Hit the Road | Sports Destination Management

Hit the Road

Stunning and Scenic, These Destinations Embrace Runners and Cyclists
Jul 01, 2023 | By: Michael Popke

In 2022, two-thirds of runners surveyed by Running USA indicated they planned to increase their participation in running events over the next 12 months. Whatís more, according to RunSignupís 2022 Annual Industry Report, in-person races are leaving virtual races in the dust, comprising 88 percent of all events and 93 percent of all participants.

Yet while race participation in 2022 increased an average of 16 percent over 2021, events still struggled to reach pre-pandemic participation rates, according to RunSignup. And overall race participation is still down an average of 10 percent.

“Look for energetic race directors and timers to take advantage of the lighter racing schedules with new concepts and fresh ideas,” the report’s authors predicted. “The lessons of the pandemic, be nimble and unafraid to try new ideas, should help to create a new blueprint for events.”

But road racing isn’t limited to feet. While “the escalating cost and complexity of hosting [bicycle] road races and stage races continues to be a challenge, we’re encouraged by what we saw” in 2022, USA Cycling officials noted in the organization’s 2022 “Year in Review” report.

“Running and road cycling are two incredibly popular sports,” says Graham Whaples, project administrator at the Maryland Sports Commission, which helps facilitate several events throughout the state — including IRONMAN Maryland and IRONMAN 70.3 Eagleman. “We saw it during the COVID-19 pandemic, where more and more people were taking to the outdoors, to the point where many local bike shops and big chain retailers were sold out of bicycles. That trend hasn’t slowed down.”

Destinations around the country, often assisted by local and regional running and cycling clubs, are helping race directors and participants make the most of events by offering scenic settings and priority treatment.

Billings, Montana

Billings, MT | Photo courtesy of Visit Billings
Billings, MT  |  Photo courtesy of Visit Billings

The Treasure State, as Montana is known for its early gold- and silver-mining days, is now a treasured destination for racing as well, with Billings, Montana’s largest city, surging into the lead.

“We elevate road races, because such events are highly inclusive, and we market them as part of an overarching sports tourism strategy to help foster this market and accommodate the people here,” says Alex Tyson, executive director of Visit Billings.

Indeed, the state’s largest city hosts the Queen Bee Montana Marathon (a Boston Marathon qualifier) every May, as well as the Mother’s Day- and Father’s Day-themed Montana Women’s Run and Heart and Sole Run, respectively.

Billings also is the starting point for the annual Montana Tour, which involves three to six days of cycling in south-central Montana every June. The 365-mile route takes riders along the Yellowstone River through the foothills of the Pryor Mountains, near Chief Plenty Coups State Park, the intense yet scenic Beartooth Pass and eventually into Red Lodge. And the 406 Adventure Race Triathlon and Duathlon, also held in June, focuses on participants who still consider themselves beginners.

“Billings offers many scenic trails and byways, which make for an impressive variety of races for every level of competitor … to enjoy vast views and big skies,” Tyson says.

Here are six other running and/or cycling destinations to consider:

Asheville, North Carolina

Asheville, NC | Photo by Gran Fondo Asheville
Asheville, NC  |  Photo by Gran Fondo Asheville

Surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville is a haven for runners and cyclists, according to Madison Davis, vice president of operations for the Asheville Buncombe Regional Sports Commission. In fact, it is considered one of the country’s road cycling meccas.

Among the largest recurring cycling events in the city is the Gran Fondo Asheville, happening July 16 this year. Part of the Gran Fondo National Series®, the event begins in Asheville’s vibrant downtown and includes three challenging courses with plenty of curves, climbs and descents. The city also hosts a Bike Fest in conjunction with the Gran Fondo at Rabbit Rabbit, a popular open-air downtown event space.

For running events, Asheville offers the RAD Half Marathon & 10K, a second-year event in 2023 that also begins downtown and takes runners through the River Arts District and along the French Broad River. Other events include the Asheville Marathon & Half, the Asheville Triathlon and the Asheville Half Marathon & 10K.

“Since Asheville and the greater Asheville area have a plethora of options, utilizing our natural resources for running, cycling and other outdoor events is important,” Davis says. “Anyone looking to host any road sport event should know that there is no better backdrop.”

Casper, Wyoming

Casper, Wy | Photo courtesy of Visit Casper
Casper, Wy  |  Photo courtesy of Visit Casper

Another destination with beautiful backdrops for running and riding is Casper, the second largest city in Wyoming and host of the state’s only Boston Marathon qualifier, the Casper Marathon. That event celebrated its 20th anniversary in June and welcomes runners from all over the world, according to Luke Gilliam, business development manager for Visit Casper. The race covers city streets before entering the North Platte River Parkway, where trails include interpretive signs, wildlife information and art displays. (Several races also take place offroad, on Casper Mountain.)

Meanwhile, the Jackalope Sprint Triathlon at Edness Kimball Wilkins State Park takes riders through Casper’s only state park. Over the years, Gilliam adds, new highways have turned former service routes into open roads for cyclists.

“Running and on-road cycling are important to Casper’s tourism strategy, because they are sports that Casper is already excited about,” he says. “Hosting an event in a community is always going to be more successful if the community is behind it, excited about it and eager to participate. Casper as a community has been hosting its own running and on-road biking events for many years, so allowing our community to continue doing awesome things is important to us.”

Gulf Shores, Alabama

Gulf Shores, Al | Photo courtesy of Gulf Shores | Orange Beach Sports & Events
Gulf Shores, Al  |  Photo courtesy of Gulf Shores | Orange Beach Sports & Events

Races of all kinds, particularly long-standing events, are part of the sports tourism strategy for officials at Gulf Shores | Orange Beach Sports & Events, according to Michelle Russ, vice president of sales, sports and events for the organization.

“Many of the races on our calendar are on certified courses and take place outside of the peak summer season, which helps boost the economy in our shoulder seasons,” she says.

Among those races are the Brett Robinson Alabama Coastal Triathlon in September. Owned and operated by Gulf Shores | Orange Beach Sports & Events and managed by Team Magic, this race is sanctioned by USA Triathlon and begins at Gulf Place public beach with a swim in the Gulf of Mexico, followed by the bike and run portions on the beach road with scenic coastal views. As part of the event, organizers also offer the “Tri-it-On” Triathlon that same day for newcomers to the sport; it includes a 300-yard swim, a nine-mile bike ride and a two-mile run.

November’s Coastal Half Marathon, 5K & 1-Mile Fun Run presented by This Is Alabama (and also owned and operated by Gulf Shores | Orange Beach Sports & Events and managed by Team Magic) features a course along the flat and paved Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail in Gulf State Park. The half marathon also serves the Road Runners Club of America Alabama State Half Marathon Championship.

Other major annual races for runners and riders include the Boston qualifier Big Beach Marathon, Half Marathon & Safari 7K in January; the We Run This Beach Marathon, Half Marathon, 10K & 5K in February; the Flora-Bama Mullet Man Triathlon in April; and The Good Life Ride in May.

Kalamazoo, Michigan

Kalamazoo, Mi | Photo courtesy of Andy Visockis
Kalamazoo, Mi  |  Photo courtesy of Andy Visockis

Gazelle Sports, a successful specialty running and active lifestyle retailer with multiple stores in Michigan, was created in Kalamazoo in 1985. So it makes sense that this city in southwest Michigan has embraced running (and runners) for decades.

The Ziegler Kalamazoo Marathon has a history dating back to 1980 and has become a fun event that involves the community at large, according to Carrie Drake, the event’s director. Along the course, Kalamazoo residents staff spirit stations with names like Bacon Station, Pickle Pit and Gummy Bear Forest, she says, and runners pass through western Michigan University’s Waldo Stadium — where they can see themselves on the scoreboard.

The 2023 Zeigler Kalamazoo Marathon in May attracted more than 3,200 participants, bringing in an estimated $1 million in economic impact, according to officials. (The Dirty Donut Race Powered by Consumers Credit Union, meanwhile, offers cyclists four different distances, all on gravel, and was expected to draw more than 900 riders.)

“We’re in the perfect spot, in the heart of the Great Lakes region and midway between Detroit and Chicago,” says Brian Persky, director of business development at Discover Kalamazoo. “In Kalamazoo, you’ll be a big fish in a small pond; therefore, your event will never go unnoticed.”

Lubbock, Texas

Lubbock, TX | Photo courtesy of Lubbock Sports
Lubbock, TX  |  Photo courtesy of Lubbock Sports

Lubbock, located in the Texas Panhandle, “has a strong community of local running and cycling clubs that attract national events like triathlons to the area,” says Scott Harrison, sports director for Visit Lubbock.

The Lubbock Mayor’s Marathon in April (also known as the United Supermarkets Lubbock Marathon) takes runners through the trails inside Mackenzie Park, past Dunbar Historical Lake and into the city’s downtown district. Other races include the Palo Duro Trail Run with 50-mile, 50K and 25K distances around the second-largest canyon in the United States (behind the Grand Canyon). The Buffman & Squeaky Triathlon Festival takes places in nearby Ransom Canyon in August, and Lubbock hosted IRONMAN 70.3 Lubbock for more than 30 years.

The city also boasts running and cycling trails throughout Lubbock’s many public parks for both races and training, Harrison adds.

State of Maryland

Maryland | Photo courtesy of Sport & Entertainment Corporation of Maryland
Maryland  |  Photo courtesy of Sport & Entertainment Corporation of Maryland

Sometimes, as in the case of Maryland, there are so many local running and cycling destinations in one state, which is why Whaples at the Maryland Sports Commission can rattle off several locations — all in practically one breath.

“If an organizer is looking for a mountainous region, we’ll connect them with our TEAM Maryland partners in Allegany, Washington or Frederick counties.  If it’s an event that’s looking for flatlands, we’ll connect them with our partners on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in Talbot, Dorchester, Wicomico or Worcester County/Ocean City,” he says. “Sometimes we have event organizers who want the urban feel and host competitions in Downtown Baltimore or take advantage of our colonial history and aesthetic with events in Annapolis in Anne Arundel County or Ellicott City in Howard County.”

Maryland-based event-rights holder Corrigan Sports Enterprises has hosted the Baltimore Marathon and Baltimore Running Festival for more than two decades, and it also oversees other popular events such as the Bay Bridge Run, which takes participants from Anne Arundel County to Queen Anne’s County over the Chesapeake Bay. The state also hosts IRONMAN Maryland and IRONMAN 70.3 Eagleman, both in Dorchester County on Maryland’s Lower Eastern Shore; Whaples says they both “have really become part of the fabric of the local community.”

For cyclists, the Maryland Cycling Classic supported by UnitedHealthcare will return this Labor Day weekend featuring Tour de France participants, world champions, national champions and Olympians from 30 countries, according to race officials. The UCI ProSeries one-day international event, sanctioned by the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) and USA Cycling, begins in Sparks in northern Baltimore County and ends in downtown Baltimore; tens of thousands of spectators line local roads during the event.

“Maryland has a track record of hosting successful running and road cycling events,” Whaples concludes. “A major reason for this is the relationships that we’ve built over the years with governing bodies and rights holders. We also have the ability, through our TEAM Maryland partners, to work with a planner to figure out the best destination for their event and connect them with the people who are ingrained in their local communities to provide the best possible experience for competitors and guests.” SDM

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