Culver City got a big head start over most of the country when it started the Western Hemisphere Marathon in 1948, long before the fitness craze kicked up its heels and such races began popping up like studs on a running shoe.
Today, the country's second-oldest marathon will be run for the 40th consecutive year, but the upstart races offering large cash prizes in places like Chicago, New York and, just last year, Los Angeles, have overtaken the Culver City event in popularity, publicity and prestige.
Sydney Kronenthal, director of the Department of Human Services, said that in the 1950s and '60s, the race drew more runners than any other marathon in the country.
But with the number of participants dwindling to a few hundred in recent years, city officials say they are trying to find a sponsor who will promote the race without destroying its local, amateur character.
"My concern is that it not dwindle or be non-viable because of lack of participants," said Councilman Paul Jacobs, who has run in the event the last 13 years. "A corporate sponsor might help renew interest in it."
Kronenthal said the city had an opportunity four years ago to sign a deal with Group Dynamics, an international sports promotion organization, which planned to secure television coverage and corporate sponsors that would perhaps have propelled the race into competition with the New York and Boston marathons.
Group Dynamics was attracted to the legacy of the race, which was the U. S. Olympic trial for the 1964 Tokyo Games, but wanted to change its name to the Los Angeles Western Hemisphere Marathon,
Kronenthal said. The City Council balked and defeated the proposal.
"I would be very opposed to any changes in the name of (the marathon)," Jacobs said. "It's a Culver City event. It always has been and it always will be."
Kronenthal said he has been unable to find a large corporate sponsor for the race since then, and with the success of the Los Angeles Marathon the past two years, it will be even harder.
"I don't know if we can compete with the Los Angeles Marathon (now)," he said. "They have a 12-person staff that works all year round."
Kronenthal, former chairman of the national Amateur Athletic Union's long-distance running committee, said his department is searching for a sponsor but is also concerned about preserving the race's nonprofessional legacy.
The Boston Marathon, the country's oldest, agonized through a similar problem a few years ago when top runners began skipping the amateur event to chase rich cash prizes dangled by promoters of other races.
Marathon officials tried gamely to hold on to an amateur tradition dating back to 1897, but two years ago they finally gave in, signing a 10-year, $10-million sponsorship deal with the John Hancock Insurance Co.
Although it has never achieved the stature of the Boston race, the Western Hemisphere Marathon does have a storied past of its own.
Kronenthal likes to tell the story of the marathon's first winner, Gerald Cote. He said the Canadian runner set the fitness movement back 10 years when he lit a six-inch cigar and "puffed like a locomotive" as he ran his victory lap in the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Marine Lt. William (Billy) Mills, running in his first marathon, took second place in the 1964 race, securing a spot on the U. S. Olympic team. The Navajo Indian went on to win a gold medal in the 10,000-meter event at the Tokyo Olympiad and was later immortalized in the movie "Running Brave."
Other Olympians who have run the Western Hemisphere Marathon include four-time winner Bobby Cons, who now works for the city's maintenance department, and two-time winner Peter McArdle, who set a U.S. record in 1962 with a time of 2:17:11.
Race director Jack Nakanishi said he thinks the race needs sponsors to pay for national advertising and keep runners interested.
Smaller-Scale and Local
He said it would be nice for the race to regain the prominence it once had, but not at the expense of its local character.
"I wouldn't want it to be a race where you have 10,000 or 12,000 people and it just becomes a circus," he said.
"I think it's good that his race has kept its amateur status, because it gives the first-timers an opportunity to race without any pressure on them," he added.
About 400 runners are expected to line up this morning on Overland Avenue in front of the Veterans Memorial Auditorium for the race's 8 a.m. start.