Tracy Sundlun, son of a former Rhode Island governor,
Tracy Sundlun, son of a former Rhode Island governor, began building marathon series in 1997. Photo by Ken Stone

Tracy Sundlun had a secret.

He shared it with only two people before the Rio Olympics, where as head manager of the U.S. men’s track team he would average 4 hours’ sleep a night over three weeks. He told his wife, Marissa de Luna, and U.S. Olympic men’s track coach Vin Lananna.

Sundlun’s news: I lost my job.

Tracy Sundlun announced Olympic Trials 50K race walk in Santee in February. Photo by Ken Stone

On July 21 — 36 hours before leaving for Brazil — the Santee resident known as “Mr. Marathon” was let go as senior vice president of Mira Mesa-based Competitor Group Inc., which he co-founded. Think Apple ousting Steve Jobs.

Sundlun said he told Lananna: “Hey, in case you see me sort of drifting off and distracted, this is what’s going on. So slap me upside the head.”

CGI President Josh Furlow delivered the news to Sundlun, who for 19 years helped transform the sport of road-running via the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon series, selling 26-mile races to the masses, changing its demographics (from few women to 50 percent female) and making the company wildly successful, operating more than 30 events in eight countries.

“We’re owned by private equity and banks,” Sundlun said Monday — four days after beginning to email 9,000 people on his contact list about his new status. “And the reality is that they — like any owners — are always looking at money, and what in their opinion [is] the most efficient way to spend what they’ve got … and to build value for their shareholders and owners.

“I can disagree with it. There’s no question that I see the business and the sport differently than some. But somebody else owns the company now.”

Sixteen months after being named to the Running USA Hall of Fame, the 64-year-old former track coach was headed to Rio de Janeiro with a quiet burden. He was one of at least two people laid off by CGI, owned in part by Calera Capital, a private equity firm.

Another was Jennifer Nanista, a former San Diego State track coach, his “right-hand person” and CGI’s elite athlete coordinator.

In 2013, CGI sparked outrage by eliminating star-runner appearance fees and purses. (Sundlun said he was the only person in senior management to defend the elite-athlete budget). The money was restored in 2014, following the outcry.

But now, he told Times of San Diego, the elite-athlete budget has been cut again, not sharing details but saying: “I think I’m beyond just worrying. I just know that … it just keeps getting cut.”

News of his firing filtered through the Olympic Village and back to San Diego.

“I heard about (the layoff) before he got back from Rio,” said Steve Scott, the former American record-holder in the mile who helped Tim Murphy of Elite Racing create the Carlsbad 5000 — the template for the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathons and Half-Marathons that followed, first run by Elite Racing.

“I heard a rumor about it. Then I called him after Rio. That was a shock. I’ve heard through the grapevine that the company is not doing very well. And so I’m sure that they’re cutting everything they can to try to make themselves profitable, I guess. He’s synonymous with that company,” said Scott, now coaching at CSU San Marcos.

“I don’t know what they’re going to do without him.”

In May, Sports Business Daily reported that lenders had taken control of the company after Calera Capital “struggled” to pay loans connected to its nearly $250 million purchase of CGI.

Tracy Sundlun, son of a former Rhode Island governor, began work building the marathon series in 1997. Photo by Ken Stone

Bob Babbitt, CEO of Babbitt Media Group, co-founded Competitor Magazine at CGI and said: “In my humble opinion, no one has done more to grow the sport of running in the history of the sport than Tracy Sundlun. Period.”

Former Runner’s World editor-in-chief Amby Burfoot said he’s known Sundlun for 40 years “on both coasts and a few places in between” and called him a tireless promoter of track and field and road running.

“He has been particularly active in expanding the plurality of our sports — bringing in more women and challenged athletes, etc.,” said Burfoot, who won the 1968 Boston Marathon. “If he is leaving CGI, that is a loss we will all feel.”

And Ryan Lamppa, former media director with Running USA, has known Sundlun for 25 years. He said: “Since 1998, he helped make the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon series a worldwide brand that has served as an important pipeline to the Second Running Boom’s growth, particularly women’s participation. I’ve also worked with Tracy on-site at events and his passion and energy were always on full display.

“It is a testament to his skill set and experience that he lasted nine years at Competitor Group with three different owners and, like a cat, Tracy will land on his feet.”

Scott, whose world record and three straight wins helped give the Carlsbad 5000 its marketing jump-start, called Sundlun a chameleon.

“He can go from one industry to another and be successful,” he said. “Another thing about Tracy: He knows everybody on the planet…. He’s been so involved for so many years that there’s nobody that doesn’t know him.”

CGI crowed about Sundlun’s induction into the runners’ Hall of Fame, noting he was the youngest-ever Olympic coach at age 20 when he coached for Puerto Rico in the 1972 Munich Olympic Games.

“Today,” said the May 2015 statement, “Tracy wears many hats at Competitor Group and has been a leader across many departments of the company from sales, events, elite athlete participation, sponsorship and more. On race day, you can usually find Tracy in our lead vehicle just out in front of the elite athletes with his straw hat on and a megaphone in hand.

“We couldn’t be more proud of Tracy for all of his accomplishments in the running community, and of course, at Competitor Group.” [CGI hasn’t responded to requests for comment.]

Last week, Sundlun wrote friends and associates: “I have no idea what my next adventure will be. … My only requirement is that it must be something that I can be passionate about, make a contribution to, and involve great people.”

In a three-hour chat with Times of San Diego, Sundlun said he was surprised and “clearly disappointed” by the layoff.

“But also at the same time I had to immediately put it on the back burner, out of my mind, and figure out how I’d manage the details of that and the ripple effect of that because I was leaving [for Brazil] 36 hours later. Nothing could get in the way of our efforts there,” he said.

Tracy Sundlun’s Lexus bears license standing for the metric equivalent of the marathon distance. Photo by Ken Stone

He vowed to himself: “No distractions for anybody, including me. I thought it better to err on the side of caution than to take any chances on a story [emerging] over there. There was nothing that I could change. I didn’t even read the [severance] paperwork they gave me until I came back” more than a month later.

At the Games, Sundlun was on the move from 6 a.m. to past 1 a.m. daily, spending his time at tracks, warmup areas and inside protest rooms.

“I never saw one other event in any other sport,” he said. “I went downtown once to USA House to see if they had any things to sell.” For an hour.

He went out to dinner once — to an Outback Steakhouse with Lananna — to comfort the coach. Lananna had learned that day that the wife of his best friend had been killed in an Indiana biking accident.

“I’ve now been to Rio three times — Olympics and two site visits,” Sundlun said. “I still have not seen Christ the Redeemer, the giant statue overlooking Rio.

“It was no glamour trip. But I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

Among his Summer Games accomplishments — making sure Galen Rupp could change his hat.

Fearful of a steamy marathon (it turned out wet and humid), Sundlun made sure America’s top distance runner could legally wear a custom-made white ballcap with ice chips resting in a specially designed pouch. Rupp would pick up a new hat every 3.1 miles on the loop course — eight in all.

“Nobody had ever done this before” in a major marathon, Sundlun said. “But this was all perfectly legal and made sense” because race walking had been changing out hats filled with ice for years. But TV commentators were still confused as Rupp donned a new cap at every aid station.

Rupp won the bronze medal in only his second marathon ever.

On the first Friday of the Olympic track meet, Sundlun arrived at a warmup field for the men’s discus qualifying round at 7 a.m. — and was shocked.

“Nobody’s there. It’s not set up,” he recalled. “Myself and an Austrian coach put up the safety net (around the discus circle). We broke into a building there to get the discuses that everybody was supposed to use.”

The structure was part canvas, secured by ropes. The pair undid the ropes, and slid in. “We just went about this like it was any relaxed event. … like at a home track meet. ‘Let’s not go crazy. Let’s just solve it.’”

Officials arrived 30-45 minutes later, he said. But the 17 throwers in the first qualifying flight, including two Americans, were none the wiser about the potential snafu.

Over the decades, Sundlun has put out innumerable fires, and set some as well — especially the half-marathon craze.

Elite Racing’s first of many half-marathons was at Virginia Beach in 2001.

“We announced a 12,000-person limit when the largest inaugural half-marathon ever was just 2,900, and Runner’s World thought we were completely crackers and bet us a two-page spread that we’d fail,” Sundlun said. “The point is: Nobody believed that this would happen. From our partners to anybody.”

The result?

“We sold out in July for September,” he said. “The demographic was exactly the same as that first [1998] race in San Diego,” with a large share traveling long distances, averaging older than usual and boasting higher incomes (by $10,000). And, like San Diego’s Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon, at least half the entrants were women.

“And that demographic has never changed to this day,” he said. “We created a themed event by mistake. That wasn’t the intention by calling it Rock ’n’ Roll, not San Diego. But that changed the face of the sport.”

Sundlun takes special pride in how more than 100 charity groups — led by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training — used Rock ’n’ Roll series races as fund-raising platforms, ultimately netting $320 million and making possible research that led to the cancer drug Gleevec, which treats chronic myeloid leukemia affecting as many as 8,000 people a year.

He also notes that about a quarter of the entrants at the 2012 and 2016 U.S. Olympic marathon trials had qualified by running CGI half-marathons — a qualifying distance that wasn’t allowed in previous years. (Sundlun had pushed for the rule change.)

He said CGI became “this rocket ship based on the half-marathon.” Potential buyers came.

One was giant Anschutz Entertainment Group, known as AEG. At a time CGI was adding one event a year, AEG executives said the San Diego company would stage 29 Rock ’n’ Roll races.

“We thought these guys were nuts,” Sundlun said. But Peter Englehart of Falconhead Capital told CGI he believed in its growth plan — maybe two new races a year.

“I say with great humor: We turned down the people who told us the truth and accepted the people who ‘lied’ to us — but I know that wasn’t a lie at that time. But we got 31 events in eight countries.”

Sundlun calls Dec. 23, 2007, “the day when I was the absolute smartest in my entire life” — when CGI was acquired by Falconhead. “We were fricking geniuses (and we were told): ‘This is the greatest thing. How did you do this? This is wonderful.’)”

Pillow at Tracy Sundlun’s Santee home is souvenir of the second Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon, whose 20th edition comes in 2017. Photo by Ken Stone

The next day, new owner Falconhead turned critical: “Why would you do it that way?”

In November 2013, Falconhead sold CGI to Calera Capital.

“As a business today, it’s settling itself out,” Sundlun said. “Some operators say: We can out Rock ’n’ Roll Rock ’n’ Roll.”

Still using “we” and “us” despite not being part of CGI for almost four months, he said: “We have to reinvent ourselves a little. And the business is sorting itself out. At one point, there was no interest in the short distances. Everything was the marathon and the half-marathon.”

Sundlun gave what he called his tongue-in-cheek “soliloquy.”

In the early stages of the marathon movement, he said, “People ran 90 miles a week, worked full time to break 3 hours. We hadn’t invented Gu or Gatorade yet. There were absolutely no Port-a-Potties on the course. And you had these lean, mean running shoes.

“Today, somebody runs 20 miles a week, they think they’ve changed their life. Somebody runs 5 hours for a marathon, people think they’re a God. Our courses are moving restaurants and we have more Port-a-Potties on them than some states. And you take a picture (of race entrants) — they’re your neighbors.”

But he still strongly believes in featuring elite runners at road events.

“I believe there’s room for everyone…. I think if you create an event, which caters to runners of all levels, it’s better for everybody. And elite athletes are just as inspirational as the person who changes their life by losing 100 pounds or someone else’s life by raising $100,000 for charity … just in a different way. And you have a better event, a more special event,” said Sundlun, who ran five marathons in the 1980s (best time: 3 hours, 43 minutes).

Sundlun insists that “every part of the event — including the elite athletes — have to be relevant to the other parts of the event. People have to work at that. CGI is in a unique position to [promote elites], with our publications” even if it’s rare a star runner attracts a lot of entries.

“We supported Meb [Keflezighi] for a bunch of years,” he said. “Nobody saw it [as a good investment]. There wasn’t any return. There wasn’t any specialness. It was a fight.”

But: “He’s a national hero today” for his stirring victory at the 2014 Boston Marathon — a year after the horrific bombings.

Did Sundlun expect to retire at CGI?

“Oh sure,” he said. “What’s next? I don’t know what’s next. I want to find something that I can be as passionate about as I have been at CGI and Rock ’n’ Roll — and that I can make a contribution to. And that I can work with the type of people that I worked with at Competitor, be a part of that sort of thing.

“Whether that’s creating something new, whether that’s joining something that already exists, whether that’s in running, logical or not, whether it’s here in San Diego or not — I’m open.”

Updated at 4:10 p.m. Nov. 16, 2016

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