On Saturday at 7 a.m., the inaugural Rock 'n' Roll Seattle Marathon and Half-Marathon gets under way. And though the event is sold out with 25,000 runners, planning has been going on for a year, and though many, many things can go wrong, organizers have no choice but to begin their setup just hours before...

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Like ghosts, they come out after midnight: the music crews, who set up the stages and sound systems; the bathroom guys who haul in hundreds of portable toilets; the trucks with cups and water and banners, and tents and time clocks and everything else that goes into putting on what is being billed as the largest marathon ever to hit the Pacific Northwest.

On Saturday at 7 a.m., the inaugural Rock ‘n’ Roll Seattle Marathon and Half-Marathon gets under way. And though the event is sold out with 25,000 runners, planning has been going on for a year, and though many, many things can go wrong, organizers have no choice but to begin their setup just hours before ready, set and go.

Until then, people like race-operations manager Joel Griesbach must rely on their experience to imagine how such a big event can come together.

“We’re in the Start Village right now,” he said last week on a tour of the course, which begins near Suburban Propane in Tukwila.

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“Here’s our first band,” he said about a mile later, eyeing a gravel turnout on Interurban Avenue South.

“It doesn’t matter that there’s just asphalt and parking lots now,” said Griesbach’s colleague Doug Thurston. “We bring the circus in.”

Circus indeed. The Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathons, now held in 11 cities nationwide, feature live bands every mile, along with local high-school cheerleading squads competing for prize money, all designed to keep the runners going.

There’s a finish-line extravaganza, with music, food and beer, a post-event concert by Grammy-winning bluesman Keb’ Mo’ at Marymoor Park in Redmond, and a health-and-fitness expo at the Qwest Event Center. Those who can’t finish within seven hours will be picked up and driven to the finish line.

And of course there will be medics — even a medical-command center.

Until the first Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon came along, in 1998, marathons were decidedly hard-core affairs, said Shauna Buffington, of the Competitor Group, the company that puts on the events.

Adding live music made marathoning seem less grueling and more social. “We changed it so it looked like it was something people could do and actually have fun,” she said.

Offering a half-marathon (at 13.1 miles), along with the full marathon — and keeping the racecourse open for seven hours — broadened the attraction further.

Then there’s the charity component. Although it’s a for-profit endeavor, Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathons attract major charities that use the events for fundraising. About 1,700 people Saturday will be running for charities, including Team In Training, which supports the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

The popularity of distance running continues to grow. In 1976, about 25,000 people finished marathons, according to Running USA. In 2007, 412,000 did.

While women generally make up 40 percent of marathon participants, nearly 70 percent of entrants in the Seattle event are women. Buffington said that Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathons typically attract more women. The race sold out in April.

“Women are planners,” Buffington said. “Guys wait till the last minute and they get shut out.”

For many of Saturday’s runners, it will be their first organized race. The last finishers will amble along at about 16 minutes per mile, compared to five-minute miles for the elite runners.

“We’ll have everyone from the fastest runners in the world to average folks who, you look at them, you don’t know if they can run 26 miles,” Thurston said. “And they don’t know if they can either.”

That, said Beth Knox, president and CEO of Seafair, the event’s community partner, is part of why it’s such a celebration. “It’s infectious,” she said. “There’s this huge sense of accomplishment in the air.”

Seafair ran its own marathon for five years, but with fewer than 5,000 runners, it was much smaller, and, some would argue, less well-organized. Last year, Seafair shuttles failed to deliver as many as 400 entrants to the gate in time for the start. Saturday’s race replaces the Seafair marathon; the Seattle Marathon will still be held in November.

Certainly there will be some who are not so excited about the “circus” coming to town. Roads will be closed, and some neighborhoods will have temporarily restricted access.

And there’s a commercial feel to this race, what with all the sponsorships and products being showcased. Tukwila paid $150,000 (out of lodging-tax money) to be a “community partner.” The Seattle Times is a media sponsor, which involves providing advertising space in exchange for promotional signs at the race.

And of course, things can go wrong. Buffington recalls one year in San Diego, when a naked driver barreled onto the course at 5 a.m., then backed into a police officer. “We had to redesign the course around the crime scene,” she said.

Hours before another marathon, workers were frantically scraping mud off the course after Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River flooded. Another time, somebody lost the keys for the car that leads racers from the starting gates.

For now, though, Griesbach and Thurston, the operations guys, are thinking mostly about everything that has to happen between midnight and 7 a.m. on race day.

Thousands of Mylar blankets for the finish line (in case it’s chilly)?


A tractor-trailer full of ice (in case runners get too hot)?


Spreadsheets detailing the placement of banners? Maps showing exactly where to put the stages and supply trucks and water stations?

Check and check.

Meanwhile, scores of contractors and volunteers are just waiting for their chance to get out there and work.

“It’s kind of like building a house,” Thurston said. “You have the drawings, the architectural renderings. But we’re building a house on race day.

“And tearing it down on race day, too.”

Maureen O’Hagan: 206-464-2562 or mohagan@seattletimes.com

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