Sunday's inaugural Modesto Marathon embraces topography

Designing a marathon course is a task more involved than unrolling a ball of string exactly 26 miles, 385 yards in length from Point A to Point B.

A good route will be fair to the runner while embracing the spirit and topography of the host community.

For that reason, the course for the inaugural Modesto Marathon is a Quadruple F — a friendly, flat, fast farmland challenge that on Sunday will take runners from downtown past orchards, vineyards and dairies before retracing its steps back to the finish line.

In distance running, flat means fast. And since the Modesto course has been so precisely measured as to have its finish times accepted as qualifiers for the 2011 Boston Marathon, runners from across the West will toe the line for the 7 a.m. start.

The marathoners will hit the course at the same time as the half-marathoners in the unseeded field. Twenty minutes later, the 5-kilometer runners will take on the downtown loop and return to the M Street finish line.

Even for nonrunners, there should be plenty to do. From noon to 6 p.m. Saturday, a free runners expo will be held at Modesto Centre Plaza featuring vendors and offering a chance for runners to pick up their bibs early and avoid the Sunday morning crunch.

Space shuttle astronaut Jose Hernandez, who grew up in Lathrop, will arrive at the expo about 3 p.m. Later, he will be the keynote speaker at the evening's carbo-load pasta dinner at Centre Plaza.

Entries exceed expectations

When the idea to stage a marathon in Modesto arose about a year ago from the Shadowchase Running Club, organizers dreamed of an event that just maybe, if all went well, could lure 1,000 runners.

"We thought we'd be lucky to even do that," said co- director Heidi Ryan. "But we've been scrambling in the last couple of weeks because we keep getting more and more entries."

As of the official close of entries for the distance races, 260 runners had registered for the marathon, and more than 1,000 were aboard for the half-marathon. Entries for the 5k will be accepted until 7 a.m. Sunday at 11th and L streets — also the site of the race day bib pickup — but roughly 600 have preregistered for the short run.

"We had no idea it would turn into this," said co- director Karen Lozano, who will not be running Sunday but has qualified for the April 19 Boston Marathon.

"This is crazy, but running is growing," she said. "Boston closed its entries the earliest ever, like before Thanksgiving. Running is inexpensive. It used to be strange to see anybody running on the streets of Modesto, but you see it all the time now."

Mike Araiza had the job of choosing the streets on which the races would be run. Obviously, had this been the Sonora Marathon, there would have been some elevation change involved.

"This is what Modesto has to offer," Araiza said. "We had some negative comments about our course just because it's so flat. But we don't have the coast or the mountains. We have a nice, small community feel and beautiful farmland, and we wanted to show that off.

"We have a course that people can qualify for Boston on. People at that level want the fastest course available, and ours is. We know that because a lot of people held off signing up for our race until the Boston certification came through."

As course designer, Araiza has cycled the course more than 20 times and claims to know every dog on the route. He sought to avoid putting the runners on any part of a state highway, because that would have required involving and paying the California Highway Patrol to close intersections.

Right there is one of the differences between the Modesto Marathon, a start-up event, and the Amgen Tour of California, which has come through Modesto the past two years. The bike race, with millions of dollars in support, thinks nothing of using state highways and paying the CHP.

Start, finish on M Street

The limited marathon budget is the primary reason organizers will start and finish all races on M Street. The Amgen I Street finish line next to the Gallo Center for the Arts requires a route running along or crossing Needham Street, which is Highway 108 between Graceada Park and McHenry Avenue. Another start-finish option, the front of Centre Plaza, is on K Street and also part of Highway 108.

Also, when Amgen rolls through Modesto, it closes city streets for about an hour for a mass sprint finish. Sunday, most of the marathon route will be closed for seven hours — from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., when lagging runners will be chauffeured from the course.

There is one bit of elevation on the course. Both early and late in the longer runs, competitors will be entering and exiting Ninth Street via the Briggsmore overpass. As every commuter knows, it's the only way to leave that part of Modesto without crossing a railroad.

The course has been measured with near-laser accuracy. When a corner is turned, a perfectly straight line is run to the next corner. Since no runner will be able to maintain that perfect line, everyone runs longer than the 26.2-mile official length.

And Araiza has another secret about the way courses are certified. Just to be safe in the eyes of governing body USA Track and Field, every course is lengthened by 0.001, or roughly 5 feet per mile.

"It makes every course about 130 feet too long, just in case," Araiza said. "USA Track and Field doesn't care if your course is too long, they don't want you 1 foot short."

When Sunday is over and the aches and pains of the distance runners start setting in, there will be one certain way to measure if the inaugural Modesto Marathon has been a success: if it returns bigger and better in 2011.

"We have a lot of public support," Araiza said. "It's a big event, and people want to be a part of this. Our goal is to have a race that grows and endures."

Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at bvanderbeek@modbee.com or 578-2300.