Since 1998, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon has brought an annual, free-flowing river of runners to the streets of San Diego.
It’s an early-morning party starring thousands of weekend warriors synced to the beat of live bands and cheering locals (at least the ones not cursing the road closures).
It’s a chance to watch runners in all shapes, ages and sizes try to complete 26.2- or 13.1-mile quests. Each year, hundreds wear the purple shirts of Team in Training, a fund-raising group for the Leukemia & Lymphoma society. Others come in tutus or dressed as Elvis or superheroes.
It’s become a part of the city’s cultural calendar, and it will happen again on Sunday, June 5.
But until just a few years ago, Gustavo Padilla didn’t really get it. He wasn’t a runner. He didn’t know any of the Team in Training participants. He didn’t go to cheer or watch.
That changed after he had cancer.
Padilla, 41, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2013. He then went through chemotherapy and radiation treatments and watched his family members deal with their fears. Cousins, aunts and uncles had been lost to cancer, and he knew his parents and siblings were terrified they would lose him, too.
“I could see it in their eyes,” he said.
His sister, Cynthia Padilla, took up running to deal with the stress. Soon, she joined Team in Training, eager to make a difference.
“It became a part of her,” he said.
Suja Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon and Half Marathon
When: Sunday, June 5
Start: 6:15 a.m. for marathon, half marathon and two-person half-marathon relay.
Overview: The 19th annual event will cover three days. A 5K race will be held on Saturday and a free Health & Fitness Expo on from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at the San Diego Convention Center.
Courses: All runners will start at the intersection of Sixth Avenue and Quince Street at Balboa Park. The 26.2-mile marathon course will include stretches on University Avenue, through Normal Heights, west through Hillcrest, Mission Hills and Old Town, along Mission Bay, east on Friars Road to state Route 163 with a finish downtown on Ash Street, between Columbia and State streets near Waterfront Park. The 13.1-mile half marathon follows the full course through Normal Heights but then breaks off through North Park and Balboa Park before heading downtown toward the same finish.
Music: Live bands will be set up at every mile of the course (with 30 overall) and perform for the runners and fans. Gavin DeGraw will be the featured performer at the finish line this year, with a concert scheduled from 10:30-11:45 a.m.
Field: Approximately 30,000 runners will participate, with about 9,000 of those in the full marathon.
More information: rocknroll.com/san-diego
Over the next few months she not only ran her way into shape, she became an ardent fundraiser for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. When Padilla, a Chula Vista resident, was done with his treatments, his sister pulled him off his couch and made him exercise. He walked around a lake while she ran the same route.
Walking turned to jogging. Then, eager to make the most of his second chance in life, he entered some races. First a 5K in March of 2014 then a 10K in April and then the Suja Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon in June, with Cynthia.
It was then, running with his purple-clad sister, that Padilla understood what she was doing and felt the race’s positive vibrations. And those vibes weren’t all coming from the bands or the pounding of thousands of feet.
“She had on her Team in Training Leukemia & Lymphoma purple shirt, she was all decked out, and I saw how powerful it was, that motivation and encouragement that helps out there,” he said. “It sounds corny but it’s like a family.”
‘What was I thinking?’
He’s put a lot of miles on his feet since. He’s run 50 to 60 races of all lengths, including 15 to 16 half marathons, since 2014. Mostly he’s done races that serve as fundraisers for people in need - a priority for him now.
But he didn’t join Team in Training until this year. In February, he started training for his first full marathon, the upcoming Rock ‘n’ Roll. He’ll be one of 71 San Diego-area Team in Training runners participating, with more than 320 total from across the country. They will raise about $1.2 million for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society to fund blood-cancer research.
He knows it will be a challenge. He says he’s slow - his best half-marathon time is 2 hours, 38 minutes - and claims he never was an outstanding athlete. He admits, too, that sometimes in the midst of a half marathon he’s thought, “What was I thinking?”
But doing the marathon is something he must do to help others and himself. He has another motivation, too. His mother, who died recently, was eager to see him finish, and so he will.
He may dread the steep grade on state Route 163 on race day, but can’t wait to feel the love of all those purple people.
“There’s nothing like it,” he said of their support. “I’ve seen my teammates struggle, and they’ve seen me struggle. ... We’ve been right there next to each other.”
A survivor’s guilt
Cancer changed Padilla’s approach to life.
He still works long hours in his job as a labor relations representative for classified school employees, but he takes more time off than he did. He sits down to eat instead of living off coffee on the run. He says he feels strong and healthy. At the end of every one of his emails is his slogan: “Living Life to the Fullest.”
Running is part of that. It reminds him he’s alive.
“Life is fragile and it’s short,” he said. “I don’t want to waste it. I want to have a good time. I don’t care if I’m the last one crossing the finish line. Believe it, you’ll see me crossing the finish line with a big smile across my face.”
Being a cancer survivor spurred him to help others.
“I felt guilty,” he said. “It wasn’t easy for me when they said, ‘Hey, you’re cancer free. You can move on, you can continue with your life.’ I felt guilty because of everyone we have lost.”
He sought out a nonprofit in Chula Vista called We Support U that helps cancer patients and their families. He’s organized two money-raising 5Ks for the group and is now its vice president.
“I never thought I would be one of those people,” he said. “But I feel great doing it. I do give it my all.”
Which is also what he’ll be doing as he grinds out the miles in the marathon, for a cause and for his own sense of being alive.
At the end of the day, he’ll be a bona fide marathon man, sweaty, tired and absolutely grateful.
Williams is a freelance writer in San Diego.