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At the time, running was booming. Frank Shorter's victory in the Olympic Marathon in 1972, the publication of Jim Fixx's bestseller The Complete Book of Running, and increasing interest on the part of Baby Boomers in health and fitness all contributed to an explosion in the sport's popularity.
Initially, the Oakland race was successful in capitalizing on the burgeoning participation in road racing. In 1979, a total of about 2,000 runners toed the starting line for the inaugural marathon and half-marathon. By 1981, the number had skyrocketed to 6,000 and Eastbay Today was noting that the race would "reach five figures by 1983 if it continues to grow at its present rate."
One of those in the half-marathon field in 1981 was Jack Zakarian, a founding member of the Lake Merritt Joggers and Striders. Now 57 years old, Zakarian will be running the full marathon on March 28. "I want to see a big race come back to Oakland. We've had a couple of previous attempts but they didn't last," he said, referring to the previous iteration of the marathon and a race called the Oakland Double 10K. "We'll see if Oakland can make it work this time."
Although he doesn't remember a lot of details about the 1981 race, which featured a flat course between downtown and the Coliseum area, Zakarian does recall that it was a different kind of route for him. "I usually ran more in the country," he said. "I remember going down East 14th Street and thinking, 'What am I doing here?'"
Zakarian notes that the world of running is a lot different than it was thirty years ago. "In the early days, there were recreational runners, but most people were fairly serious about running as a sport," he explained. "Today, a lot of people are running to raise money or for personal growth. I think that's great, but it's definitely different. There's also a lot more knowledge about training and nutrition now. Sports drinks and energy bars weren't very available — Powerbars, electrolyte replacements — we didn't have any of that. When I ran cross-country in college, we had steak and eggs for breakfast on the day of the race. That would be ridiculous now."
A chemical engineer with Chevron, Zakarian will run Oakland despite suffering from tachycardia, a heart condition that he says prevents him from exercising excessively. (Apparently, Zakarian has convinced his doctor that a 26.2-mile race with nine miles of uphill does not qualify as excessive.) Zakarian wears a heart monitor to ensure that he doesn't overdo it, and like a true old-school runner, he's not worried about a possible heart attack, but sounds annoyed that his condition affects his race times.
Matthew Riutta, a 39-year-old Oakland-based film and television location manager and producer whose credits include Milk and Rent, is more representative of the new school of runners.
"I mainly decided to run a marathon because I'm turning forty this year," he said while jogging down Hearst Avenue in Berkeley. "I think it's just one of those rites of passage I have stuck in my head — probably due to Oprah running her marathon at forty. I have a laundry list of things I wanted to do before I was forty and this is one of them."
Riutta ran cross-country as a high-schooler in Indiana and has completed 10K races and San Francisco's Bay to Breakers, but nothing remotely close to the marathon distance. While he sees the marathon as a personal challenge, he also appreciates the benefits of running with others. He says he "wanted to be around some folks who are newbies, like me, but also be around pros. Plus, I think it will be a wonderful thing to experience the feeling of completing a challenge as an individual, but also supported as a group."
And once he decided to run a marathon, why did he choose Oakland? "I just thought for my first marathon I'm gonna do it in Oakland — because it's my current hometown, it being the first one in twenty or so years, and I saw the course online and thought, 'Wow. This is gonna be beautiful to witness because Oakland is such a dynamic town,'" he said.
Another big change since the days of the first Oakland Marathon is the number of women hitting the roads. According to Running USA, a national organization that analyzes running trends, women now make up about half of all race participants, compared to just 21 percent in the mid-1980s.
This statistic jibes with the Oakland Running Festival training group, which appears to consist of about equal numbers of men and women. One of the women is Barbara Jung, a 45-year-old mother of two and OB-GYN at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland. She's an experienced long-distance runner, with six marathons and four half marathons on her running résumé. She's also fast enough to have qualified to run the Boston Marathon, giving her bragging rights in the world of marathon racing.
But Jung doesn't need to run another marathon to prove anything. She admits that she now runs mostly because she's "a little addicted" to it. "It's therapeutic for me," she said. "A perfect mental break."