A Running Start | Sports Destination Management

A Running Start

Dec 31, 2009 | By: Juli Anne Patty

Running is big and getting bigger every year. For evidence, look no further than the New York City marathon, America's largest, most popular footrace. From its start in 1970, the race has grown from 127 participants to 40,000, and 100 spectators to more than two million. A great race, it turns out, is as much fun to watch as it is to run, a lesson that many of America's communities are taking to heart. Running events offer a great way to draw tourism to a community and bring its citizens together for an event that becomes a local tradition. And bonus: unlike many events, the facilities you need won't bust the budget.

A Reason to Get Running
Runners are a special breed. They're always looking for the next big challenge, the most beautiful race, a race in every state or on every continent. They're also a growing breed, which is good news if you're considering starting a running event in your community.

The figures don't lie: the National Sporting Goods Association (NGSA) estimates that from 2007 to 2008 alone, the total running population increased more than 18 percent. Participation in off-road running is on the rise as well. The Outdoor Industry estimates the number of 2008 U.S. trail runners at 4,857,000, a 15.2 percent increase over 2007.

These impressive increases involve more than just casual Saturday morning joggers. A look at recent marathons reveals a very serious running streak in America, with 2008 bringing in another record year for finishers. According to the Road Running Information Center (RRIC) Annual Marathon Report, a record 20 marathons worldwide reported more than 10,000 finishers last year.

Organization is Key
So there are plenty of participants out there gunning for the start line, and you're ready to plan your community's first race. Where do you start? Running organizations are your best bet.


Eugene Marathon - Photo by Buzz Summers
Eugene Marathon - Photo by Buzz Summers

USA Track and Field (USATF) is the sport's national governing body and a great starting place for any event planning. With 100,000 members and 2,500 affiliated running and track clubs, USATF offers not just a great base of possible participants, but also experience in a variety of running disciplines, including road racing, track and field, trail running, cross country and even race walking.

Hit the Road
For many communities hoping to launch a running event, a road race is the easiest starting point. Other than the roads, which already exist, road races require minimal facilities, allowing them to be kicked off on a small budget.

Many communities make their first foray into running events with a 5 or 10K race, but to create a road race that will draw the out-of-towners, a marathon is often the best bet. This is because marathoners - and even longer-distance ultra marathoners - are known for their unique goal-setting, which covers a broad spectrum of seemingly random criteria, such as running a marathon in every state, in every month of the year, or even a marathon that begins with every letter in the alphabet - a particular favorite of the planners of the Xenia Marathon in Ohio.


U.S. Air Force marathon - Photo by Joni Williamson
U.S. Air Force marathon - Photo by Joni Williamson

Xenia is county seat of Greene County, one of the Midwest's running hotbeds and home to the U.S. Air Force Marathon, in its 13th year, which draws nearly 10,000 runners annually.

"It's a unique race because we're home to Wright Patterson Air Force Base, but we're also the birthplace of aviation," says Joni Williamson, sales manager, Greene County Convention and Visitors Bureau. "The community is incredibly involved. Organizations decorate the race course with painted airplanes, and everyone comes out to support the runners."

Road races aren't the only game in town though. Greene County is also home to five universities with running programs and facilities, most notably Cedarville University, which offers a spectacular cross country course that can accommodate up to 1,000 runners.

Like the U.S. Air Force Marathon, they are successful races which have a tendency to become community traditions that not only bring in serious tourism, but also elevate the athleticism and spirit of a community. The New York Marathon, now in its 40th year, is the perfect example. Starting when most people still believed 26.1 miles to be a ridiculous and unachievable distance for the average runner, the marathon today delivers a more than $220 million dollar economic impact to the Big Apple annually.


Winthrop University's Irwin Belk Track - Photo by Zan Maddox with Lavalla Maddox Art + Design
Winthrop University's Irwin Belk Track - Photo by Zan Maddox with Lavalla Maddox Art + Design

So if you want to get your own soon-to-be historic and legendary race started, where does a community begin? In Jackson Hole, Wyoming the community called in an expert.

Already home to a strong base of runners and outdoor athletics in general, not to mention some of America's most breathtaking scenery, Jackson seems like an obvious place for a marathon, and recently a few community members decided to bring back the now-defunct Jackson marathon. That's when organizers called on Jay Batchen and his running-event management company Dreamchasher Events.

"There are so many great athletes here, many who travel locally, just over the border to Idaho or Utah, to run marathons," says Batchen. "So we thought, why not revive the one that used to take place here and see what we can do with it?"

The Jackson Marathon revival is set for September 2010, and Batchen, who is currently deep in the planning trenches, has some advice for new race planners. First, he says, look at your dates. You don't want to compete with other nearby races, not just because it's impractical,but also because the running world is tight and stepping on someone else's event weekend is just not copacetic. Next, finalize your course. When it's time to talk to city and county planners and landowners whose property you need to cross, you want to be able to offer a concrete plan and answer their questions, many of which will have to do with traffic, how to divert it and disturb the city's flow as little as possible.

Batchen also recommends integrating a shorter run into your race plan, a half marathon, to make the race appealing to a wider ranger of runners, or a 5 or 10K, a kid-friendly distance to make your race more appealing to families. But Batchen's most adamant piece of advice is this: If you're new at race planning, just ask for help. It's always a good idea to learn from the experiences of a veteran race director on your first time around the race-planning track.

Stadium Sensations
If your community has access to a track, then track and field running events might be a good choice for your new running event. Or you can follow the example of Track Town USA, also known as Eugene, Oregon, and put your roads and your stadium to use in one magnificent race. The Eugene Marathon starts just outside the city's celebrated Hayward Field and finishes, in breathtaking Olympic-style, with a final glorious lap around Hayward's historic track.

Named the "most iconic place to run" by Runners World Magazine, Hayward Field has hosted some of the sports' most prestigious events, including four U.S. Olympic Team Trials - with another arriving in 2012 - numerous National and NCAA Championship meets as well as National and World Masters Championships.

Eugene is also the birthplace and home to Nike as well as the town where Steve Prefontaine first wowed the world, two attributes that left an indelible running stamp on the community, where runners and running opportunities abound. Pre's Trail is a network of bark-covered running paths totaling just over 4 miles that draws runners from all over the world to follow in the footsteps of a legend. But, legendary as it is, Pre's Trail is only one of Eugene's nearly countless miles of running paths, trails and facilities.

"When you're in Eugene, you can literally keep your shoes and gear in your car and stop and run whenever you get the desire to," says Janis Ross, vice president of Convention and Sports Marketing, Travel Lane County.

Across the continent, track and field events are just as big as in Track Town USA. Just take for example Rock Hill South Carolina, home of the 2012 Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) cross country championships. Rock Hill's Winthrop University is the area's premiere track facility: the $2.8 million Irwin Belk Track, an eight-lane, Mondo surface track in a facility with seating for 350 as well as an adjacent headquarters facility perfect for any event's central command.


Eugene Marathon Start - Photos by Pure Blue Design
Eugene Marathon Start - Photos by Pure Blue Design

"We love hosting the track and field events," says Robert Thomas, sports marketing coordinator, Visit York County. "Just the sheer amount of discipline is exhilarating, and it tends to draw a big crowd, which is fun and exciting."

Rock Hill is prepared for whatever crowd you can deliver, too, with its 6,500-seat stadium and track at Rock Hill School District's Stadium South. But tracks are just one of the ways Rock Hill gets its run on. They also take it cross country.

Winthrop University's commitment to running, and athletics in general, is clear in its 325-acre Winthrop Recreational & Research Complex, home to numerous athletic fields and a nine-hole golf course, which also serves as a spectacular home to the university's cross country meets.

Incredible scenery is always a bonus in cross country event planning, which gives some facilities, such as Tennessee's RippaVilla Plantation, an immediate advantage. Host of the 2009 AAU Southeastern District Cross Country Championships, RippaVilla invites athletes for a run through history along the grounds of the Confederacy's "Last Offensive Campaign" of the Civil War.

A Race to Remember
Sometimes a personal record makes a race memorable. Other times it's the facility or course. But then there are other races where the entire experience is simply impossible to forget, and those are the kinds of events planned by the people at Red Frog events.

After three years and 21 cities of their Amazing Race-inspired Great Urban Race events, which challenge teams of two to race scavenger-hunt style across some of America's major metropolitan areas, the Red Frog team decided to create another extraordinary event, a kind of a party race for the feisty and fearless. That's how the Warrior Dash was born. Driving competitors across some of America's most unique landscapes and through a range of outrageous obstacles, the first Warrior Dash was an instant hit. It also required a remarkable facility. Red Frog found that facility at the 150-acre Challenge Park Xtreme (CPX) Park in Joliet, Illinois. Host to some of paintball, skateboarding, BMX and mountain boarding's biggest stars, CPX offered the extreme experience and gnarly landscape that Red Frog was looking for.

"Our first Warrior Dash was a 6K total race with 13 obstacles - jumping over cars and sloshing through mud pits covered with barbed wire - and ended with a band, turkey legs and beer, all of which requires a pretty unusual facility," says Kelli Pribel, race director. "We capped that race at 2,000, which sold out. Just before the event, we saw that some tickets were even being resold for double the price on eBay."

Thanks to that event's enormous popularity, Red Frog expects more than 60,000 participants in 2010 at its nine Warrior Dash races across America, each at its own extraordinary facility, including paintball fields, ski resorts, and even a nudist colony.

Start to Finish
Whether your community's ready for an extreme running experience, a family fun run or its first marathon, running events can be an incredible and budget-minded way to build a local sporting tradition that will bring your community together and bring the crowds in to support your local businesses. Start planning your race right now by visiting USATF's web site for a list of running clubs in your area: http://www.usatf.org/clubs.

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