At this year’s June 2 San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon, 61-year-old Carmel Valley resident Reza Ghazinouri made history of sorts, running his 100th career marathon 25 years after running his first in 1994 in Florence, Italy.
Iranian born and Italian educated, the affable Ghazinouri’s somewhat improbable journey to completing marathon No. 100 in San Diego owes at least partial credit to former U.S. First Lady Barbara Bush.
But first things first. Given that he’s a local resident, a member of the San Diego Track Club and has run in every San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll event since 2007, there was plenty of logic behind Ghazinouri making that the site of his landmark run. But it was not part of the original blueprint.
Shortly after running in the 2018 San Diego race, an abdominal pain resulted in Ghazinouri having double hernia surgery. When the recovery did not go as smoothly as projected and a local 13-miler in December proved his fitness wasn’t where he had hoped, the schedule was adjusted to allow for additional training. The new plan called for Ghazinouri to tackle his first full 26-mile route in 10 months at the Mt. Charleston Marathon in Las Vegas. Taking things easy would leave the Mountains 2 Beach Marathon (Ventura) on May 26 as No. 99 and with the century mark occurring in San Francisco at the end of July.
But after the Las Vegas race, he started to re-evaluate his thinking. “I ran a good time, it was not a taxing run and I started considering San Diego,” said Ghazinouri. “I’d never run marathons back-to-back before but my body felt good and I just said, ‘Let’s go.’” He signed up for the Rock ‘n’ Roll race in mid-May and less than a month later had reeled in No. 100 in his own backyard.
After clocking 4:50.26 in Ventura, he crossed the San Diego line in 5:23:11 but times aren’t what drive Ghazinouri.
“For me, it is not important,” he said. “I like to run in a presentable time for my age, height and weight but my main reason for running is keeping myself in shape.
“Running might not be as challenging as basketball, futbol (soccer) or some other sports because you don’t have opponents working against you but you can do it as you like—and if you do it the right way, it never hurts.”
Ghazinouri’s personal best for the 26.2-mile distance is 3:45, which he recorded in 1999 at Venice (Italy) but he knew that even without another marathon seven days in front of it, he wouldn’t be close to that mark in San Diego.
“I ran 4:56 here last year but the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego is run in the summer, in the middle of the city on an up-and-down course and if you notice, even the fastest runners here have times that do not approach what they will do in New York or Chicago.
“The race in Venice started 20 miles outside of the city and although having the course finish in Venice is symbolic, in reality, less than five miles goes through town. It is a very flat, beautiful course running along the Brenta River and is held in September when the weather is cool.”
Ghazinouri’s San Diego time certainly didn’t detract from his enjoyment of the outing or its significance. A humble man, about as far from a celebrity as one can imagine, he still got a bit of a star turn befitting the occasion.
“Eventually, it seemed like everyone knew it was my 100th and every time I saw one of my friends from the SD Track Club, they would shout something about it,” smiled Ghazinouri, who averages about seven-eight marathons per year. “Then there would be one, two or three others joining in.
“I don’t see myself as a hero or somebody important, I just go out and run it—but it was kind of nice, looking at all these friends.”
In the final 20 yards of the race, one of those friends presented Ghazinouri a red rose to carry across the line and a substantial group of friends, family and club teammates were there to greet him. It was a long way from his start in the sport when he hooked up with a small group of work friends in Florence who were already running.
Born in Abadan in the southwest of Iran, he lived most of his youth in Shiraz, a historic city of more than 1.5 million in the south central part of the country. After graduating from high school and doing two years of military service, he matriculated to the University of Bologna, in north central Italy, roughly halfway between Florence and Venice, for medical school. Ghazinouri’s father, Fazlolah, wanted his children to be doctors and five of the boys went to medical school.
Reza was the only one of the five who didn’t get his medical degree, opting to go the political science route after just one year. After graduating from Bologna with a degree focused on international politics and economics, he moved to Florence. Running a large high-end leather goods store in the downtown shopping district, he met his future wife, Susan, an English biotech scientist, in 2000, the first in a series of fortuitous events.
In 2001, her company was bought out by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, she was transferred to the United States and placed in San Diego. Ghazinouri was in the process of getting a work visa to visit her when the infamous September 11 terrorist attacks occurred in the U.S., leading the American government to deny the majority of visa requests as part of heightened security in the aftermath. Ghazinouri’s application was turned down by the U.S. Embassy in Italy.
On either side of 9/11 fate intervened. While in Italy in May of 2001, Barbara Bush and two granddaughters had visited the Florence store. Amidst heavy Secret Service and Italian police presence, Ghazinouri and the Bush party exchanged pleasantries and photos were taken. The framed remembrances—a group shot and one showing Ghazinouri kissing the smiling former first lady on the cheek—were hung in the store.
Several months after 9/11 (March 2002), a Senior Counsel from the U.S. Embassy visited the store with his wife, was fascinated by the photos and asked repeatedly about their authenticity and the “relationship” with Bush. When about to leave, he dropped his business card, identifying his position, and Ghazinouri kiddingly chided him for denying his visa.
Long story short, the Counsel said of the case “that’s easy,” offered support, Ghazinouri followed up and in short order had his visa. In May of 2002 he was in the U.S. for the first time. The serendipity associated with this episode didn’t end there. When Ghazinouri shared the story with his father, he insisted his son understand and act on the opportunity he had been afforded.
“He said it was a miracle, that this type of thing doesn’t happen often in your life and I should go get a ring and marry this girl,” recalled Ghazinouri. “He said “You don’t know what kind of door has been opened for you.’ “
“So, I said ‘OK,’ got a ring, came here and we got engaged,” he said. “We were married in May of 2003.”
Ghazinouri got a temporary work visa which was eventually made permanent, opened an online business, importing and wholesaling leather goods, in 2004 and became an American citizen in 2011. He brought his love of running and marathons with him to his new home.
In addition to multiple marathon outings in Florence, Rome and Venice in Italy, his running has taken him to races in such locales as Berlin, Munich, Barcelona, Paris and Amsterdam as well as New York, Chicago and Boston. He’s run in numerous ultra-marathons, the Midnight Marathon in Alaska and the 10K Ciaspolada on snow in Northern Italy. It was in Berlin in 2009, when sitting in a hotel lobby with one of his brothers after the race, that the conversation veered towards how many miles they had run and the quest for 100 began to take shape.
“I calculated that Berlin was my 60th marathon and 100 seemed like a logical goal,” recalls Ghazinouri. “That became my objective and I’ve kept better track over the last 10 years.”
When asked about his favorite marathon sites, Ghazinouri’s response came surprisingly quickly. “I would say Berlin and Chicago. Berlin is very well-organized, passes through downtown and there are always lots of people on the trail encouraging you. You go through the Brandenburg Gate which is so famous and had so many historical people—Napoleon, emperors, kings and queens—pass through it. It finishes in a beautiful park right near the Bundestag building which houses the German parliament. There are booths where they serve you beer and sausage which is a great thing to have provided when you’re tired and hungry.
“In Chicago, like Berlin, it is extremely organized with helpful, friendly volunteers in a magnificent city. When people gathered at the start, they sang the national anthem and an Air Force jet did a flyby that seemed like it was right on top of our heads. It created a great atmosphere right before we started our run.”
Ghazinouri has linked the family, social, travel and competitive aspects of his life through marathons. For him, it’s a natural choice.
“I like to go see the world, visit different places,” he said. “Combining travel with the races makes for more excitement and engagement. Often my five brothers (two in Italy, two in England and one in Sweden) come together---we all train for it and will bring family and friends with us to the particular site.
“Last May in Prague, I took my wife and daughter and we had just under 30 people staying at a hotel built in 1908. Everyone is excited, we do the race, go to the expos around the race and enjoy the time together—it makes it quite different than just the traveling alone.
“It’s one of the pleasures of life. If you can find your pleasure somewhere like this, why not?”
Ghazinouri’s bucket list of marathons to conquer is still ample. “There are a lot of places I’d still like to see,” he said enthusiastically. “The major African cities, China’s world marathon in Beijing and I’ve never been to Tokyo. I would like to run in the North Pole marathon and Tehran would be on the list if there was a change in the government.”
Asked to describe himself, Ghazinouri referenced his upbringing. “I’ve always felt that you eventually return to how you’ve been educated and your religion,” he said. “I’m a Zoroastrian and we believe in just three commandments.
“Simply put, they are ‘think good, talk good and behave good.’ In my mind I always try to apply those three commandments.”
Although it seems crazy, Ghazinouri does not believe that both running a marathon at the age of 100 and celebrating a second hundred marathons are outside the realm of possibility.
“If I can stay healthy and run like I do now, six-to-eight per year, I would be at around 200 in 12-to-15 years,” he theorized. “And even though it’s 39 years away, why can’t I run a marathon at 100?
“I don’t want to make it like work or a job though. I want to have fun and be open, so I’ll take what comes and enjoy it.”