Can Oakland Go the Distance? 

After a 25-year hiatus, the Oakland Marathon returns next week with an eye-popping new route and a menu of race choices.

On a cool, crystal-clear November morning, the weather is perfect for a run. Outside of Lululemon, a chic athletic apparel shop at the corner of Ashby and College avenues in Berkeley, a crowd starts to assemble on the sidewalk. It's a colorful spectacle — an ethnically diverse gathering of about 100 runners sporting bright race T-shirts, neon shorts, and shiny white shoes that look like they've yet to step in a puddle.

The occasion is the inaugural group training run for the Oakland Running Festival, which is scheduled for the weekend of March 26-28 and will include the first road marathon to be held in Oakland in more than 25 years. Len Goldman, the sprightly 65-year-old president of the Lake Merritt Joggers and Striders running club, shouts above the drone of traffic. He welcomes everyone and explains that over the next four months, the group will run together each Saturday morning, gradually increasing the mileage until participants are fully prepared for either the 26.2-mile marathon or the accompanying half marathon. The day's run will be an "easy," five- or six-mile jaunt past the east side of the UC Berkeley campus to Codornices Park, then down the hill to Oxford Street before returning to the store for post-workout refreshments — and possible purchases of tony running wear.

There is an upbeat vibe among the runners. It's a beautiful day, their legs feel fresh, and the race is still four months away. The atmosphere feels like the first day of school.

Longtime Oakland runners and the race organizers are optimistic, too. They see the Oakland Running Festival as an opportunity to promote both Oakland and running, and as a way to unify a community that is often divided by racial, economic, and geographic differences. Marathons are big events in many cities — New York and Boston, famously, but also Baltimore, Cincinnati, Houston, and countless others — and serve as a source of civic pride and unity. Why not Oakland?

It turns out that local business people and politicians had the same notion in the early Eighties, when, for three or four years, the Oakland Marathon was a destination race for runners in California and beyond. But instead of evolving into the Boston Marathon of the West, as boosters hoped, the Oakland Marathon vanished abruptly, leaving a void that marathons in San Francisco, Sacramento, and San Jose have only partially filled.

The question for skeptics in Nikes, then, is why will things be any different in the new millennium? What reason is there to believe that Oakland can support a big-time marathon for the long haul this time around?

One person who is unabashedly bullish on the Oakland Running Festival's prospects is race director Gene Brtalik, the man who came up with the idea. Brtalik works in marketing for Corrigan Sports, the Maryland-based promoter and organizer of the Baltimore Marathon. When his wife got a job in Oakland and the couple relocated from the East Coast in October, 2008, Brtalik looked into the local race schedule. He learned that Oakland had no marathon, and saw a gap begging to be filled.

After receiving the go-ahead from his boss, Brtalik e-mailed the Oakland City Council to propose a race weekend and offer Corrigan Sports' promotional services. Within three hours, he received responses from several councilmembers. After a few months of ironing out the details with city staff, the council approved a resolution in support of the event last June.

Brtalik sees no reason why the Oakland Running Festival can't be as successful as his company's flagship running weekend in Baltimore. According to Brtalik, the Baltimore event started small but now has 20,000 runners annually and has become a huge community happening, with about one of every four people in the city participating in some way.

Brtalik credits the event's success to the way it's organized. "There are five races so most people can find something they can participate in," he said. In addition to the marathon and half-marathon, the Baltimore festival includes a 5K, a kids' fun run, and a four-person relay. "We make it walker-friendly for those who don't run," he added. "We make it family-friendly. And there's also a party atmosphere afterward. Now it has become the thing to do. One person does it and has a great time; the next year their friends want to do it."

The Oakland Running Festival is based on the same model, and Brtalik expects it to follow a similar growth trajectory. "We're looking for 7,000 to 8,000 runners across five events this year," he said. "We want to start small and make sure we can handle the crowds. In Baltimore the size has increased 10 to 15 percent each year, and that's what we're shooting for in Oakland."

Brtalik also has high hopes for the competitive aspects of the race, and in future years, hopes to offer purses to attract elite runners like the Boston and New York marathons. "The other local marathons don't have big purses, so that could be something that would set us apart," he said. "The big names in marathoning like Ryan Hall run the big races, but we get the next level in Baltimore. That's the vision for Oakland in the short term. But who knows? Maybe in the long term our purse will get to the same level as Boston."

More than thirty years ago, local boosters expressed similar visions for Oakland as a premiere event on the national running scene. A special race-day insert on December 2, 1979 in the Eastbay Today, a now-defunct version of the Oakland Tribune, noted that "the first-ever Oakland Marathon has attracted national recognition as a race with the potential to become the Boston Marathon of the West."

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