Natural disasters, O.J., wreak havoc with California road racing

SACRAMENTO, CA Late last week as Governor Pete Wilson and Federal Running Administration (FRNA) Director Patricia Habib helicoptered over the washed-out course of the "Sun Coast 12K", running officials statewide scrambled to put races back on schedule, reassure corporate sponsors, and alley growing fears in the running community in the wake of a near continuous series of natural disasters that have turned road racing upside down.

As of yesterday, four participants in last Sunday's race near Newport Beach remain missing. Rescue units spent much of the day combing through a debris littered field downstream from where floodwaters crashed without warning onto the race course, but officials remain unsure weather the runners were swept away by swift moving runoff, buried in a voluminous mud slide near the 8 km aid station, or carried out to sea by a fifty foot wave that demolished a boardwalk near the halfway mark.

At an emergency meeting in Sacramento Tuesday, state and federal running officials along with representatives of California's largest running clubs, signed agreements that should streamline the delivery of FRNA disaster relief funds. It's an effort to stabilize a critical situation that has worsened since President Clinton's running emergency declaration three months ago.

Among the items on a priority list drawn up at the meeting, 187 road race courses need to be remeasured and recertified due to the January, 1994 Northridge earthquake. FRNA has invalidated pre-quake course measurements in a large area of southern California because of uplifting and other ground distortions. Dozens of other race courses have been made unusable by flood damage, mud slides, and strange methane-emitting sink holes. Repairs will take months, forcing cancellation of several popular events.

Plans for dealing with the brush fire season are nearing completion. Lessons were learned from last year when smoke and flames cut race courses in half and made many favored training areas inaccessible for days or weeks at a time. A group of race directors is lobbying the state legislature to permit large scale controlled pre-burning of various road race sites. The idea is to make the courses free of fire danger on race mornings, but environmentalists, insurance companies and horrified home owners vow to defeat any such proposal. Race officials did win a major concession from the State's fire fighting agencies. Most have agreed to station equipment at all road races held in fire-prone areas from May through September.

Natural disasters are not the only thing threatening road racing in the Golden State. Training mileage has declined significantly since the start of the O.J. Simpson trial, according to figures from FRNA's Center for Running Statistics. Runners who skip training runs to watch the trial, get out of condition and in turn sign up for fewer races.

However, some race directors hope to use the situation to their marketing advantage. Next week, the Anaheim Distance Run will bid against several other races for the right to call itself The Official 10 Kilometer Road Race of the O.J. Simpson Trial. The race with the highest bid will get a highly visible promotional billboard in Judge Lance Ito's courtroom, and be allowed use of the trial logo on brochures and tee-shirts. Hoping the phenomenal global exposure will be the shot in the arm that will bring road racing back from the brink, race directors are willing to pay sky-high up front costs. But as some running economists have cautioned, it could easily backfire if runners are too quick to turn off their televisions to return to the roads and O.J. ratings take a dive.

Bill Jensen, President of CEO of RunWays, Inc., one of California's largest commercial road race production outfits, discounts the warnings. "If O.J. ratings slide, the Fed will promptly act to prevent a stall in road race recovery," he said confidently. His company produced a successful series of mud and puddle races in the Napa Valley last winter, and a year earlier put together group training runs through earthquake devastated areas of Los Angeles County. "These innovative events are fun and exciting," explained Jensen, "and quite frankly we can't wait for the next big disaster to hit."

California has long been a strong running State, and in spite of the recent chaos, that's not likely to change.

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