Each year, on April 24, almost 25,000 runners from across the United States — some hoping to qualify for next year’s Boston Marathon and others with the goal of merely finishing the race in front of them — bow their heads for 168 seconds of silence prior to the start of the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon. Each second represented one of the victims killed in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995.
“You can hear a pin drop,” says Sue Hollenbeck, director of sports businesses for the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau. “People come every year because they love what the marathon stands for.”
The event is the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum’s largest fundraiser, accounting for about one-third of its annual budget, and the course begins at the site of the tragedy. Runners wind through the Capitol campus, Oklahoma City’s historic neighborhoods and ends at the Gates of Time — which forever frame the moment of destruction at 9:02 a.m. Along the way, runners pass 168 banners, each bearing one bombing victim’s name.
“Our marathon is very different, because it means a lot more,” Hollenbeck says, adding that runners from 48 states and almost 10 countries were represented this year. “To actually start the race on one of the streets outside of the memorial is really quite moving.”
In addition to the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon, the city hosts a 5K run almost every weekend, she says. That kind of interest in and dedication to running garnered the attention of the International Triathlon Union, which will bring the 2016 ITU Long Distance Triathlon World Championships to Oklahoma City in September. Elite and age-group triathletes will compete for world titles on a course that includes a 4-kilometer swim, a 120-kilometer bike trek, and a 30-kilometer run. The event marks only the third time the ITU Long Distance Triathlon World Championships have been held in the United States, and the first since 2011.
“We do triathlons very well here,” Hollenbeck says, adding that ample space with lakes and trails makes the city an ideal destination for distance running.
Hollenbeck also says race organizers in Oklahoma City are noticing a trend that’s picking up speed nationally, too: Of the 17 million race finishers in 2015, 57 percent were females, according to industry tracker Running USA. More than half of all participants in the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon — which also offers a half-marathon, a relay, a 5K and a kids run — are female.
The Wall Street Journal cites improved running gear coupled with increasing interest in health and fitness as tremendous influences on women’s participation in the sport.
Perhaps that also explains the popularity of such events as the Divas® Half Marathon in Peachtree City, Georgia. Race organizers in other cities are striving to be different, too — taking runners through wine country in Santa Rosa, California, an empty amusement park in northwest Ohio and along the famous Boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Each of those cities, as well as others mentioned in this article, keep pace with trends in running and road sports and have the capacity to welcome additional events. And each has something special to offer event owners and rights holders.
More on the Shore
Most years, many of the runs developed by the boutique race company DelMoSports, which specializes in elite destination events along the southern New Jersey shore and Delaware, would lead a list of running highlights in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
But this year, in September, DelMoSports is bringing the IRONMAN® 70.3® Atlantic City triathlon to the Jersey Shore for the first time. As part of the iconic race’s expansion into the Northeast, the Atlantic City triathlon will begin with a 1.2-mile sheltered swim framed by the Atlantic City skyline. The 56-mile bike course is flat and fast through vineyards, state forests, riverside towns and a portion of the Atlantic City Expressway, and the 13.1-mile run course features striking views of the Atlantic Ocean on the world-famous Boardwalk.
Jessica Merrill, communications manager for the Atlantic City Sports Commission and Meet AC, says race organizers and city officials hope to eventually bring the full 140.6-mile IRONMAN to the area.
Additionally, DelMoSports hosts Tri the Wildwoods Triathlon and the Atlantic City Triathlon (both in August) and the Escape the Cape Triathlon in June.
Atlantic City also welcomed the AmeriHealth New Jersey April Fools Half Marathon Race Series to the Boardwalk over two days in April, attracting 3,5000 athletes and spectators. “We’re a well-known destination for our running events because we have such a unique setting,” Merrill says.
Plenty of Pathways
Speaking of unique settings, the preferred mode of transportation in the master-planned community of Peachtree City, Georgia, is the golf cart. In fact, 90 miles of paved multi-use paths connect the 24-square-mile city, which is located just south of Atlanta, and specific parking spaces are reserved for golf carts only.
“There is truly nothing like it anywhere else in the United States,” says Nikki Sheets, marketing and communications director for the Peachtree City Convention and Visitors Bureau, adding that the plethora of paths makes the community ideal for hosting running events. “Running is our mainstay and the paths make for a pleasant experience.”
Local residents set up chairs and cheer on racers who run along routes linking residential and commercial neighborhoods. The largest run is the Divas Half Marathon and 5K, which typically attracts up to 4,500 participants, Sheets says. The vast majority of them are women between the ages of 30 and 49 — many of them wearing tutus.
Although Diva runs are held throughout the country, sponsoring organization Continental Event and Sports Management Group LLC calls their runs in Peachtree City — where the comedy-fantasy-drama Lifetime television series Drop Dead Diva was filmed for six years — the “belle of our Diva events.”
“We don’t want to duplicate the Diva run, but we’re definitely open to bringing in other running events,” Sheets says.
Running Past Roller Coasters
Sandusky, Ohio, is located along the shores of Lake Erie. There, a themed run of another kind takes place inside the gates of Cedar Point, the 365-acre “Roller Coaster Capital of the World” and the second-oldest operating amusement park in the country. The park only opens its gates for participants, who can choose from a half marathon, a 10K, a 5K or one-mile fun run.
The unusual setting allows runners to watch the sun rise over roller coasters, run alongside giant dinosaurs and high-five Snoopy — all capped with a ticket to the park for later in the day on race weekend. The Cedar Point Run & Ride is part of the Run & Ride Race Series through some of the country’s most iconic amusement parks, but it’s not the only themed event that makes the Sandusky area a destination for runners.
Other Cedar Point runs include the December Santa Hustle 5K & Half Marathon (to nobody’s surprise, it’s held in the dead of winter with runners dressed as Santa Claus) and the Revolution3 Triathlon (slated this year for Sept. 10 and 11, with special 9/11 remembrances planned throughout the day).
Sandusky is part of Ohio’s Lake Erie Shores & Islands, a freshwater destination that provides a memorable location for competitive sports, including scenic runs, often against the backdrop of Cedar Point — which is built on a peninsula of Lake Erie. Amanda Smith Rasnick, group sales manager for the Lake Erie Shores & Islands Convention & Visitors Bureau wants event owners to know their races also can be routed through picturesque backroads and scenic shorefronts.
Winding Through the California Wine Country
The coastal community of Santa Rosa may be in the heart of Northern California’s idyllic Sonoma Wine Country, but it’s also known for multiple endurance events, including the Vineman 70.3 and Full Vineman IRONMAN. The courses include a tour of Sonoma County vineyards and wineries, swimming in one of the most rustic river settings on the IRONMAN circuit and finish lines packed with local spectators.
Another wine-themed run is the Napa to Sonoma Wine Country Marathon, which draws runners every July from all 50 states and multiple countries to the world-renowned Napa and Sonoma valleys.
“Endurance events are big here, because we have beautiful natural venues such as the vineyards, the Pacific Coast, redwood groves, vistas and valleys,” says Charlene Lennon, director of sales for Visit Santa Rosa. “The weather is mild, so events can be held any time of year.”
Runners and race organizers who have set their sights set on Santa Rosa because of its wine tradition might be interested to know that Lennon says the region is quickly becoming known for its microbrews as well.
Towering Over Traditional Routes
Year-round running also is possible in Topeka, Kansas, claims Mike Bell, vice president of sales for Visit Topeka. And just as important, he adds, northeast Kansas is not flat. “When I go out to solicit running events for Topeka, people tell me the terrain is not going to be a challenge,” Bell says. “Our terrain is just enough to make things challenging for experienced runners and forgiving enough for novices.”
Topeka already is the longtime home of the Sunflower State Games, hosting among other events, a marathon, and the city welcomed the National Junior College Athletic Association’s Men’s and Women’s Half Marathon National Championship in 2014 and will do so again in 2017. Additionally, the Sunflower Striders Running Club hosts the Topeka-to-Auburn Half Marathon every January, considered by some to be one of the most challenging half marathons in the country because of the unpredictable weather at that time of year. Bell says the race has been run in both 20-degree and 60-degree temperatures.
Another running event that sets Topeka apart and brings in out-of-town participants is the annual Tower Run, held in November and a qualifier for the Towerrunning World Cup. (Yes, that actually exists.) Participants race to the top of the local 16-floor Bank of America building, climbing staircase after staircase. Last year’s winning time was 1 minute, 44 seconds.
“It’s crazy, absolutely crazy,” Bell laughs.
Relays, Triathlons and More
In recent years, Lincoln, Nebraska, has evolved into a major running destination. Not only is it one of four stops on the inaugural 2016-17 Major League Triathlon Series, it also is home to the Lincoln Marathon — a Boston Marathon qualifier and an event so popular that it maxes out at 13,000 registrants within the first 24 hours, according to Derek Bombeck, sports sales and development manager for the Lincoln Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Lincoln also is the destination for the Market to Market relay series, a day-long relay race sponsored by Lincoln-based Pink Gorilla Events that takes runners on a 78-mile scenic route from Omaha to Lincoln. Relay teams consist of six to eight runners each, who individually run two to six miles per stage. 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.
“We have a lot of good individuals who are passionate about what they do,” Bombeck says about state of running events in Lincoln. “Having Pink Gorilla here locally and the quality of their events is a huge asset that others recognize. People at conferences tell me, ‘I want to be in Lincoln.’”