Olympic pole vaulter Bob Seagren (L) and daughter Kirsten arrive to the movie premiere of "Miracle" at Grauman’s Chinese Theater on
Olympic pole vaulter Bob Seagren (L) and daughter Kirsten arrive to the movie premiere of "Miracle" at Grauman's Chinese Theater on February 2nd, 2004 in Hollywood, California. (Getty Images / Kevin Winter)

Bob Seagren received good and bad news the day he and his company, now known as Run Racing, were awarded the contract by the city to operate the Long Beach Marathon.

The good news was that he got the contract.

The bad news was that he got the contract.

It was good because the two-time Olympic medalist in the pole vault (gold 1968, silver in 1972) was launching his company with the Long Beach deal, and he was optimistic that he could turn an event around that had been in a financial abyss for several years.

"I knew little about running, but I was very optimistic when I looked at Long Beach's previous history and a growing trend in marathons," he said in advance of Sunday's International City Bank Long Beach Marathon, the 28th edition of the race and the 12th for his company. "I thought I'd be able to spend one or two days a week on the marathon and keep all of my other business deals."

It was bad news because he didn't realize exactly how many problems he suddenly inherited.

"I sort of got involved before understanding some of the real issues that needed to be solved," he said with a wry smile.

For example, the city didn't want him running the race downtown.

Previous races had caused traffic snarls, and one year the barricades weren't put up in time. Long Beach State didn't want anything to do with the race, either, after it was left with a bill and a series of communication problems with the previous operator.

The Belmont Shore Business Association said they'd sooner allow a circus to walk its elephants down Second Street during peak business hours than a few thousand runners, who in 2000 left the street strewn with litter, kept businesses closed until the afternoon, and ducked down side streets to take bathroom breaks.

There were vendors and participants who still hadn't been paid for the 2000 race, too, and they were pestering the new operator.

Seagren eventually paid some of those debts even though he had no obligation to do so.

Asked if he could have ever envisioned the success of the race after that first year, Seagren said "absolutely not." Seagren anticipated a field of 8,000 for the 2001 race, but after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, interest fell and only 4,500 participated.

"We were upside down financially, and I had to reach into my own pocket to stay afloat," Seagren said. "I started managing other events just because I needed the cash flow for Long Beach. Everyone who was involved wondered how long we could go on."

Thanks to Seagren's focus, the turn-around came fairly quickly.

The city did a 180-degree spin on letting the race downtown because Seagren's first effort ran smoothly.

"That changed everything in regards to our making it a real city event again," he said.

He found a kindred spirit in CEO Jane Netherton and International City Bank, who has been the title sponsor of the race since 2002.

"We had financial limitations and I don't know how long we might have lasted without her involvement," he said.

He expanded his company's menu and now promotes six other events a year. The race now is considered one of the "mega events" in long-distance circles with more than 20,000 entrants.

He's steadily persuading sponsors that Long Beach gives them the Los Angeles demographic market they desire, and landing Volkswagen as a national sponsor in 2012 is a big step in breaking down that barrier.

The biggest accomplishments in the last few years have been changes to the course that made it more runner-friendly and Seagren's decision to get out of the elite runner market.

The course runs its first six miles around the Shoreline Drive area before a 3<MD+,%30,%55,%70>1/<MD-,%0,%55,%70>2-mile stretch down the beach bike path. The part of the course once called the "Studebaker Dead Zone" was eliminated by getting Long Beach State campus involved, and that four-mile jaunt is now a race highlight thanks to student involvement in providing support and entertainment on the campus.

Once the city completes the proposed widening of the bike path, which could be in time for the 2013 race, Seagren believes the number of entries in the full marathon will increase dramatically. He's also been meeting with BSBA officials about returning the course to Second Street.

While New York, Chicago and Boston chase elite runners for name appeal and the chance of world record performances, Seagren decided it didn't fit a race that embraces a community spirit.

"There's a lot more value having 50 or more area companies and clubs taking part in the race," Seagren said.

"We used to chase the elite runners, and it costs a lot to do so. You have to pay their travel expenses, and some charge appearance fees, and they all have agents. I always wondered if it was worth it.

"How many people know there's a Kenyan in the race that has run a 2:05 marathon? Did they even care?"

Seagren tells this story: One year, an elite runner was so far ahead of the field that he came to a water stop on Ocean Boulevard, looked around, and came to a complete stop.

"He realized he would win and had reached all of his financial incentives and he didn't need to worry about the race any more," Seagren said.

"We paid $70,000 just to get that person here, so watching him come to a stop on the course, at least to me, negated the whole idea that elite runners are important.

"It's important to be what you are. The race was successful for years because it was a community event, and it's thriving now because it's a community event."

Thriving isn't a word he would have used 12 years ago, but it definitely fits in 2012.

bob.keisser@presstelegram.com