The temperatures soared into the 90s on an unseasonably hot early-June day in Madison, Wisconsin, as almost 2,500 elite and age-group competitors from nearly every state and more than a dozen countries raced in the inaugural IRONMAN 70.3 Wisconsin. The 1.2-mile swim in Lake Monona, the 56-mile bike ride through urban and rural areas, and the 13.1-mile run covered some of the same ground as the IRONMAN Wisconsin — one of the most popular destinations in the renowned triathlon series.
On the line were 50 age-group qualifying slots to the 2017 Ironman 70.3 World Championship, taking place in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in September.
“Madison has always been a really strong running city,” says Jamie Patrick, vice president of the Madison Area Sports Commission, comparing Wisconsin’s capital city to another famous running destination in Oregon. “It kind of has that Eugene vibe to it.”
Ever since the IRONMAN came to Madison in 2002, the city has burst onto the national running scene. A series of races that begin and end at the Capitol Square located on downtown Madison’s isthmus include the Madison Marathon in November and both the Madtown Half and Twilight 10K on Memorial Day weekend. Add in the IRONMAN Wisconsin in September and the new IRONMAN 70.3 Wisconsin in June, and there’s almost enough running events to fill the months in Madison when there’s no snow on the ground.
“You’re not going to get the fastest times here, but you’re going to have scenic routes and huge fan support,” Patrick says. “You might see dairy cows or cornfields or an old barn with cool architecture, and the downtown has a cosmopolitan feel.”
The IRONMAN 70.3 Wisconsin will take place in Madison annually through 2019, with an option for 2020. “The fact that we now have this event says we’re an active community that can handle a wide range of running events,” Patrick says. “And if we can get people here, we think they’re going to like it.”
Madison isn’t the only city to benefit from the IRONMAN. The Pacific coastal community of Santa Rosa, located in the heart of Northern California’s idyllic Sonoma Wine Country, is home to full and half IRONMAN events, too.
The IRONMAN Vineman 70.3 happens every May and includes a swim in Lake Sonoma, a bike ride south to Santa Rosa and a run along the Santa Rosa Creek trail to the Courthouse Square. The full IRONMAN, held in late July, follows a similar course.
“Quite a few of our runs go through vineyards,” says Brad Calkins, executive director of Visit Santa Rosa, adding that courses for both IRONMAN events this year underwent significant changes to make them more appealing to participants.
Additionally, the Santa Rosa Half and Full Marathons in late August take runners though the Sonoma County countryside and the city of Santa Rosa, concluding at the annual Ready Set Growl Beer Festival, which features more than 25 breweries and food from local vendors. As a bonus, all registrants also receive a bottle of wine from De Loach Vineyards, one of the sponsors that also is part of the racecourse.
A Peanuts theme contributes to the fun; Charles M. Schulz, the creator of Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the rest of the gang, lived in Santa Rosa for decades until his death in 2000.
Other running events in the Santa Rosa area — including many with the word “wine” in their names — draw runners from around the world. Additionally, the Tough Mudder NorCal will make its debut this October. Held at the Sonoma Raceway, it will coincide with prime grape-crushing season at the vineyards Competitors in many of these events stay in the region to tour vineyards and sample wine. “It’s about the overall experience,” Calkins says. “We’re a destination known for food, wine and breweries, and that’s what a lot of participants are looking for.”
Cities don’t need to host an IRONMAN event to attract elite runners. Moraine State Park in Portersville, Pennsylvania, for example, offers several opportunities for runners of all ages and abilities as part of the Mighty Moraine Man Race Series. Developed in conjunction with Moraine State Park and Butler County Tourism to promote triathlons in the western part of the state and attract more people to the park, the series raises money for the Moraine Preservation Fund and the Lupus Center of Excellence at West Penn Hospital.
“Butler County is a lush, outdoorsy bedroom community near Pittsburgh,” says Amy Pack, director of tourism development for the Butler County Sports Commission. “But prior to the establishment of that series, this area was underserved when it came to running events,” Now, no fewer than eight Mighty Moraine Races — ranging from the Spring Sprint triathlon to Olympic distance races to the only youth duathlon in the region — are held between May and September every year.
Another popular event is the Glacier Ridge Trail Ultramarathon and Trail Race, which also takes place at Moraine State Park in May and includes the 30K Trail Run, the 50K and 50-Mile Ultramarathons, and the 50-mile, five-person relay. Keeping with the trails theme, Butler County also is home to October’s Buffalo Creek Half Marathon, which takes place on a downhill course with a crushed limestone surface along the Freeport Community Trail.
Another city with multiple marathons is Washington, D.C. “The political scene isn’t really a reflection of D.C. itself,” says Lawrence Hamm, sports development manager for Destination DC. “We just happen to be where the power sits. But the culture and neighborhoods these marathons go through — and the way the city has continued to grow — is separate from that.”
The nation’s capital is highly walkable, historically scenic and surprisingly safe, Hamm says. Among the city’s nine major marathons are the United Airlines Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in March, featuring live bands performing along the race route; the Nation’s Triathlon in September, with both sprint and Olympic distances; and the Credit Union Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run, which is timed to coincide in the spring with the National Cherry Blossom Festival, the city’s largest tourism event, Hamm says.
Many runners extend their stay, combining running with tourism by visiting such sites as the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument and the Smithsonian Institution’s multiple museums. “The last time people have seen those places might have been in eighth grade,” Hamm laughs.
Meanwhile, Carson Valley — located on Nevada’s western border and framed by the Carson Range of the Sierra Nevada and the Pinenut Mountains — might be known more for its cycling opportunities than as a running destination. But the region is just as welcoming to runners, especially ones who want to experience the sport at a high altitude; Carson Valley sits at about 4,700 feet above sea level.
Among the region’s most notable annual running events is June’s Genoa Peak Madathon, which offers 24-mile and eight-mile off-road courses at the base of the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada. Another scenic competition is the Rock Tahoe Half Marathon, featuring a course that drops more than 1,000 feet along the east shore of Lake Tahoe and finishes at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Lake Tahoe.
“We have beautiful, wide-open land where people go riding or running,” says Jan Vandermade, executive director of Visit Carson Valley, adding that many enthusiasts turn their training and competition into a vacation by visiting area casinos and other attractions. “A lot of them treat Carson Valley as basecamp and then go off in different directions.”
Variations on a Theme
The natural setting of marathons and triathlons can make for memorable events, but so do the creative imaginations of event planners.
Sandusky, Ohio, for example, leverages its status as the home of Cedar Point amusement park (also known as “The Rollercoaster Capital of the World”) by hosting multiple running events inside the gates. Cedar Point’s Run & Ride Race Series has been held at Cedar Point for the past four years in early June. In 2016, four races, ranging from a one-mile fun run to a half marathon), attracted more than 3,200 participants to Cedar Point, many of whom stayed for a day of rollercoaster riding at the park.
The Santa Hustle 5K and Half Marathon also is held at Cedar Point, during the offseason in December; it drew almost 2,000 participants in 2016. Plans are in the works for a Halloween Hustle, which would tie in with Sandusky’s nationally recognized Ghostly Manor haunted attraction and help position the region as a year-round destination.
“We have recently amped up our sports marketing strategy, beginning with the introduction of a new tagline in 2017: ‘America’s Sports & Family Fun Capital,’” says Amanda Smith Rasnick, director of group sales for the Lake Erie Shores & Islands Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Due to our geographic location on the lake, we are a prime destination for triathlon races, which make the most of both our land and lake.”
Last year, Lincoln, Nebraska, was one of four stops on the 2016-17 Major League Triathlon Series. Although local tourism officials say turnout was not as high as expected — and the city is not a stop during the 2017-18 season — Lincoln still qualifies as a major running destination.
The Lincoln Marathon, held every May, is a Boston Marathon qualifier and maxes out at 13,000 participants within the first 24-hour registration period, according to Derek Bombeck, sports sales and development manager for the Lincoln Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Triathlon organizers like the fact that Lincoln offers scenic running in both the heart of the city and rural areas. Lincoln also boasts 128 miles of running trails. “You can run from downtown all the way to Holmes Lake [a distance of about six miles] on just trails,” Bombeck says. “You don’t need to use the sidewalks.”
Lincoln also is the finish line in the Market to Market relay series, a daylong relay race sponsored by Lincoln-based Pink Gorilla Events that takes runners on a 78-mile scenic route from Omaha to Lincoln. More than 4,500 runners sign up for the early-October event, making Lincoln’s Market to Market run the largest day-long relay in the country. Pink Gorilla Events also created the Good Life Halfsy, a half marathon held in November. That event is now capped at 6,000 runners from almost every state, and music, cheering sections and costumes are all part of the scene.
Meanwhile, the scene in Cabarrus County, North Carolina, located about 20 miles from Charlotte, focuses on obstacle course racing. The Tough Mudder Carolinas returned this year after a one-year hiatus and added a half mud run; the popular mud obstacle course series will be back through at least 2019, according to Katie Eagle, sports sales manager at the Cabarrus County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The Spartan Race began five years ago in Concord with a sprint and might expand in 2018, according to Eagle. And in November, Concord will add to its event schedule the Bonefrog Challenge, an OCR created by the Navy SEALs. All three OCR events are held at area farms, which provide the wide expanses of land required to successfully host those type of races.
Of course, would you expect anything less from a city that embraces racing of all types — as the home to several NASCAR race shops, popular racing and drag tracks, and the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. “Our destination has a big appeal,” Eagle says, adding that there may even be ways to incorporate racetracks into future running events. “Our county’s motto is ‘Where racing lives.’” SDM