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OC Register: Sorry, little guy! Tustin race ditches the leprechaun - but draws 4,000 runners

by Susan Christian Goulding

No one took home the $100,000 pot of gold.

But everybody won something money can’t buy -- bragging rights.

About 4,000 runners Sunday morning completed Tustin’s annual race -- which funnels participants through one of two iconic blimp hangars on the former Marine Corps Air Station.

But this time, the event took itself a lot more seriously than in the five years prior.

The Leprechaun Leap 5K, coinciding with St. Patrick’s Day, metamorphosed into the Inaugural Tustin Hangar Half Marathon and 5K. And the logo matured to sleek silhouettes of runners, replacing the cute little sprite in a stovepipe hat.

With the new addition of the half marathon, organizers decided to offer a $100,000 reward for breaking the world record -- 58:23 for men and 1:05 for women.

The long-term goal is to attract elite runners from around the globe, said race director Mark Holmes.

“Ninety-nine percent of our runners this year are from California,” Holmes allowed. “But as word gets out, our half marathon will go viral and, ultimately, worldwide.”

As they waited for the 7 a.m. pop-gun start of the half marathon, some 1,500 participants stretched and chatted in a parking lot at the District of Tustin Legacy shopping center.

“Had I known about the $100,000, I would’ve trained,” said Doug Gormley, 48, of Cypress.

“Had I known about the $100,000, I would’ve been 20 years younger,” interjected his buddy Russ Grace, 49, also of Cypress.

Few among the crowd of realists, apparently, came with get-rich-quick dreams.

“I’m just here to finish and say I did it,” said Santa Ana resident Suzanne St. Clair, 53, who was about to run her first half marathon.

The second wave of runners -- some 2,500 5Kers -- took off at 7:30 a.m. Despite the move away from impish elves, many of them arrived festively decked out in green attire and shamrock tiaras.

Daniel Roth, 52, jumped into the Leprechaun Leap each of its five years -- religiously wearing the same head-to-toe green costume. He dusted off the getup yet again, donning his green-lensed sunglasses that lend an Elvis look.

“I was born on St. Patrick’s Day,” said the Huntington Beach resident. “This is how I celebrate my birthday. I can’t stop now.”

A trio of lasses sported green tutus -- Alyssa, Beuster, 30, of Irvine, and her nieces Tori and Ava Ludgren, 15 and 7, of Rancho Cucamonga.

The girls’ brother Collin, 16, declined his aunt’s offer of a matching tutu. “He wouldn’t even put on the necklace!” Ava tattled as she tugged her Mardi Gras beads.

Pointing at his ankles, Collin retorted, “But I did wear the shamrock socks.”

Beuster noted that they were lucky their cellphones -- and alarms -- reset themselves that morning.

“I completely forgot about the time change,” she said.

Not too long after the 5K runners left the gate, the fastest of the half-marathon competitors started trickling in. As expected, star runner Jose Merino, 40, of Tarzana, crossed the finish line first with a time of 1:12.

Did he set out to win the grand prize? “Not a chance,” said Merino, amazingly unwinded. “I’m not a young man anymore.”

Texan Donna Mills, 42, garnered the blue ribbon for women at 1:25. Both first-placers received half-carat diamonds.

For a pack of OC Grit running club kids, the biggest thrill was the 17-story high, 1,000-foot long hangar.

“It’s, like, a mile long!” said Aiden Yohn, 10, of Irvine.

Sayana Lee, 14, of Irvine, loved the echoing cadence chanted by Goldenwest Police Academy members as they marched through the hangar. “It was motivating,” she said.

Other youngsters trotted with Tustin Police officers as part of the Run With a Cop program to promote exercise.

Santa Ana resident Bonny O’Neill, 33, choked back tears after finishing the 5K. “I can’t believe this is me,” she said. “It’s only my second 5K. I started running last year, and I’ve dropped three dress sizes.”

The Inaugural Tustin Hangar Half Marathon will only get bigger and better in years to come, Holmes said -- adding that The Distict of Tustin Legacy could accommodate 20,000 runners.

“This is a great venue for a major event,” he said. “Plenty of space, plenty of parking and plenty of restrooms.”

No offense to the little guy in the green suit and stovepipe hat, but the Tustin race has outgrown him, Holmes said.

“The Leprechaun Leap was a modest, small-town fundraiser. This year, we want to showcase the evolution of Tustin into a multifaceted, full-blown city.”

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