October 28, 2007

Raleigh takes new run at nation's marathon map

By Sarah Avery, Staff Writer Raleigh News & Observer

The lure would strike most people as peculiar.

Come to Raleigh in November for the privilege of running 26.2 miles on a frighteningly hilly course that, in the understated lingo of marathoners, is referred to as "challenging."

But the Sony Ericsson City of Oaks Marathon will draw more than 3,000 runners from across the United States to participate in the inaugural event next Sunday.

The marathon -- the city's second attempt at establishing a marquee running event -- is stirring high expectations. City boosters want it to burnish Raleigh's reputation as a vibrant, sports-oriented destination. Race organizers want a well-regarded event, free of the problems that plagued the race under its previous incarnation. And the runners just want a challenge they can conquer.

If everyone's hopes are met, the new marathon will put Raleigh in a league that includes New York and Chicago, Richmond and Charlotte.

"Most cities the size of Raleigh have marathons," said Jim Micheels, co-director of the City of Oaks Marathon. Micheels, who owns Raleigh Running Outfitters, said he and other running enthusiasts decided at the first of this year to launch the effort. "It was just something the city needed."

Marquee events

As a sporting event, marathons are considered good money-makers. They draw a large group of well-heeled, well-educated participants, many from outside the area. Established marathons in cities such as Richmond, Va., and Cincinnati, which field more than twice as many runners as Raleigh's projected 3,000, pump millions into hotels, restaurants and shops.

The SunTrust Richmond Marathon and companion 8-kilometer race were credited with $8.4 million in revenues, according to an impact study of the 2005 race.

Hundreds of marathons, small and large, are held each year, and more and more people are running them. During the first running boom in 1976, an estimated 25,000 people finished a marathon, according to figures compiled by Running USA, a nonprofit group that promotes running. Last year, 410,000 people went the distance. Cities such as Raleigh are looking to capitalize on that growing interest.

"We are now going through a second running boom," said Scott Schricker, who handles marketing for Richmond's race committee. "There are a lot of marathons popping up around the country."

And it's not just runners who enter the events. Lily Hill of Shepherdstown, W.Va., will arrive in Raleigh next week to walk the half-marathon. At 76, she has watched and cheered as her husband and children complete races. But this year, she said, her kids convinced her to enter, choosing the race in Raleigh. She won't be alone. Her daughter who lives in Raleigh will run the marathon, and another from Ohio will run the half.

"This is a first time for me," she said. "I hope I can make it."

For the city, the economic effect of a marathon is only part of the attraction. Scott Dupree, director of sports marketing for the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau, said his organization looks to the City of Oaks Marathon to become one of Raleigh's signature events, along with March Madness and MEAC basketball, plus soccer, cross-country and high school sports championships.

"I think you could make the case that Raleigh or any major city needs a successful annual marathon," Dupree said. "It helps to brand the city as vibrant, active and healthy."

Dupree said the race route showcases the different sides of Raleigh, taking runners on a large loop through downtown, then through neighborhoods and into Umstead State Park, and ending near the RBC Center.As of Saturday, 3,256 people had registered, although two-thirds were entered in the accompanying half-marathon. Those running the marathon numbered 971.

"It's not about what the City of Oaks Marathon is now but what it can become," Dupree said. "I think the numbers in the first year are very encouraging."

Earlier race stumbled

But the race has had to emerge from the shadows of a previous attempt to establish a marathon in Raleigh. In 2000, a different group launched the Raleigh Marathon, only to have the event face setbacks in three consecutive runnings.

On its inaugural day in December 2000, a prediction of snow caused organizers to postpone the event for a week. When the snow failed to fall, runners from out of town were furious that they were told to come back the next week.

The second year, a police officer directed some runners down the wrong street, causing them to run a shorter distance that skewed race times. Its final running in 2002 went well but was preceded by an ice storm three days before. Organizers headed out early on race day with chain saws to make sure the route was clear of tree limbs.

"I slept in Wilson the night before because I didn't have power," said Butch Robertson, who directed the three Raleigh Marathons. He said the event also had difficulty lining up sponsors. There was no sponsor for the last race.

Micheels, the City of Oaks Marathon director, said he and other running enthusiasts knew that Robertson was trying to keep the Raleigh Marathon alive and waited several years before deciding to take it on. In January, he said, a group that included many of his employees at the running store and a local race organizer decided to approach the city about a new event.

Their first step, after mapping out a course, was to present their proposal to the police, who manage street logistics. Micheels said that the police suggested the race date, based on parade schedules and other running events that close streets. From there, the group presented its plan to the City Council, which approved it last winter. Afterward, the group recruited cell-phone manufacturer Sony Ericsson as the title sponsor for the marathon. Rex Healthcare took the lead for the half-marathon.

Micheels declined to disclose the group's budget but said expenses include paying $20,000 for police to block off intersections and direct traffic; buying T-shirts for runners at about $7 apiece; getting medals for all participants at $4.50 apiece; and buying advertisements, signs and other marketing tools. Volunteers will help on race day with water stations and other services.

"We weren't interested in doing this to make money," Micheels said. "We wanted to do this because we wanted the city of Raleigh to have a marathon."

To break even, he said, organizers needed 1,500 runners. With twice that many registered, he said, he is hopeful a strong inaugural run will build acceptance in the running community and keep the event going. Most of those registered are from North Carolina, although runners are arriving from about 40 states.

Gabrielle Bjornson and her running partner, Carissa Zak, are flying in from the Kansas City area, meeting an old running friend who is now in Columbus, Ohio. The three are part of a larger running group that travels the country doing marathons and half-marathons. Bjornson plans to run the half, while Zak will do the full as part of an effort to run marathons in all 50 states.

"Carissa and I were looking at races, and she knows someone who moved to Raleigh," Bjornson said. "We wanted to try something new. None of us has been to North Carolina, so we're looking forward to seeing it."

She said she heard about the previous marathon's troubles -- and about the current course being a "challenge" -- but took both in stride.

"People have told me that Raleigh is hilly and hard," she said. "And who knows how it will go. I guess a lot depends on the weather."