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After almost two years, San Diego's Rock 'n' Roll Marathon is back

Runners fill Adams Avenue in San Diego during a Rock 'n' Roll half marathon in this undated photo.
Rock 'n' Roll Running Series
Runners fill Adams Avenue in San Diego during a Rock 'n' Roll half marathon in this undated photo.

Bill Aaron ran his first marathon in 1998, at the first ever Rock ‘n’ Roll marathon, which was held in San Diego. It didn't go well, so the next year, he ran it again.

“And then I kind of decided that I was sort of enmeshed in it and I did three, and then I did four and then for five they gave us a really sweet patch for being a legacy runner,” he said. “And one thing led to another.”

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Aaron ran every single Rock ‘n’ Roll marathon for 23 years. The race series, which originated in San Diego, spread to cities across the country and even internationally. All the while, Aaron kept running, maintaining his claim as a legacy runner — meaning he’s never missed a single race.

Then COVID-19 came, and the San Diego event that’s normally held every June was canceled. The June 2021 race also didn’t happen, but now, after almost two years of cancellations and postponements, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Running Series is back next weekend. It will include a full marathon, half marathon and 5K race.

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And Aaron, who now sports a long Forrest Gump beard and a Rock 'n' Roll running jacket, who coaches high school track and runs with the San Diego Track Club, will be at the starting line in Balboa Park. Even though he’s not used to running a fall marathon.

“I can't imagine not being there in October, irrespective of how I think the marathon for me personally is going to go,” he said. “I can't imagine waking up the morning of Oct. 25 and realizing that I did not show up to the line on the previous day.”

Runner Bill Aaron poses with some of the San Diego Rock 'n' Roll marathon medals he's received over the years in this undated photo.
Bill Aaron
Runner Bill Aaron poses with some of the San Diego Rock 'n' Roll marathon medals he's received over the years in this undated photo.

After almost two years of uncertainty, race director Meryl Leventon is preparing for an unusual race.

“It feels kind of surreal to actually be talking about it right now because we didn't know when we were going to be racing,” she said.

This year, nurses and doctors will also be given the chance to start the race at the very front, right after the elite runners take off.

There are also still COVID-19 precautions to take, including no shuttle buses and spreading out runners more at the start. But masks won't be required during the race, and she expects 20,000 people this year. That includes people who were signed up in 2020 and deferred, and also new people who picked up running when gyms were closed.

“I'm excited to welcome all these new runners that have picked up this hobby during the pandemic,” she said. “I would say the overall level of excitement is higher than usual.”

That's true for Wendy O’dwyer, who has already run a few races this summer. She normally runs several each year, and says during COVID-19, she felt the loss of the starting line.

“I wasn't motivated to run,” she said. “And then for some reason, then they closed off Balboa Park for runners and walkers, which I thought was kind of weird, but because I couldn't run through the park.”

Now she’s eager for the race, which she loves for its San Diego sites along the way, from Balboa Park to Drag Queen cheerleaders in Hillcrest to the Military Mile in North Park, which honors fallen service members.

As for Aaron, the legacy runner, he’s determined to toe the line, even if he feels a little nervous about being in a big crowd.

“I tell my athletes not to get those kinds of things stuck in their head because it has a tendency to overwhelm all the psychological adaptations that take place when you're training for a race like this,” he said.

Still, he's determined to maintain his claim as a legacy runner. Aaron plans to wear a mask at the starting line and then take it off as the crowd thins and runners spread out along the course.

After almost two years, San Diego's Rock 'n' Roll Marathon is back