Taking the city in stride

Running: This isn't Boston, but what the Baltimore Marathon lacks in tradition, it may make up for in down-home feeling.

Baltimore Marathon

October 14, 2001|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Despite a police crackdown on moving violations on the streets of Baltimore City, you're welcome to run 109 traffic signals and a dozen stop signs on Saturday.

The catch is that you'll have to do it on foot.

For the first time since the 1980s, Baltimore will be the backdrop for a major, 26.2-mile road race when the inaugural Baltimore Marathon Festival tours the city.

The festival's ancestors were usually staged at Memorial Stadium. Now, PSINet Stadium will loom over the start and finish of the classic endurance test and two companion races.

Baltimore has swapped its adulation of the Colts for Ravens mania, but one thing hasn't changed since 1973: mapping a marathon course raises as many concerns as there are runners, more than 6,300 in the case of the Comcast Baltimore Marathon.

Race director Dave Cooley submitted 17 versions of the course before city officials gave their final approval. At last count, he has driven the course 64 times, putting some 1,676 miles on his 1992 Ford. Besides a lot of gasoline and the safety of the runners, what fueled his quest to find a memorable course?

"No. 1, we had to stay totally in the city," Cooley said of the profit-sharing agreement the city has with Corrigan Sports Enterprises, which marketed the festival. "The fact that you can't leave downtown and go more than nine miles in any direction required a loop course."

"No. 2, we could only cross the light-rail line once, and then early in the day, so that required a counter-clockwise course. Third, we had to start and finish at PSINet Stadium. Fourth, the city wanted to get as many of its parks in as possible."

The event may be billed as an inaugural, but the first marathon to be conducted within the city limits was in 1981, when the Baltimore City Marathon sought a northwest passage. A good portion of this Baltimore Marathon will be spent in Northeast Baltimore, which was met by inevitable grousing about a series of hills.

"People forget that when you go uphill, you're always going to go downhill, too," Cooley said. "We've had people say that the course is too hard. I say, `You never ran the Maryland Marathon.' This is a challenging course, but in my opinion, it is not a difficult course."

A retired IRS employee who went into the business of managing road races, Cooley posted a personal best of 3 hours, 40 minutes in the 1980 Maryland Marathon. That race was notorious for Satyr Hill, just north of Carney in Baltimore County. A 360-foot climb in less than a mile -- at the 15-mile mark, no less -- provided much of that race's mystique.

Saturday's course lacks a distinctive geographical feature like Satyr Hill, but it is pure Baltimore, from marble stoops and storefronts advertising bail bondsmen in East Baltimore to rambling manses in Roland Park. It includes cool, tree-lined streets and what could be a hot finishing stretch on a main thoroughfare.

A review of the course follows.

East

The early morning shadow cast by PSINet Stadium will chill those in the back of the pack for the 8:30 a.m. start. The starting line is on Russell Street, 80 feet north of Hamburg Street. By the time the professionals turn east onto Pratt Street, some might not be across the starting line.

The city asked Cooley to avoid commercial areas, but there is no getting past the neon signs that tower over the Inner Harbor. Beneath them lie the masts of the U.S.S. Constellation. That 19th century frigate provided the name for one of the many road races that have included a spin around Fort McHenry. Was any thought given to including the city's most famed landmark and some miles in South Baltimore?

"No more than 1,800 athletes can go into Fort McHenry during a race," Cooley said. "The federal government's position has always been straightforward about that."

The horde will thin out as the course follows President Street south to Fleet Street, through Little Italy and on to Fells Point. The course veers southeast to Boston Street, where marinas provide a last reminder of the city's maritime links.

North

Linwood Avenue will take the field from chic Canton, where the list price for rowhomes is nearly $300,000, through Patterson Park to Baltimore Street, where the unscrupulous have made a living flipping less desirable properties.

Mayor Martin O'Malley's "Clean Up Is Contagious" volunteer campaign kicked off yesterday, and Baltimore Street is one of the stretches on the course that could use some picking up.

Runners will continue north on Highland Street, and after a couple hundred yards on Madison, they'll head north again on Edison Highway. The view to the east is of some of the city's hardest-looking industrial sites this side of Fairfield, but locals know that it's the easiest route to Northeast Baltimore. The climb begins in earnest on Edison, but after Erdman Avenue to Mannasota Avenue, there's an easy stretch through Belair-Edison.

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