Correspondent

OAKLAND -- In the early hours of a gray, cold December morning in 1979, thousands of runners heard the blast of cannon and swarmed on to 13th Street, marking the first Oakland Marathon -- 35 years ago. Some of the 2,000 runners chased Olympic dreams. Others were there just to prove they could master 26 miles and 385 yards, a distance that no man or woman has run in less than two hours.

The Oakland Marathon would last only five years, disintegrating in a cloud of disappointment then scandal. Nearly three decades passed before an extreme sports enthusiast, Gene Brtalik, convinced his boss at Corrigan Sports Enterprises to revive the tradition in 2011 with the Oakland Running Festival. Sunday will mark the fifth anniversary. At least 6,500 people have signed up.

Participants in the half-marathon take off from the starting line at the fourth annual Oakland Running Festival, Sunday, March 24, 2013, in Oakland, Calif.
Participants in the half-marathon take off from the starting line at the fourth annual Oakland Running Festival, Sunday, March 24, 2013, in Oakland, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron/Staff) (D. ROSS CAMERON)

"Hopefully, this one will make it to six," said Joe Schieffer, who ran in the Oakland Marathon and the Oakland Running Festival. Schieffer's best time in the original race was 2 hours and 27 minutes. "Let's put it this way: that's at the front," the real estate attorney said. But it was seven minutes slower than 1979's winner and marathon organizer, Ted Quintana. "That shows you how many good runners there were," Schieffer said.

He has 99 ultramarathons under his belt and in 2007 logged 100,000 miles -- slightly more than the distance around the earth multiplied by four. "Now I'm up to 117,000," said Schieffer, now a lean 64 year-old. "I'm doing this on muscle memory," said Schieffer, who carries 130 pounds on his 5-foot-11 frame.

The Oakland Marathon course took Schieffer and his fellow runners from downtown around the Oakland Coliseum into West Oakland and back.

It was "flat and fast," said Dick Hughes, a runner who meticulously measured the course.

The police said Oakland, measuring only 5-by-10 miles, was too small, and some runners flat out told organizers Oakland was too dangerous.

Oakland City Council members suggested the runners circle Lake Merritt until they got to 26.2 miles if they wanted a marathon. The other option was to run from downtown to the Coliseum and back. "That was boring as all get out," said Hughes, now 80.

The race grew bigger than anyone expected, he said.

"It was a blast."

Then, as now, the event attracted a variety of athletes. Jay Helgerson, a 24-year-old former Marine, was determined to see his name in the Guinness Book of World Records (changed to Guinness World Records in 2000) as the man who ran a marathon each week for a year. He accomplished this in early 1980. Robert Sallie skated all 26.2 miles in the first Oakland Marathon. "It's hard man. I couldn't keep up with the lead runners," he told reporters afterward.

The next year, 4,000 runners signed up. A's hitter Rickey Henderson waited at City Hall Plaza to hand out awards.

But the city would have to wait for more than a year for the next Oakland Marathon. Scheduling conflicts with the premier competition of the time, the Fukuoka Marathon in Japan, forced organizers to postpone the race in 1982. Also, the Raiders were playing that weekend in December.

The organizers moved the date to February 1983 when 6,000 runners signed up for the marathon. The race ran into trouble in 1984, finishing $22,654 in the red.

Marathon Chairwoman Cherie Swenson canceled the race in 1985.

"We didn't have the staff, the money or the support from the city," said Swenson, who ran a political public relations firm at the time. She could never find a major sponsor for the race.

"We had to pay the police $25,000," she said last week. "And that just killed it."

A marathon was planned for 1986. But city officials discovered the new organizer had only $60 in his bank account and $11,000 in bills despite the entry fees sent by runners. He didn't actually have authorization to accept the fees, but he did anyway, according to press accounts from the time.

Schieffer ran all five years of the original marathon. He has competed twice in the Oakland Running Festival; the marathon in 2011 and the half-marathon in 2012, which he plans to run again Sunday. People now are doing it just to see if they finish, which is OK by him. They should just come out and have fun, he said. Maybe, he added, the person who decides to walk the 5K this year will run it next year.

Oakland running festival
What: Fifth annual Oakland Running Festival
When: March 23, 7:15 a.m. opening remarks; 7:30 a.m. marathon and Hawaiian Airlines team relay races; 7:45 a.m. 5K; 9:15 a.m. half-marathon; 9:20 a.m. Lucky Kids Fun Run; 11:15 p.m. awards ceremony
Where: Starts and ends at Snow Park, 19th Street and Harrison
Info: To sign up for events and to view the courses, go to www.oaklandmarathon.com.