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It's Only Rock 'N' Roll


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ELITE RACING ADDED even more entertainment elements the next year, often borrowing fun features commonly seen in sports like pro football. Race organizers increased the number of bands, so runners never encountered an empty stage when musicians needed a break. They added the Spirit on the Course contest, awarding cash prizes to the three most spirited groups of high-school cheerleaders stationed along the course to urge runners along. Organizers also recruited costumed “Hydromaniacs” to enliven water stations.

“Everybody’s competing to help the runner get to the finish line,” says Murphy. “It’s what I call diversion from the pain. Everybody’s trying to make it fun and trying to take runners’ minds off the difficult event that it is.”

The circus environment, however, ruffled the feathers of a few hardcore runners who felt the music and the party atmosphere lowered the bar for what used to be a no-nonsense sport. “Serious runners were mortified,” says Reid. “ ‘People walking? That’s not what a marathon is about,’ they said.” But although a handful objected to the populist appeal, many more took it as an invitation to get involved in something they’d never before dreamed they could do.

“Music is such a large part of our culture,” Lamppa says. “It’s a way for people who don’t even do sport to say, ‘I might do that.’ And anytime you can get more people involved in a sport like ours and off the couch, that’s a good thing.”

In 1980, approximately 120,000 people finished marathons. By 2000, that number had more than tripled to 389,000. But the San Diego Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon wasn’t alone in fueling that growth: Elite Racing expanded on the original event to bring musical full and half-marathons to other cities, like Phoenix and Nashville, and now counts six destinations across the country. Among them, they attracted more than 106,000 runners in 2005. Other marathon organizers have followed suit. According to Murphy, “Runners now expect music, excitement, help along the way.” And while many have imitated Elite Racing’s approach, Murphy feels none has reproduced it. “We go the full distance by spending the money for real stages, real sound systems, great bands—and that still sets us apart,” he says.

MUSIC OPENED UP the marathon to a broader population; the charity aspect brought in even more. Participants in the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon’s Team in Training program not only prepare to run 26.2 miles, they raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. The first San Diego event raised $15.6 million, at the time the largest one-day sports fund-raiser in history. Through 2006, Elite Racing’s musical marathon events have netted more than $140 million for cancer research.

Cities love the funds they receive, too. San Diego alone got a $48 million boost as a result of the 2005 Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon, and over the years the economic impact has exceeded $400 million. That’s because 80 to 90 percent of the marathon’s 20,000 participants come from outside San Diego, meaning they spend money on hotel rooms, restaurant meals and entertainment. Many runners turn the marathon into a vacation with friends and family, arriving early and lingering days after the event to enjoy the area’s tourist attractions.

National media exposure for San Diego is another benefit. ESPN coverage not only broadcasts the marathon, it highlights the city for audiences nationwide.

“People everywhere see images of San Diego’s skyline, the waterfront, the beauty that makes this a popular destination,” says Sal Giametta, vice president of public affairs for the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau. He concedes the marathon has some- times caused traffic delays and other inconveniences for the neighborhoods involved. “But anytime you mount an event of this caliber, there are going to be what we consider minor interruptions,” Giametta says. “Whether it’s the Super Bowl, the X Games or the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon, it will impact the immediate area. But we have always been impressed with the effort that promoters of this event have undertaken to work with the community to lessen that impact.”

Other impacts have been unquestionably positive. The San Diego Track Club was a once-vital organization whose membership had dwindled to fewer than 200 runners in 1997. But in launching the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon, Tim Murphy encouraged the SDTC to offer a marathon training program. Under the direction of coach Paul Greer, the Rockin’ ’n’ Runnin’ Marathon Program trained SDTC members and kick-started the flagging club, whose numbers have since grown to 1,200.

“The Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon saved the 50-year-old San Diego Track Club from disappearance,” says Greer. “All of a sudden we had this marathon program that raised our spirits and got people excited.”

And the excitement continues as long-distance champions, first-time marathoners, running Elvi and cancer fund-raisers assemble at Balboa Park on June 3 for the 10th running of the San Diego Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon: the race that played people’s song and lured them off the couch and onto the starting line.

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