A big fat whine about the Sioux Falls Marathon

Here’s my column from the upcoming Sunday sports section:

The Sioux Falls Sports Authority wants our marathon to get big enough to rival other regional races – from Fargo to Twin Cities.

It’s a good idea, and the Sioux Falls Marathon has a lot going for it to make it a regional draw.

Let’s get some facts out of the way, first: Marathoning is big business. In 2012, nearly 500,000 people in the United States finished a marathon. And another 1.85 million ran half-marathons, according to Running USA, a nonprofit that tracks racing.

That’s a lot of people. And they spend a ton of money – when I travel to races, we pay. For hotel rooms, race entry fees (upwards of $100), and gear at race expos. Not to mention a dinner out or the 25 coffees my husband buys as a spectator.

Maybe you don’t understand the lure of the marathon, or the desire to run even a mile, but you probably understand economics. And Sioux Falls is foolish if it doesn’t try to get some of that money.

We’ve made progress in the past few years, and this year saw record numbers of participants in the Sioux Falls Marathon, Half-Marathon and Miracle 5K, which were run last weekend through downtown and ending near Sertoma Park.

Race organizers have already acknowledged some issues with race weekend – a lack of shuttle service being the most egregious. I’m confident that won’t happen again – lesson learned, right? Too bad it was learned on the backs of dehydrated, heat stroked marathoners.

But if this race is going to grow, there need to be some major changes. Changes to the course, the organization and the attitude of the community. We have to ask ourselves: Do we want this money or not?

The Expo

This was the first year there was an expo before the race – step one to making it feel like a big-city event. It was pretty well done – a few vendors, including some local ones. A couple race directors showcasing their events. Finisher shirts that were the best I’ve seen in a decade for this race. But there were a lot of missteps: Where was Scheels? Runners Block? Why aren’t our local running stores there, selling all their clearance stuff or giving out coupons? Local running stores: You missed out. You had a captive audience looking to spend.

The Weather

There’s really nothing you can do about the weather. But you can acknowledge when it’s hot. It was frustrating to hear race organizers disregard the heat and humidity – sure, it wasn’t hot if you were knocking out a quick 5-miler. But after 15 miles of no shade, it was a rough day. Not hot enough to cancel the event, but hot enough to have at least included some information in the race packets about proper hydration, the signs of heat stroke and hyponatremia – real risks for distance runners. Even the most seasoned runner is at risk, and it’s important to be aware of that.

The Course

It’s no secret that I dislike the marathon and half-marathon course. But I confess the beginning of the marathon wasn’t as wretched as I thought it would be. It was actually … kind of nice. (Is this where I note that I dropped out at mile 16 because I’m lazy?)

But the real problem: The event has completely outgrown itself. You want to get bigger? Get out of Howard Wood. And absolutely get away from Sertoma Park. There is no parking at the finish – and the local business owners are rightfully towing people left and right. If you want the community out there to rally at the finish line, you can’t make it a nightmare to park.

Maybe when it started Sanford Wellness was the big dog in town. Well, now we have the Pentagon, and soon we’ll have an events center. I’ve run races that finish near or in stadiums, and it’s great. Arizona and Fargo both do this. And others that finish on streets – Boston and Twin Cities – and that’s beautiful, too. But with 2,000 runners, it’s ridiculous to cram into Sertoma Park, and if we try to double or quadruple the race, it will soon become too cumbersome to even bother going.

The Community

A coworker cornered me the other day to complain about downtown streets being blocked off for the race. I understand that it’s a hardship. Part of me wants to say, really? You couldn’t walk a block to your church, so people could run 26.2 miles? Are we all really that lazy? But maybe he has a heart condition or is taking his grandma. I don’t know.

But I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to hear people complain. Why isn’t Sioux Falls all over the races? Other cities have people camped out on their lawns, radios blaring, kids standing on the side, slapping your hand as you go by.

Sioux Falls, come on.

Part of it is the course – if we ran through more residential areas, it would be easier for people. All they have to do is wake up and sit outside with their coffee – I’ve seen folks in their bathrobes on marathon courses. That’s fine with me. I’m grateful for every “good job, runner” I get.

It’s not you, it’s me.

Maybe the marathon and the half should break up.

If we solve the starting line nightmare at Howard Wood (which involves a bottleneck through a fence – absolutely ridiculous), we need to solve the finish. And it involves separating the races.

Or starting them at the same time. Right now, the races have a staggered start, with the intent of having runners finish around the same time. But that means the first-place marathoner gets no glory. Instead, he’s weaving among strollers and walkers to finish.

Imagine if we ran a loop. Starting at the same time.

The gun goes off. More than 2,000 runners take to the streets. The closed-down streets. They head out, and slowly behind them, the police re-open areas. The course splits at some point, which is what happens in Brookings. The half-marathoners head through town, the marathoners drop onto the bike path, or somewhere.

The half-marathoners – remember them? There’s a million of them out there. – finish their race. They get their own chute. Their own glory. As the slowest of them finish, the fastest of the marathoners begin to come through. You end up with a steady stream of runners, each getting their deserved cheering.

And? You get a stream of spectators. As the half-marathon crowd disperses, the marathon spectators fill in. It solves some of your crowd problem, too.

The Sioux Falls races are growing. I’m thrilled with that – I want my adopted hometown and its awesome running community to be huge.

But unless we can divorce ourselves from that finish line, and drum up some support from the community to throw a huge party every September celebrating fitness, distance running and the charity that is the Children’s Miracle Network, we’ll never get there.

Jacqueline Palfy Klemond is the local news editor. Sioux Falls was her 11th marathon But she dropped at mile 16, so it’s really her 10.5th marathon.

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6 Responses to A big fat whine about the Sioux Falls Marathon

  1. msmidt says:

    Good ideas. Hope they make the changes, and Sioux Falls becomes another viable option for a regional race.

  2. deb whipple says:

    Well said – I ran the marathon this weekend – finished 26.2 whoot! and I could not agree more. As a slow marathoner there was no water or gatorade at the first water stop and many water stops had no gatorade for us ones at the back of the pack! I think we can get a more scenic route for the marathon and hit some of the highlights of Sioux Falls as well as some of the more scenic parts of the trail system – lets hope the planners are listening! Thanks all you volunteers – you are awesome!!!

  3. SRW says:

    Great comments – there are some serious race items that need to be addressed. I would add this:
    -I understand that they like the date but it is way too early and usually too hot – it should be moved back at least two weeks.
    -I completely agree with the start and finish – pretty uninspired and small town 5k attitude. It should either finish at Howard Wood, the Augustana football field or on Phillips Avenue. I doubt Sanford would ever allow it to finish downtown but I hope they don’t move the finish to someplace in the sticks.
    -It should spend as little time as possible on the bike trail.
    -I disagree with your people going to church comments. People going to church on Sunday need to have unfettered access to their church of choice. Hence, I think the race should be on Saturday versus Sunday morning.
    -the race should move in and out of the neighborhoods of SF.

    Nice work – thanks for the quality comments

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