San Luis Obispo Marathon a breakout success in debut

Under fog-hazed lighting, people stretched, jogged in place, or talked excitedly with friends and strangers gathered for the inaugural San Luis Obispo Marathon. Barely before 6 a.m., the downtown crowd buzzed with excitement.

Jennifer Millier and Rosemary Cassie headed toward the starting line, wearing black trash bags to stay warm.

“We started out running together about six years ago and caught the marathon bug,” said Millier, who described herself as “a weekender from Los Osos.” This is her 11th marathon and Cassie’s seventh. “We like running long distances together and talk the entire time.”

They hadn’t scoped the course out before and weren’t in it for the competition. They expected to complete the race in five hours.

Nearby, Andrew Murray of Sydney, Australia, also expected to come in at five hours. He wore the Australian flag as a cape for patriotic pride; he had just flown in the week before to compete “just for fun.”

An air horn blared to signal the start of the race, and it was growing light out when the last of 2,800 participants disappeared into the deserted and barricaded San Luis Obispo downtown for the first leg of what organizers plan as an annual event.

“They’re going to pass the Fremont theater, the Mission, they’re going to go down Higuera Street, into our neighborhoods — cute little bungalows — and then out into the Edna Valley and see the wine country,” said event director Heather Hellman, who worked for more than a year bringing the marathon together.

Following the last runners’ heels were volunteers who moved the barricades and tore down the finish line, quick to open the roads back up to locals and visitors.

A while later, people sat on their porches and sidewalks, cheering the returning half-marathon runners. Some were in their pajama sweatshirts, some were drinking from steaming mugs, and a few held signs with participants’ names, but most were cheering and shouting encouragingly.

William Preston of Islay Street decided not to go to work Sunday morning because of the road closures and instead watched the race.

“I see guys my own age and I’m feeling more hopeful as the day matures,” he said.

His neighbor, Michael Johnson, dressed up like a clown with a lime green wig and top hat.

“I used to do marathons,” he said. “And to me, it’s a party atmosphere.”

The party continued at the finish line, where white tents were set up with food, entertainment and vendors. According to the medical staff, the 12 cots in the medical tent were never full during the race and all the ice bags were gone.

Sean English, a professional race announcer with more than 200 events under his belt, greeted winners by name over the loud speaker to the applause of spectators along the white fences of Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo.

“Honestly, I’ve never seen a first-year event go so well, be so well thought out and so well supported by the community,” English said.

Originally published April 22, 2012 in the San Luis Obispo Tribune.