LONG BEACH >> Bob Seagren’s office is decorated with remnants of athletic success. Trophies sit on windowsills, mannequins in old pole-vaulting uniforms hang on the wall.
A two-time Olympic medalist, Seagren could have rested on his competitive laurels. Instead he is known locally as the man who saved the Long Beach Marathon, which will kick off its 29th race a week from today.
“My hat’s off to them,” the 66-year-old said of those who compete. “I don’t know how they do it.”
But Seagren knows a thing or two about achievement in sports. He was introduced to pole-vaulting at age 11 by his brother, who showed Seagren how to hurl himself over the backyard fence. He liked the sport’s simplicity—no points for style; the only thing that matters is going up and going down.
At 21, Seagren won Olympic gold in the 1968 games in Mexico City, and silver four years later in Munich. He set 15 world records over an 11-year period, and also competed in the Pan-American Games in 1967.
These days, Seagren, a Long Beach resident who spent a decade as executive vice president of sales and marketing for athletic apparel company PUMA USA, has traded his fiberglass poles for a computer. Instead of doing the running himself, he helps other competitors win medals at the Long Beach Marathon, which his company RUN Racing has organized for the last 13 years.
The race got off to a rocky start, and its troubles continued. In 1981, it was postponed due to permitting, financial and certification problems. It also took a three-year hiatus from 1996 to 1998 because of funding issues after Tom Fernald, a longtime organizer of the race, died. A promoter brought the event back in 1999 but ran into financial trouble and couldn’t afford to pay the winners roughly $50,000 in prize money.
In 2001, Seagren, who has acted on television and owned a travel agency and three restaurants, stepped in and paid the debts to the runners, and to the city, with his own cash. That impressed Jane Netherton, then-president and CEO of International City Bank, which became the event’s title sponsor.
“His integrity is what impressed me,” said Netherton, now chairwoman of the bank’s board, “that this was the right thing to do and he was willing to put his own money in to do that.”
The race, by most accounts, is now a success. More than 25,000 racers are expected to cross the finish line Oct. 13 for a marathon, half-marathon, 5K and a bike tour. On Saturday, kids between the ages of 6 and 12 can run in the Aquarium of the Pacific Fun Run.
According to Seagren, the event brings about $12.5 million to the city with people staying in local hotels, eating at local restaurants and shopping.
“We try to convey we’re selling a beach party,” Seagren said. “Most of the run is on the water or in sight of water. I look at what we do and it’s really selling the city of Long Beach. We’re trying to get people to come here to participate and enjoy themselves.”
Seagren said his company, which also manages the OC Marathon and the Dana Point Turkey Trot, has learned from its mistakes and also made changes in light of the bombing at the Boston Marathon April 15. The city has increased security, and runners are now required to place their personal items in clear plastic bags.
“It’s unfortunate when something like this happens, but you have to take the necessary steps,” Seagren said. “Can you stop it 100 percent? No, but we certainly try, and hopefully people will be more aware, and we’ll keep our fingers crossed that nothing happens.”
Phyllis Blanchard, event co-director, describes Seagren as “fun, enthusiastic and passionate” and a person with an “athlete’s mentality” that emanates positivity while “not accepting anything less than your best.”
Jason Bruton, event co-director, also said he exhibits humility and a hands-on approach to leading the company.
“He still gets out and picks up trash and sets up fencing,” Bruton said. “We’ve been trying to get him to not work but it’s in his blood. He’s not willing to ask anybody else to do anything unless he’s willing to do it himself.”
Netherton said the fact that so many volunteers participate each year is a testament to Seagren’s leadership.
“If they don’t see the leadership at the top as being professional and efficient, they’re not going to stay with it,” she said.
The weekend will begin with a Health and Fitness Expo on Friday, which Blanchard said is the biggest expo they have ever held, with more than 100 exhibits. Sunday morning, the first event will be the marathon and bike tour, followed by the half marathon and 5K. At the finish line, food trucks, live music and the community will greet the exhausted participants.
“It’s not just the ‘what’ factor. It’s not the fact that they’re running, but it’s the ‘why’ and that’s what I think really pulls on the heartstrings,” Blanchard said. “A lot of people are running for a cause, or running because someone from their family passed.
“There’s another association with running, specific to this sport, and a lot of that is released and happiness and joy at that finish line. When you’re exhausted and you see that, it’s worth it.”