In 1978, as the original running boom was about to take off, then San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson thought that it would be a good idea to have a running event as a part of the “America’s Finest City Week” celebration, which took place each August. The annual AFC Week began in 1972 after the Republican Party pulled its Convention from San Diego and moved it to Miami.
A prominent San Diego attorney, who was a member of the Old Mission Beach Athletic Club (OMBAC), was asked by the Mayor’s office to have representatives of the club meet with a local charity to come up with a running race. OMBAC was chosen because it put on several large events with big crowds each year.
Four OMBAC members who were runners met with representatives of the chosen non-profit organization in January 1978. One of the four, Neil Finn, was chosen as Race Director because he had run in more races than anyone else at the meeting. Bill Irwin volunteered to be the Race Committee Chairman. Both of these individuals serve in those capacities to this day, while OMBAC continues to provide the manpower that is the true infrastructure of the event.
The event is now owned by Neil Finn Sports Management, managed by In Motion Inc., and benefits the Cabrillo National Monument Foundation, Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, and the Spreckels Organ Society.
Right from the start the AFC Half Marathon enjoyed great success and acquired a national reputation for superb organization and management. The first year an entry limit of 3,000 was set. There were 3,050 entrants. This was in part due to the unique and scenic race route that showcased the City of San Diego. Starting at the Cabrillo National Monument on the tip of Point Loma, with San Diego Bay on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other, the course runs through a country like area for three miles before heading through a residential area and running along the bay. At the tall ship Star of India, the race heads through downtown before rising up to the finish area amongst the historic buildings of the 1915 Pan Pacific Exposition in beautiful Balboa Park.
A second reason for the America’s Finest City Half Marathon’s immediate rise to prominence was that in that inaugural race, Marty Cooksey of Orange, California, set a women’s American Record for the half marathon in 1:15:04. This success was repeated in 1979, when Kathy Mintie of UCLA set another American Record in a time of 1:14:50. San Diegan Laurie Binder ran even faster in 1980, recording a time of 1:14:45.
The women’s side produced many more highlights over the years. In 1983, future U.S. Olympian Nancy Ditz won in the closest female finish in race history, when three women finished within 5 seconds of each other. Breaking the tape in 1:14:31, Ditz beat out Jeanne Lasee-Johnson (1:14:35) and 1981 winner Liz Baker (1:14:37). 1987 saw 1984 Mexican Olympian Maria Trujillo (now U.S. citizen) win the first of her four titles over the next 10 years.
In 1988, Sylvia Mosqueda (Los Angeles) set a women’s course record of 1:11:31, which stood until 2000. 1988 U.S. Olympian Cathy O’Brien was the pre-race favorite as she was using the AFC as a final tune-up before heading to Seoul to compete in the Olympic Marathon. Mosqueda registered for the race late the evening before, and O’Brien only became aware of her presence just prior to the start. Despite Mosqueda’s blistering early pace, O’Brien remained on her own pre-determined pace and finished second in 1:12:59. This would remain the second fastest time run at AFC until 1995, when Seoul Silver Medalist in the Marathon, Lisa Ondieki of Australia, won the event in 1:12:52.
The history of the men’s race is one of long standing records. In 1981, local product Kirk Pfeffer took advantage of a foggy morning to blister the course and finish in a time of 1:02:55. This record would stand as an elusive carrot for top male competitors from around the world for 16 years, until Patrick Muturi of Kenya broke Pfeffer’s mark with a 1:02:51 clocking during the AFC’s 20th Anniversary in 1997.
Perhaps the most heroic challenge to the record came in 1985 when Jerry Kiernan, a 1984 Olympian from Ireland, ran a 1:03:15 in brutal conditions. There was not a cloud in the sky as the temperature soared to 84 degrees. Had it not been for the intense heat, Kiernan more than likely would have broken the record. As it was, no one would better his time until Muturi claimed the course record in 1997.
The 1982 race produced a pair of Master’s records which would not be exceeded anywhere in the world for over ten years. Antonio Villanueva of Mexico set a World Record of 1:05:20. He was followed by American Olympian Mike Manley who set an American Record in 1:06:30. Even the great U.S. Masters runner Barry Brown could not come within three minutes of Manley’s time when he won the Master’s race in 1985.
The closest finish in the men’s event occurred in 1993, when after running side by side for more than a mile, Alfredo Vigueras of Mexico out leaned Moroccan Olympian Driss Dacha, with both timed in 1:04:32. Excitement in the women’s race occurred after the two-hour mark when world renowned celebrity Oprah Winfrey crossed the finish line in her first ever running race. Her experience would be memorialized in her book “Make the Connection – Ten Steps to a Better Body – and A Better Life”, co-authored with her trainer Bob Greene.
Oprah returned to the AFC in 2000 with nine members of her Harpo Productions staff. This time however, her presence was overshadowed by the smashing of three course records. Ideal weather and a deep competitive field contributed to the assault on the record book. Peter Githuka (Kenya) broke the men’s course record of 1:02:51 with an outstanding run of 1:02:24. In the women’s race, Christina Pomacu of Romania ran 1:10:44 to break the 12-year old record of 1:11:31. Marina Belyaeva of Russia smashed Laurie Binder’s masters record of 1:18:31 set in 1987, with a stellar time of 1:17:27.
The record breaking continued in 2001 as the AFC showed its continued popularity by setting a participation record of 6,736. On the men’s side, Wilson Onsare and Gabriel Muchiri ran virtually side by side for 13 miles, finishing in 1:02:44 and 1:02:46, the second and third fastest times for the course. The year old women’s record was broken by Margaret Okayo (Kenya) in 1:10:37, while the masters record was shattered for the second straight year with Ramilia Burangulova of Russia running 1:14:45.
In 2002 the winners of the 25th Anniversary race each had a unique story. Men’s winner Mbarak Hussein had previously finished 2nd (’99), 4th (’00), and 3rd (’01). He finally added a first place award to his trophy wall by out-sprinting fellow Kenyan (and ’99 winner) Simon Sawe over the final quarter-mile, finishing in 1:03:00. Sylvia Mosqueda of Los Angeles last ran the AFC 14 years earlier when she set a course record which lasted until 2000. This time she had a strong victory finishing in 1:12:34. For the second consecutive year the event set a record for participation with nearly 7,000 entrants.
The 2003 winners both represented firsts for the AFC Half Marathon. Kazuhio Matsuda became the first Japanese male to win the event, running 1:03:57 while breaking a 9 year streak of African champions. He led a virtual United Nations across the finish line as the top 10 men represented 7 different countries. On the women’s side, Russia’s Silva Skvortsova crossed the finish line in 1:14:24, becoming the first female winners from her country.
Russian women continued to make an impact on the AFC in 2004, with Alevtina Ivanova winning in 1:15:01, a week after winning the Falmouth Road Race on Cape Cod. Africans were again leading the men’s finishers with the top three places led by Joseah Matui of Kenya (1:04:25). Two young up and coming Americans took 4th (Matt Levassiur) and 5th (Kevin Koeper).
2005 saw the AFC set a participation record with 7,235 entrants. For the third consecutive year, a Russian won the women’s race. Making her half marathon debut, Tatiana Chulakh broke the finish tape in 1:13:36. In the men’s race, Kenyans swept the first 5 places with Nephat Kinyanjui leading the parade in 1:03:19. Runner’s World magazine named the AFC the road race of the month in its August issue and the readers of Competitor Magazine voted the AFC Half the “Best Regional Half Marathon” in December.
In 2006, the AFC once again broke its attendance record with 8,324 entrants. Russian Tatiana Chulakh returned and became the first person in the 29 year history of the AFC Half to successfully defend their title, winning in 1:14:12. Kenyan Wilson Chebet won the men’s race with the second fastest time ever at AFC, 1:02:38. This performance is remarkable in that Chebet arrived in the U.S. for the first time ever a day and a half before the race after leaving Nairobi, Kenya Thursday afternoon on an 8-hour flight to Amsterdam, then an 11-hour flight to Minneapolis, and finally a 3-hour flight to San Diego.
The 30th Anniversary event proved to be another attendance record breaker, with 9,520 entrants. Both the half marathon and 5K were closed to further entrants well before race day. Although 2007 weather turned out to be a warmer than normal with sunny skies and temperatures in the low 70’s, the elite racing proved to be exciting. In the men’s race, Nelson Kiplagat of Kenya pulled away to claim the winner’s prize with a time of 1:04:25. A pair of Japanese twin sisters paced the women’s race with Hiromi Ominami beating her sister Takami in the fine time of 1:12:49.
2008 saw the first American male winner since 1987. The 21 year drought was broken by Justin Young of Superior, CO in a winning time of 1:05:46. The women’s race was won for the second consecutive year by Hiromi Ominami of Japan in 1:12:47, two seconds faster than her winning time the previous year. Once again the AFC had an event entrant record with 9,621 participants.
With a strong competitive history, a respected international reputation, and consistent management since its inception in 1978, the America’s Finest City Half Marathon will continue to be one of the top half marathon races in the world.