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.

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Shirley Douglas, on the other hand, says she is only running the race because it's in her hometown. "It's a good opportunity to celebrate Oakland," she said. "The course actually goes through the back of my neighborhood." The 61-year-old retired marketing consultant is philosophical about how her running is progressing. "It's like golf," she said with a smile. "Sometimes it goes well, and sometimes it doesn't."

If you look under "Sports — Racing" in the archives of printed materials in the Oakland History Room at the Oakland Public Library, you'll find a manila folder that contains newspaper clippings and programs covering a century of racing in the East Bay. Among these historical goodies — ample material for a former marathoner to pass a pleasant, nostalgic afternoon — are documents about the Oakland Marathon's genesis and early successes, but not a hint as to the reason the popular race shut down after a few years.

A possible explanation was that the popularity of running in general abated after the boom of the 1970s, and there was a corresponding decrease in financial support from race sponsors. Another intriguing explanation was given by longtime local runner Mike Frankfurt, who attributed the end of the marathon to alleged embezzlement on the part of the race promoter.

Whatever the reason for the failure, Oakland has reason to be cautiously optimistic that this iteration of the marathon will show more staying power.

First, we are in the midst of a second running explosion that makes the one in the 1970s seem more like a firecracker. Participation in road racing is at unprecedented levels. According to Running USA, nearly nine million people participated in races in 2007, more than double the number twenty years earlier. A separate study by Race Results Weekly found that participation in 2009 grew by 11 percent over the previous year.

Many of these new runners are interested either in raising funds for worthy causes or in self-actualization. The East Bay, with its legions of socially conscious and self-improving residents, could find that the Oakland Running Festival not only serves their interests but does so in their backyard.

A second factor that might help this race succeed where its predecessor failed is the race course itself. While the original Oakland Marathon course was flat and fast, it wasn't particularly scenic. Even though it incorporated Lake Merritt and downtown, much of the race took runners through nondescript industrial areas near the Coliseum — hardly the stuff of race posters.

The 2010 version, by contrast, starts at City Hall, winds its way up through Montclair, passes by Joaquin Miller Park, and heads back toward downtown. After passing Jack London Square and circling Lake Merritt, the race ends at City Hall. "Oakland gets kind of a bad rap," said race director Brtalik. "My whole thought in designing the course was to make it scenic. I want people to see what it has to offer."

Brtalik consulted with local runners, including Goldman of the Lake Merritt Joggers and Striders and Richie Boulet, who owns Transports running store on College Avenue in Oakland's Rockridge district and is married to local-distance running Olympian Magdalena Boulet. Based on the input he received, Brtalik decided to include a climb up into the hills to the corner of Mountain Boulevard and Lincoln Avenue, near the Mormon Temple. "That corner is probably one of the best views I've ever seen on a course, and I've run a lot of them," he said. "It will be a challenge to get up there, but there aren't too many places with a view like that."

A final factor, perhaps the most important determinant of the race's success, is how well it's organized. Urban marathons are big, complex events requiring committed sponsors, effective marketing, legions of volunteers, cooperation from the city government around street closures and security, and grassroots support from the community. Corrigan Sports took the Baltimore Marathon and gradually grew it into the popular celebration it is today. If the company shows the same patience and stewardship here, the prospects for a 2020 Oakland Running Festival appear to be good.

Brtalik said earlier this month that the Oakland Running Festival had already attracted more than 5,000 entrants, more than twice as many as the first Oakland marathon and half-marathon in 1981.

On a late February morning, the once buoyant mood of the Lake Merritt Joggers and Striders training group is more subdued. If the November outing was like the first day of school, this day is more like a review session before a particularly formidable final exam. As the group congregates for a twenty-mile jaunt, the weather is gloomier, the conversation between runners less animated, even the running shoes are noticeably less bright.

A lot can happen during the months of preparing for a marathon. Motivation can flag, work and family pressures can take precedence, and as the miles mount, so can the injuries. According to club president Goldman, the training group has shrunk to about 60 percent of its original size. Among the casualties was Barbara Jung, the veteran marathoner with nothing left to prove. She hurt her calf and had to stop running for five to six weeks. Although she still intends to complete the half-marathon, she has abandoned any hope of running the full distance.

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