less naturally suited to them. So when an employee of his, Gene Brtalik, moved to the Bay Area and reported that Oakland hadn't had its own large-scale running event since the Eighties, Corrigan saw a niche to be filled and an opportunity to be seized — 3,000 miles away. Having founded the Baltimore Running Festival, he thought Oakland might benefit culturally from a marathon in the same way Baltimore had: "Baltimore and Oakland have a lot of similarities," he said. "But a marathon gets people coming in, people seeing the city in a different way." Oakland City Councilwoman Nancy Nadel, whom Corrigan says was instrumental on the city side, concurred. "This is a great thing for Oakland," she said. "It's a way to get people active, to get people to see Oakland in a different light." Not only do these events bring in tourism, boost local businesses, and give nonprofits an opportunity to raise money through sponsorships, but there's also the ineffable sense of civic pride that comes from seeing elite athletes travel from far and wide to run your city's streets.

When Corrigan founded the Baltimore event, he encountered skepticism from just about everyone. Ten years later, the running festival boasts some 25,000 participants annually, and he thinks he can replicate that success here. "We have a lot of faith in what we can do, and a lot of faith in Oakland, and a lot of faith in the running community," he said. Marathons tend to build slowly in popularity and name recognition, but early signs suggest that Corrigan's Oakland instincts were more or less spot-on. The inaugural Oakland Running Festival, which took place last year, drew about 6,000 runners and double or triple that number in spectators. This year, Corrigan said organizers are on pace to register 7,300 runners from 33 states and six countries, which represents a nearly 20 percent increase in participation.

Corrigan attributes that success both to city and community buy-in and to the design of the marathon course itself, which begins downtown and winds past Lake Temescal, through the hills, and around Lake Merritt. Moreover, Corrigan said, because this is a running festival, with a half-marathon, a kids' fun run, a 5K, and a marathon relay in addition to the standard 26.2-miler, anyone can take part: "The universe is opened up to many different people. It's not just a race — it's a party." The Oakland Running Festival takes place Saturday and Sunday, March 26-27, at various locations. The Oakland Tribune 5K begins at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday in Jack London Square (Broadway and Water St.); Sunday's events include the team relay (7:30 a.m.), the kids' fun run (8:30 a.m.), and the half- and full marathons (9 a.m. and 7:30 a.m., respectively). All begin and end in Frank Ogawa Plaza (Broadway and 14th St.), which will also host live music, a vendor village, and other attractions throughout the day. See the web site for full details and registration prices. 510-371-5273 or OaklandMarathon.com

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