History in Numbers: How the Berkeley Half Marathon Became the Hometown Favorite Race

A full decade. That’s how long the Berkeley Half Marathon has been around. The tenth running of the Hometown Favorite race took place on November 13 when about 6,000 runners took to the streets of the gorgeous city of Berkeley.

Conquering their first races, setting their personal bests, or simply hanging out with family and friends, they enjoyed the race while music played, locals and spectators held encouraging signs, and the spirits were high. But how did the Berkeley Half Marathon become the Hometown Favorite race?

Written & Edited by Pavlína Marek

The Beginning

“I think we left the gate with the hopes of being the Hometown Favorite and coined the phrase in 2018,” says Lauri Abrahamsen, the director of operations for both the San Francisco Marathon and Berkeley Half Marathon and a huge force behind several Bay Area race series. “[It] seemed the community would be a great place for an event of this size.”

Turned out, the organizers were right; the first race turned out to be a great success.

“The community loved it. It was a crazy course … but people seemed happy,” said Abrahamsen.

The race was first run in 2013. 7,683 participants took to the streets that year, starting in Albany near the Golden Gate horse racing fields; “We had to [first] prove ourselves to the City of Berkeley,” said Abrahamsen. Thanks to that, this first running of the race was “a crazy course.”

Thus, the first-ever Berkeley Half Marathon was done and dusted… but what led to organizing the event in the first place?

“Our race director at the time and Peter [Nantell] (Jumping Fences President and CEO; editor’s note) created the race to fill the void of a hometown event in Berkeley,” said Abrahamsen. “The first-ever race was well-received, and the experience we carried from the San Francisco Marathon helped us convince the City of Berkeley that we were capable of hosting an event.”

The Seed that Took Root; the Fire that Burned the Tree

After the Berkeley Half Marathon class of 2013 left the streets somehow emptier than they felt before, it was clear that the event would keep going. More and more runners showed up every year after that, even as the event moved to its new, well-deserved location at the Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park.

Everything was going great until the first disaster struck in 2018. The whole event was put in jeopardy due to wildfire smoke. In the end, the organizers decided to cancel the race for the safety of the runners. All registrants had the option to roll over their registration to any of the following three years.

The running community didn’t disappoint. The following year would eventually turn out to be the Berkeley Half Marathon’s biggest event yet.

“We [gained] lots of momentum and had our largest race in 2019, almost 10,000 runners,” said Abrahamsen. “We’re hoping to get to that size again!”

Everything looked great once more. Past runners signed up again for 2020 while quite a few had their 2018 entries already rolled over to that race. Then another disaster struck when the COVID-19 pandemic put the whole world on pause—and got innumerable events, including the Berkeley Half Marathon, canceled.

“We’ve been through a lot. One year, it was canceled due to a fire. Then we had Covid, so the race was on a hiatus for a few years. It’s been a challenge,” said Abrahamsen.

The Community that Saw Itself Through

Despite these significant setbacks, the Berkeley Half Marathon firmly holds onto its title of the Hometown Favorite, mainly thanks to the great Berkeley Community. Without its support, the race would have never become what it is today; an event to which many return not for the personal records, but for the camaraderie and community that surrounds it.

“I ran the year that there was a torrential downpour of rain mid-race, which made things kind of tough,” wrote Julie Woods in her race report on Bibrave. “But the funniest part to me was the old hippies that came out and were cheering nonetheless.”

In February 2022, the deferred 2021 edition of the Berkeley Half Marathon could finally take place. Only a few months later, just this past November, the race was officially back on its usual schedule. The tenth Berkeley Half Marathon was run, having survived all the challenges of the past few years, proving, once again, that the community that surrounds it isn’t one to be defeated easily.

On its tenth anniversary, the Berkeley Half Marathon added a new division. To make sure that all runners were represented and to better reflect the community, an NB+ division was opened beside the traditional female and male ones. Saying that the race was open for everyone wasn’t enough anymore—it was time to show it, too, and the Berkeley Half Marathon was ready for it.

Thus, the race organizers acted on their own claim that running is for everyone.

Making Sure that Running Really Is for Everyone

Altogether, 20 gender-expansive runners were finally able to run as themselves—and nobody else—at the 2022 Berkeley Half Marathon. The running community is an important place for inclusivity, and “why wouldn’t it be?” asked Cal Calamia, a transgender runner, during their interview for the San Francisco Marathon.

“Running is one of the most generous places,” they said. “Every single road race since middle school cross country that I have ever seen has or nearly has brought me to tears—the way that people cheer the same for the first person and the last person. Why not cheer the same for everyone else in between?”

As the community grows, and with thousands of runners already registered for the 2023 race, everyone at the Berkeley Half Marathon hopes for the race to keep evolving based on the community’s needs and wishes. After all, the Berkeley Half marathon, now the Hometown Favorite Race, wouldn’t be here without the gorgeous intersection of Berkeley and running communities, just like many small communities and friend and running groups wouldn’t be here without the Berkeley Half Marathon. It’s a symbiotic relationship that keeps on giving, and we strive to keep it that way.

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