Sumner OC’s ‘Marathon Man’


Bill Sumner is a long way removed from his childhood, which was marred by gangs and constant movement. He wasn’t truly homeless, but he also didn’t really have a home.

It’s not the way most would imagine the longtime Corona del Mar High track and cross country coach grew up. But it’s also not a touchy subject for Sumner, who is also the Orange County Marathon race director and the director of Cal Coast Track Club of Southern California.

“Life is cool, man,” he said slightly after 11 a.m., in a rare relaxed moment in the weeks leading up to the OC Marathon on Jan. 7. The interview was already Sumner’s fifth meeting of the day.

“The more you learn, the more you realize you’re blessed,” he said. “As people, we need to be humble. As people in Newport Beach, we need to be more humble than anybody else. We have so much stuff.”

The Irvine resident, who will turn 59 years old on Dec. 22, was raised with four sisters, three brothers and a cousin. He left home when he was 14. He went to various high schools around the Los Angeles area, before settling in at John Muir High in Pasadena, where he lived with his uncle.

“When I say I haven’t lived at home since I was 14 and a half, it sounds pretty weird,” Sumner said. “But in those days, it wasn’t that uncommon. In our old neighborhood, if you saw a 16-year-old girl pregnant, it wasn’t a big deal. That was pretty normal. It was like, ‘Why did she wait until 16?’”

Sumner said he was in about 100 fights a year during his teenage years. He has been stabbed, and he has also been shot.

“My whole family was in gangs,” he said. “Sometimes people don’t believe it; there’s really no way to explain it. It wasn’t good, but it wasn’t like I was the only one.”

But his interest in sports and especially running, encouraged by his uncle, provided a spark. He attended his first track meet at Mt. San Antonio College in 1960.

Sumner would later attend the college in 1967, and was a member of one of just two Mounties state-champion cross country teams.

Now, the man of many hats is busy. He is answering phone calls about the OC Marathon, now in its third year. Sumner expects over 12,000 runners and 40,000 spectators for the 26.2-mile course, which runs through parts of Newport Beach, Irvine and Tustin before ending near the Irvine Spectrum.

The marathon, which benefits 10 children’s charities, has been a great success. And there’s more evidence of Sumner’s influence everywhere one looks.

On the wall behind his desk are plaques that represent the 13 CIF Southern Section division titles that Corona del Mar High has won since he became coach for the cross country and track and field programs in 1982.

To Sumner’s right are six more plaques, representing six state championships the Sea Kings have won. The seventh, won by the girls’ cross country team on Nov. 25, must still be on its way.

Sumner must be doing something right, but even he said he doesn’t quite understand all his success.

“I don’t have a formal education; I’m a high school graduate,” he said. “I somehow landed in Newport Beach on two feet.”

Peggy Hoyt probably understands his success more. Hoyt, who has been a counselor at both CdM and Newport Harbor High, is currently working at Cal Coast and has known Sumner for over 30 years, she said.

Her sons, Matt and Adam, both ran for Sumner; Matt is now a CdM assistant coach. She said plans are in the works for CdM cross country and track alumni to hook up and run at a Bastille Day race in July.

“A lot of his former runners keep in touch with him,” Peggy Hoyt said. “He gets his energy from people and their feedback, and from the kids at school. He has a good knack of making whoever he’s talking to feel important, like they’re “it” for the moment. That’s a very nice thing. He always has time for everyone.”

More than helping kids run faster, he also provides a sort of father figure, maybe turning into a grandfather figure over the years. Along with coaching the Sea Kings, he has set up a program for local kids to fight obesity.

Four-hundred children participated in the program two years ago. This year, Sumner said he expects over 1,500 kids.

CdM junior Shelby Buckley — who finished second at the CIF State Division III finals to teammate Sarah Cummings — said her coach’s appeal doesn’t surprise her.

“I think he’s able to capture everyone’s attention in a positive way,” Buckley said. “He’s able to speak with people of all ages. He knows how to work with every type of person there is … He’s the dad of the family. We know we can trust him with anything.”

Cummings, a senior who will run for Princeton next year, said she’s gotten so much out of her high school career with Sumner as coach.

“He means everything to the program,” Cummings said. “He makes it a goal for us to have a good running career. When I looked for colleges, that played a big impact. I looked for a coach like that. It’s helped me be so successful in running, having someone like that.”

Sumner is also very proud of his “Magic Shoes” program, where he collects shoes and distributes them to local schools and a local Boys and Girls Club.

With everything on his plate, Sumner admits that sometimes he “just gets tired.” Lately, with the OC Marathon weighing on his mind, he said he has lost all his energy by about 7 p.m.

That’s a long day, especially considering — without the help of an alarm clock — Sumner wakes up at about 4 every morning.

“If I have a day where I absolutely have to get a run in, you’ll see me out there running at 4:15 a.m. with a little hat and gloves on, because it’s pretty cold out there right now,” Sumner said. “I want to be working on stuff by 5 [a.m.].

“Is it hard work? Yes,” he continued. “Is it overwhelming? Sometimes. But it’s pretty much fun. It’s like when you were a kid and you’d play baseball; you’d play from dawn until dark. You just didn’t want to go home, man. You just get as much done as you can.”

Sumner has always been one to do more than his share, and he doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon.

He continues running and he’s still quite good at it, even as he approaches 60. He tries to run at least four miles a day and in a race every weekend.

“I run in the 55-59 age group,” he said. “And, 95% of the time, I’ll win. Nolan Shaheed [of Pasadena] can beat me. There are others, but if they beat me, it’s called the exception.”

Sumner’s not a big fan of losing. Then again, he’s rarely had to deal with it.

“As far as winning, we win everything,” he said. “I hardly know what defeat is. I don’t have enough experience with it to be an expert.”

He added that he used to be tough as nails, but that he’s softened a bit over the years with all of the charity work he’s done.

“Clint Eastwood would take lessons on me while he was doing ‘Dirty Harry,’ that’s how tough I was,” Sumner said. “Now, sad movies almost make me cry. The more you learn, the more you realize you’re blessed.

He said all of his charity work is just his way of passing on the blessing.

“I love giving stuff away,” Sumner said. “Can you imagine that we live in a community where it’s easy to give stuff away? I’m just a holding place. We have so much stuff, and we get to just move it to places that need it.

“My friends go, ‘How’d you end up down there with all those rich people in Newport Beach?’ But [CdM’s] only 11 miles from Santa Ana. I think something led me to be right here and help kids.”

In turn, the kids are very grateful.

“We really trust him,” Cummings said. “We know he’s telling us what he thinks is best for us.

“He’s always rooting for us.”