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Obituary: Tim Murphy revolutionized road racing

Tim Murphy, the innovative force behind the Carlsbad 5000 and Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon, passed away from pneumonia on Aug. 18.

He was 77.

From 1986 to 2007, Murphy and his Elite Racing team changed the face of road running, adding music and charity running to road racing, turning the spotlight from the then-standard 10,000-meter and marathon distances to the 3.1-mile 5K and the 13.1-mile half-marathon.

“At the time, no one put on more than one marathon a year and no one put on events outside the city in which they lived,” said Tracy Sundlun, who was Murphy’s partner with Elite Racing.

“A former high school half-miler and discus thrower, Tim became enamored with road racing after moving to San Diego. He initially wanted to put on the world’s best 10K road race. But when it became clear that would be too expensive, he realized that there weren’t any 5K road races anywhere and he believed a 5,000-meter race would attract even more people, especially if you invited some of the best runners in the world. At the time, Steve Scott was the American record-holder in the mile and a fine 5K runner and he lived nearby.

“The world record for 5,000-meters on the road was 14:04 for the men and Steve ran 13:32 — a legend was born. Tim invited PattiSue Plumer and she set the record for the women at 15:30.”

According to Sundlun, Murphy essentially created “spectator running” by changing the very basics of road running. Instead of having everyone running together, he had age group and gender specific citizen races run first and then the world’s best ran alone for prize money on a spectator-friendly course during the post-race party in front of all the citizen runners, their fans.

It didn’t take long to convince Murphy that San Diego also needed a marathon.

“Boston and New York had marathons that were a 100- and 120-years-old, respectively, and there hadn’t been a new marathon since Los Angeles 13 years earlier,” said Sundlun. “Since we had already agreed that there was going to be a rock ‘n’ roll band at every mile, our working title for the event was the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon.

“But if we were going to create a world-class marathon, we had to have a world-class name. We had three separate meetings where we tried to come up with a ‘real’ name, but Tim pushed for Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon and he won out, thank goodness.”

Prior to that, marathons were always associated with the host city.

The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society approached Murphy about being the race’s official charity and the two worked out the details that resulted in $16.8 million (net) raised that year for the charity.

It was just the start.

Murphy had a different band each mile of the 26.2-mile race, cheerleaders, aid stations and mile markers, meaning the runners never went more than a quarter-mile without something to cheer them on.

The goal was to break the then-record 10,000 entries in the inaugural L.A. Marathon. The first 30 entries came from 17 states. But even more amazing, 50 percent of the entries were women. Before, New York City with 23 percent
was the most-ever for a coed race.

By race day, June 21, 1998, 19,979 runners were ready to roll.

“What he’d done was create a theme event without ever intending to,” said Sundlun. “We had the Rock and Roll brand. The runners were older, slower, wealthier and more educated. It just appealed to a different crowd.”

With that success, Murphy began to start music-themed marathons in other cities until Virginia Beach, Va., called about having a Marathon over Labor Day. It was hot and humid when they visited and Elite didn’t want to compete with the other fall marathons, so he suggested a half-marathon.

The largest half-marathon to that point in America was 6,000 entrants, but Murphy set the goal at double that. More than 14,000 toed the starting line, and the half-marathon as a destination event was born. Yet another Tim Murphy legacy.

Here are some reactions:

• “Tim Murphy was an absolute innovator,” said Scott, who won two of the first three Carlsbad 5000 races, twice recording the world’s fastest time. “Tim transformed the sport single-handedly by making it entertaining. He created something out of nothing, and no one could copy it.”

• “He promoted and was successful with the 5000 and half-marathon,” said Dan Cruz, an event promoter and race publicist. “No one thought runners would like that distance but now they’re everyone’s favorite distance.”

• “Tim Murphy was years and years ahead of his time,” said Marea Ortiz, who worked with Murphy for 20 years.

Details are being ironed out for a Celebration of Life.

Brand is a freelance writer.