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A Running Start for O.C. Marathon

Organizers say Sunday's event is already well on its way to becoming an annual charity moneymaker.

December 04, 2004|Jeff Gottlieb | Times Staff Writer

When the starter's gun goes off at the Orange County Marathon on Sunday, an expected 10,000 people will run through Newport Beach and Irvine in various races that organizers hope will become as well-known as those in Boston, New York and Los Angeles.

Race officials said that in the race's first year they have attracted far more runners than expected -- including competitors from 38 states and from as far as Britain and Japan -- who will run the marathon, half marathon and other events.

"From what I see, I'm incredibly impressed," said Dave McGillivray, race director of the Boston Marathon.

Organizers said they have raised $600,000 from sponsors to cover costs.

Profits of $300,000 to $500,000 from entrance fees are expected, and will be split among 10 children's charities.

The run for philanthropy sets Orange County's marathon apart.

The for-profit Los Angeles Marathon, for example, was recently sold for more than $15 million.

But money will be the key to turning the Orange County Marathon into a race that attracts elite runners and nationwide attention.

"You need money pure and simple, and a lot of it," McGillivray said -- money for marketing and to woo athletes.

Marathons work on two levels.

At the top are the world-class marathoners who run for a living.

Some are paid several hundred thousand dollars just to show up, with winners receiving an additional $100,000.

But most marathoners are recreational runners who compete for fun.

The Orange County Marathon is offering just $3,000 in prizes for each of the men's and women's races, with winners receiving $1,500.

"We wanted to build the marathon for the people, for the community, for the charities," said race director Bill Sumner, the volunteer track coach at Corona del Mar High School. "Then we wanted to come back and add the elite field."

The race has attracted a handful of pros. In all, 1,900 runners have signed up for the marathon, 6,200 for the half marathon, 1,000 for the 5-kilometer race and 700 for the children's race. More are expected to register the day of the race.

Marathons have been run in Orange County before, but they failed to become regular events.

The Goodyear Orange County Marathon was run with fanfare in 1992, with the winners receiving BMWs. But it ended that first year with a string of unpaid bills.

Three years later, Disneyland held a marathon that took runners past the Arrowhead Pond and around the Angels Stadium infield, finishing on the amusement park's Main Street. But if spectators wanted to see the finish, they had to pay for a ticket to Disneyland, said Kathy Kobrine, winner of the women's race, who will be running Sunday.

Getting to the finish line was a problem for the runners too: During the marathon, runners took a wrong turn, forcing officials to alter the course in mid-race to ensure that competitors ran the regulation distance.

The race was never run again.

In Huntington Beach, the Pacific Shoreline Marathon attracts relatively few runners.

The Orange County Marathon was envisioned about three years ago when political consultant Charlotte Dobbs and her nephew, Steve Robinson, wondered why an area with as many people and such good weather didn't have its own marathon, especially since San Diego and Long Beach did.

The pair presented the idea to Bill Burke, president of the Los Angeles Marathon and husband of Los Angeles Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, whom Dobbs knew from her political work.

"I told them it was a fantasy of mine to do an event in Orange County because Orange County has a tremendous potential for marathoning," Bill Burke said.

He liked the idea so much he said he would be interested in a partnership with the Orange County Marathon.

Dobbs, 57, a former writer for the television show "Laverne and Shirley," who usually works for Democrats, used her political connections to hook up late in 2002 with Scott Baugh, the former Republican Assembly leader and now chairman of the county GOP.

Baugh wasn't a runner, but he thought a marathon could help provide the county with an identity, raise money for children's charities and bring business to hotels, restaurants and shops.

Baugh persuaded others to join the board, including Sheriff Michael S. Carona, Supervisors Tom Wilson and Jim Silva, Assemblyman Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana) and Newport Beach Mayor Tod Ridgeway.

The marathon originally was scheduled for December 2003, but Baugh decided they weren't ready and postponed it.

Among the problems: lack of money.

In January, Cypress-based PacfiCare signed on as the main sponsor, agreeing to provide $250,000 for each of the next two years.

The marathon also hired Sumner, 57, active in local and national running circles, as race director. Sumner dismissed previous Orange County marathons as poorly organized and noted that Sunday's race already has hit its second-year goal for number of runners.

Sumner said he told the board he thinks the marathon will eventually raise millions of dollars annually.

"I would say within three to five years we're going to go toe to toe with L.A., and that's very fast ... because we've got 'The O.C.,' " he said.

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