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The nearly 600 runners who ran in Sunday’s Unofficial Washington D.C. Marathon are likely the last to traverse that particular 26.2-mile tour of the city.

After organizer H2O Entertainment Group Inc. abruptly canceled what was supposed to be the second Washington D.C. Marathon, irate runners cobbled together an alternative quasi-race in three days. Despite an unsecured course that required long stretches of sidewalk running and curb-hopping, the post-race mood was defiantly upbeat.

“People trained for months and months and were devastated when H2O pulled the rug out,” says Therese Cluck, a District resident who helped organize the impromptu event, “so they were so grateful and so happy to have this chance.”

H2O, a self-described “entertainment and special events company” based in Arlington, drew skepticism from the area’s running community with last year’s inaugural event, designed to be a spring counterpart to fall’s Marine Corps Marathon. H2O had never put on a road race before, and it showed—ads for the race in running magazines prominently featured an aerobics shoe, and the race was scheduled for Palm Sunday along a route thick with churches. Two miles before the finish, the leaders were led off course.

This year was supposed to be different. H2O had consulted with representatives from long-established, respected marathons in Boston, New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. It hired Rich Kenah, a former World Championships bronze medalist on the track, to recruit the elite-runner field, and upped the first-place prize money from $2,000 to $5,000.

And then, the Wednesday before the race, H2O canceled.

Claiming to have received 1,200 phone calls and e-mails from registrants concerned about safety in the capital of a nation on the brink of war, H2O sent an e-mail to all 6,800 registrants at 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday. “Due to security issues, we are canceling the 2003 race,” it began. “All registrants will automatically be deferred to the 2004 race, which will be held on March 21st.”

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The day before, an e-mail message to registrants had stated, “The Washington DC Marathon is on as scheduled and we have no plans to cancel the event. We are working closely with both local and federal officials.”

Tony Bullock, spokesperson for Mayor Anthony A. Williams, says that the mayor’s office heard about the cancellation via media reports. “Everyone was just stunned,” he says. “We were absolutely cold-cocked. We didn’t even get the courtesy of a heads-up call, much less consultation.” Bullock says H2O had made no mention of a possible cancellation during a logistics meeting with local and federal officials earlier that same day.

Two days after the cancellation, Bullock and the Rev. Carlton Pressley, the mayor’s religion adviser and one of the main contacts with race organizers, met with three H2O employees, who reiterated that the company had canceled the race because of security concerns.

“Somehow the basis for their decision and the stated rationale just don’t work for me,” Bullock says. The mayor’s office has demanded that H2O refund registrants’ entry fees, which averaged $75 per runner.

“We estimate entry fees alone to account for about $510,000,” Bullock says. “They had told us they would break even this year. By Wednesday, they’d gotten pretty much all of their revenue, and now they’re not going to get hit with big pieces of their expenses. It would seem, then, they’re going to make a significant profit.”

H2O President John Stanley disputes both of Bullock’s contentions.

“To say that we didn’t contact them is blatantly false,” he says. “Rev. Pressley was our designated point of contact in the mayor’s office. I called him at 7 Wednesday night saying we were leaning toward canceling. He said, ‘Do what you need to do, and we’ll support you.’” Stanley says he called Pressley at home at 7:30 and left a message on his machine confirming that the race was off.

But Bullock says that he began receiving calls at 6:30 that evening from a Washington Times reporter who already knew that the race had been canceled.

Pressley confirms that he spoke with Stanley “between 7:30 and 8,” but denies Stanley’s account of what he said.

“What I don’t understand is how him contacting me is considered informing the right people,” Pressley says. “He was notified and told that if there was any problem with the route or arrangements, he should go through Peter LaPorte of [the Emergency Management Agency].”

Stanley says that by Wednesday, he had concluded “there was no way for the city to guarantee unimpeded access to the race course. Demonstrators were taking over the city.” At Wednesday’s logistics meeting, he says, an FBI agent said that any misplaced item along the marathon route would result in the course’s being shut down.

Pressley, who was at the meeting, says he “can’t confirm” that such a warning was issued.

Stanley says the mayor’s demand that he refund entry fees is unreasonable. “We’re not setting a precedent here—the Boston Marathon has a no-refund clause. To say that this is about finances—they need to be very, very careful about the statements they make. They’re very close to libel. Slander and libel is something we’ll make them liable for. Anyone who knows about race directing knows that, by race day, you’ve already met most of your expenses.”

Brian Tresp, director of Marathon in the Parks, a November race in Montgomery County, disagrees. “For an average 5K, yes, most of your costs come before race day. But the infrastructure of what it takes to put on a marathon is different. There are huge race-weekend expenses. The Wednesday cancellation date is key. Any closer and they would have had to swallow the costs. Wednesday allows them to pay just some sort of penalty to vendors. I can’t imagine they would be stuck with more than 20 percent of what would have been their race-weekend costs.”

Tresp estimates that H2O would have paid $12,000 to rent 180 to 200 portable toilets and $7,000 for 6,000 traffic cones if the marathon had been held. Among other race-weekend rentals, he says, there would have been “hundreds, perhaps thousands” of tables for water stops along the course, several large trucks, French barricades, generators, and tents. “A 60-foot-by-40-foot tent, like you would use for a medical tent, that alone is about $6,000,” he says. “I could see that they would have paid $30,000 for tents alone.” In addition, Bullock says H2O would have paid $97,000 in police fees for race-day security and $34,000 for Metro to open early.

Tresp isn’t surprised that the mayor’s office got burned. “I always thought it was ill-advised for the city to put such backing behind this group,” he says. “Last year’s marathon was the first race they put on, ever, of any distance, much less a marathon. There certainly was the perception the city didn’t do due diligence. Everyone in the running community asked, ‘Who are these guys?’”

Local runners are unlikely to find out. An H2O half-marathon planned for October in Arlington is “on hold,” Stanley says. Meanwhile, you might want to hold off on your training for next year’s marathon. Phil Stewart, publisher of the running-industry newsletter Road Race Management, says, “I think we’re still a few years away from knowing for sure if Washington, D.C., will support both a fall and a spring marathon.”

As for H2O, Bullock says, “I don’t think there’s a long future with this group and the District government.” CP