HUNTINGTON BEACH — As most of Orange County slept, they held a Grand Prix for feet here Sunday morning.
They called it the Pacific Shoreline Marathon, and it attracted a couple thousand participants, spectators and volunteers despite the kind of weather--steady drizzle and slate gray sky--that easily inspires staying in bed.
Instead of the bone-rattling roar of precision engines and the acrid smell of fuel exhaust, there was the persistent "thwuck thwuck" of high-performance footwear on wet pavement and the unmistakable odor of human exertion.
And just like its motor sport cousin, there was colorful racing attire in great abundance. Running teams in completely matching ensembles, right down to their little half-socks with logos. And hundreds of shirts from other marathons, 5Ks, 10Ks, Fun Runs and such.
Billed by its organizers, Race Pace Promotions, as a "tailgate party" for another large sporting event held Sunday in New Orleans, this is Orange County's only marathon.
The race (and its accompanying 5K, 10K and half marathon), began and ended at Main Street and the Huntington Beach Pier and wound along the scenic beachfront route long popular with the city's runners.
About 5 a.m., Huntington Beach police blocked off Main Street and routed traffic away from waterlogged Pacific Coast Highway. And for the rest of morning, everywhere one looked the universal symbol of running was on display: a straight raised leg resting on a light standard, wall or traffic saw horse, hands grasping the ankle, forehead bent to the knee.
To be sure, the race brought out some serious runners, those half-human, half-gazelle enthusiasts impervious to physical pain, but it lured many more simple fun-seekers and reformed couch potatoes too.
This was only the third time Kevin Lee, 36, of Huntington Beach had entered a formal race. "It was just great," he said, hardly panting, after he finished his 5K, running 3.1 miles in a respectable 24.5 minutes.
When he awoke Sunday, Lee, a pharmacist with Kaiser Permanente, said he was "pretty worried about the downpour." But by the time he was through, the rain was his friend: "It keeps you cool."
The invention of those sleek, three-wheeled strollers for runners has helped turn these events into family affairs.
Scott Bennington, pushing his 40-pound 2-year-old toddler, Brandon, finished the 5K "first stroller," he said proudly, doing the race, baby and all, in a swift 23 minutes, 22 seconds. And that despite a wiggly child reaching for crackers and a somewhat flat right tire he had forgotten to check before leaving.
The 42-year-old Huntington Beach man said the morning rain made him think twice about coming out, "but real guilt would set in if I didn't go."
"I usually run in marathons," Bennington said. But his wife, Susan Bennington, 38, who also ran, said, "I put him in charge of strollers today."
She continued, "We just love the party atmosphere."
Indeed, it was partylike. And promotional. Music blared from a sound truck. Vendors lined the sealed-off Main Street and runners and their families filed past, loading up on free samples of everything from Hansen's natural beverages to thick slices from the Great Harvest Bread Co. and mini-Power Bars.
There too was "Team Saturn," showing off the new Saturn electric car. "This is as loud as it sounds when it's turned on," said a saleswoman in front of the parked cherry-red vehicle.
All that atmosphere was enough motivation for Andy Marchette, 51, of Anaheim, who took up the sport about 14 months ago.
Marchette, who ran the 5K Sunday with friends and family, said he now runs a 5K nearly every month, and has even begun to recognize familiar faces among his fellow frequent runners.
"It was a great adrenaline rush," he said, adding that the rain wouldn't have discouraged him.
What was he thinking as he pounded his way around the 5K course in 29 minutes, 45 seconds? "I just keep trying to get in front of the next old guy ahead of me," Marchette said.
The thinking was a little different for Frank Conte of Huntington Beach, who ran with Marchette's daughter. Conte, in only his second race, said he spent Saturday night with a "feeling of dread because I knew I had to run three miles today."
After it was over, the 38-year-old carpenter said he was left with a happy feeling.
But, he quickly added, "I feel it now. I'll feel it later when I'm watching the Super Bowl. And I know I'll feel it tomorrow."