It's Only Rock 'N' Roll
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But we like it——especially while we’re running 26.2 miles as fast as we can. San Diego’s Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon is celebrating its 10th anniversary, and the beat goes on.
IT WAS A TANGERINE-TINTED MORNING, and Tim Murphy’s running shoes were slapping the pavement like a drummer counting off the beat. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum had just opened its doors in Cleveland, and on that day in 1995, Murphy found himself thinking while he ran, “If I lived in Cleveland, I’d do a big marathon that would start and finish at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”
He didn’t live in Cleveland; Murphy resided in San Diego, which clearly trumped Cleveland’s weather for running. “And,” he thought, “San Diego is only two hours away from the entertainment capital of the world. Why couldn’t I do a rock ’n’ roll marathon in San Diego?”
The refrain reverberated in Murphy’s head: “Why not San Diego?” Murphy had three times completed marathons in his home city, but he was let down by the lack of spectators. In New York, it seemed as if every resident from five boroughs came out to cheer that city’s marathoners, but in San Diego, Murphy estimated he’d pass just 100 spectators over the entire 26.2-mile course. A rock ’n’ roll marathon, though, would attract crowds by placing live bands along the route to create an outdoor festival 26 miles long. For the runner, there’d be something fun happening at every mile.
“Fun” was a word that had hardly applied to distance running. During the country’s first running boom in the 1970s, marathons were purely competitive events, open only to accomplished athletes who ran fast and hard. The fun, if any, came from the challenge, from the intensity of the race. Because—make no mistake—these were races, not fun runs.
But Murphy and his sports marketing and management company, Elite Racing, changed all that by turning the marathon into a 26-mile party. The inaugural San Diego Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon in 1998 topped the charts: It broke the record for the largest first-time marathon, attracting 19,978 runners—many of them newbies enticed by the emphasis on participation rather than competition. Not only was there live music at every mile, but a post-race headliner concert presented Pat Benatar and Huey Lewis & the News to end the event on a high note.
“By putting the fun back into running, the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon reached into the mainstream to attract average runners, not just elite athletes,” says Ryan Lamppa, media director for Running USA, a nationwide nonprofit that supports and promotes the sport of running.
Not that elite runners didn’t compete. Elite Racing had worked hard to attract the world’s top distance athletes to the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon, which continues to draw champions from as far away as Kenya and Ethiopia. But treading in the champs’ footsteps was a diverse field of recreational runners who came for the kicks.
“No other professional sport allows recreational athletes on the field with the pros,” says Susan Reid of Elite Racing. “But here, the elite runners are just ahead, and you’re participating in the same event, on the same course.”
The leader off the starting line that inaugural year, however, was none other than Elvis. San Diego wasn’t the first to include running Elvi (the phenomenon of rhinestone-studded runners wearing pompadour wigs began in Los Angeles), but they’ve become the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon’s signature feature. Despite the objections of Murphy, who wasn’t keen on watching elite athletes tripping over Elvis’ cape at his debut race, a costumed Elvis led the pack—and created the marathon’s most iconic moment.
“Elvis was the lead pin, with the Kenyans fanned out be- hind him,” recalls Bob Babbitt, the current leader of San Diego’s running Elvi. “That image put the race on the map.”
It also helped establish the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon as an unpretentious good time where just finishing was achievement enough. And the response was overwhelming.
“Right out of the gate it was huge,” Lamppa says. “It was like a pioneer race.” Lamppa credits the city of San Diego—an attractive destination in its own right—with part of the event’s popularity. And of course there was the music. But Elite Racing had also poured plenty of money into advertising and marketing. “The Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon took the start of the second running boom and gave it a further boost with marketing and exposure,” Lamppa says. “It was like a ripple effect that went through the sport. Suddenly it became cool to run a marathon.”