Oakland Marathon Changes Course

The rebranded running festival shortcuts its way through the Town.

For the second time in its 9-year history, the Oakland Marathon is rebranding itself. Formerly the Oakland Running Festival, this year the spring race has reverted to its original name, changed its logo, and altered its award-winning course. Instead of the grand tour of Oakland that Competitor Magazine named the 2013 Best Marathon in the Pacific West Region, the new marathon course will be a repeating loop through downtown and a flat trek through Middle Harbor Shoreline and Port View parks.

Corrigan Sports Enterprises (CSE), the Maryland-based company that owns and operates the Oakland Marathon, announced the course change in late February, a little less than five weeks before race day. Local and out-of-town runners have widely panned the “new and improved” course on social media, expressing their distaste for both what appeared to be an unnecessary change and for the extraordinarily short notice.

Training for a marathon is a months-long endeavor. The last-minute course alteration, with its climb into and descent from the Oakland hills removed, was a shock to many. Runners often choose their races intentionally, considering the variety in a course and the community.

Sarah Lavender Smith, an ultra-runner, coach, and three-time Oakland Marathon participant, liked the variety of the old course. “For a runner, it’s interesting and challenging in a way other marathons aren’t because of that hill profile,” she said. She appreciated the old course for its similarity to the Los Angeles Marathon, how it led runners through different neighborhoods and gave them a broader sense of the city. It was a showcase of Oakland.

At 26.2 miles, marathon running is an hours-long commitment. Community engagement is generally low through the industrial parts of West Oakland, but the old course made up for these quieter areas with lively sections through the hills and East Oakland. This year, runners will miss the high fives in Montclair and the camaraderie in creating and sharing in the spectacle of a race down International Boulevard in favor of what CSE calls a “flat, fast course.”

While the course is certainly flatter now, its fastness is up for debate. It is hard to keep a race fast when a recurring issue year after year is congestion from the merging of the half-marathon and full-marathon runners. The way the race is arranged now, runners will be managing tighter turns with more bodies. Marathon runners and half-marathon runners will be crossing paths at The Crucible in West Oakland and on Mandela Parkway, where runners will be moving in both directions on a tight turnaround. These congested areas have been known to slow runners down.

Tim Cole, Oakland Marathon’s race director and the lone local staff member at CSE, offered a couple different explanations for the course change. This year’s race coincides with home games for both the Oakland A’s and the Golden State Warriors, and, to try to put less impact on city services, the course was cut to run through fewer neighborhoods and limit the amount of security needed. Additionally, Cole said post-race surveys from previous Oakland marathons revealed complaints about the steep ascent into the hills. In a bid to accommodate the most amount of people, CSE adopted a flat course as a way to make the event more inclusive.

But whoever those runners were who wanted the course change, they’re staying quiet about it now. Nearly all of the recent comments on the marathon’s Facebook page were either complaints about the new course, requests for refunds, or calls for accountability. “Changing the product after it’s sold is not okay. Explain why,” one runner commented. Another posted an email response received from Cole regarding reasons for the course change, which included the reasons stated above, as well as declining event registration.

CSE revealed the Oakland Marathon’s 2018 race date in March 2017 and in July remarked that the “marathon course will continue to highlight Oakland’s diverse neighborhoods,” noting the run up into the hills and then down through the Fruitvale district. In a December blog post titled “New Look, Same Race,” CSE shared the marathon’s new logo and name change. Since then, race officials have shared updates on their website and on social media with nary a hint of any course changes — that is, until the February reveal.

When asked about the delay in announcing the course changes, Cole explained the layers of approval necessary to confirm a marathon course. Permitting for the marathon requires approval from Caltrans and the Oakland police and parks and recreation departments. The final approvals didn’t come until February. But what’s missing is the long stretch of time between July 2017 and February 2018 where changes were obviously happening, but nothing was communicated.

This disconnect between the Maryland company and the runners in Oakland is how something that could have been considered a minor shift felt tectonic.

Among the many expressions of disappointment shared about the new course, the most poignant is that a race branded with Oakland’s name has adopted a new route that glosses over Oakland’s variety. As Merrilee Proffitt, a past participant, put it: the new course is “effectively taking the Oakland out of the Oakland [Marathon].”

Inclusivity is the reason Cole gives again and again when explaining the course change. “We’re always trying to grow the event, specifically the marathon,” he said. “It’s a dynamic event.” Runners can take comfort in the fact that the course will likely change in 2019. CSE is looking to continue making the event unique, teasing a route featuring “a new element you can run,” which seems to hint at a run on the Bay Bridge.

While CSE does not offer refunds to runners, there is an option to defer race registration for $25. CSE’s Oakland Marathon is an organization that has historically generated millions for the city and state economy and hundreds of thousands of dollars for local charities, according to the Regional Economic Studies Institute. The 2019 race is set for March 24, and with enough voices speaking up this year — and enough time for CSE to talk back, maybe next year’s race really will be different.

This year’s race is on Sunday, March 25.

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