Click photo to enlarge
Anna Bretan, of Berkeley, makes her way to the finish line during the full marathon at the Oakland Running Festival on March 25, 2012, in Oakland. Bretan won the women's portion of the marathon for the second year in a row.

OAKLAND -- Four years ago when the Oakland Running Festival returned foot races to the city after decades without a city marathon, there were those who jokingly cautioned runners to wear a bulletproof vest and be on the lookout for gangs and drug dealers.

People wondered why anyone would want to run in Oakland, of all places, considered one of the top 10 most dangerous cities in the country.

But the naysayers were wrong. And now, more than 9,000 people are planning to run (and walk) in the races on March 24. Moreover, organizers have made a new commitment to Oakland by planning to open an office here and organizing a series of four 10-milers around the Bay Area, including one in Oakland.

"It's a hidden gem," said Lee Corrigan, the owner of Corrigan Sports Enterprises, which organizes the Oakland full and half marathons, 4-person relay and 5K races. "I think people are underestimating Oakland and we've made it work."

Corrigan said the company is taking a big step toward investing in Oakland by opening an office either downtown or in Jack London Square this year and organizing 10-mile races in the South Bay, North Bay, San Francisco and East Bay, possibly starting at the Oakland Zoo.

"We are making a commitment to Oakland," Corrigan said.

Another group that has made a commitment to Oakland and its children and teens is Running for a Better Oakland, a nonprofit organization that trains kindergarten-through-12th-grade Oakland students to run the half-marathon, 4-person relay and 5K.

"Even with people who live in Oakland having this event here has brought out a lot of civic pride," said RBO Executive Director Lesley Podesta. "I am pleased they are making this commitment because it helps (RBO) make a whole generation of kids into runners."

Mayor Jean Quan said she hears from runners about the beauty of the marathon course from the flats of Chinatown to Oakland's scenic hills, as well as the community support.

"From one side of Oakland to the other, you have neighbors organizing to give out water and juice in Montclair and Tonya Holland -- California's chef of the year -- doling out waffles at West Oakland's Brown Sugar Kitchen. It's a race that really shows off some of our city's best assets: friendly neighbors in vibrant neighborhoods."

While runner participation has grown, corporate sponsors have also increased. GEICO Insurance will once again provide the "Keep Pace With the Gecko" program for the races, Zico coconut water is sponsoring the half marathon and Kaiser Permanente has become a "significant" sponsor, Corrigan said.

Corrigan said the Oakland Running Festival is on pace to grow at the speed of the Baltimore Marathon, which started 13 years ago and now has more than 26,000 participants.

"People were shocked that we came back (to Oakland) for year two," Corrigan said. "You don't (put on the races) once and say, 'We're done.' You do it once and then you put your stake in the ground and hope it grows."

Follow Kristin J. Bender at Twitter.com/kjbender.