Like city, '02 course is a study in change

More urban, flatter route to get rollout tomorrow

Baltimore Marathon

October 18, 2002|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Dave Cooley, the director of the Baltimore Running Festival, heard too many complaints about too many hills and traffic tie-ups after last year's inaugural event.

It's pure coincidence that nearly every step of the flatter - and presumably faster - course charts a city trying to reinvent itself. From the start near Camden Station to an abandoned district police station being refitted for office space to a bleak stretch of Washington Street waiting to be turned into a biotech park, the do-over for tomorrow's marathon offers dozens of glimpses of reclamation, renovation and building from scratch.

"I'd like to say I was smart enough to think along those lines," Cooley said. "We were just looking for something that was functional, but this is truly more of an urban marathon."

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Other than a mile in Druid Hill Park, a four-mile stretch from the Inner Harbor through Patterson Park, and three miles down Howard Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in the closing stages, Baltimore's Comcast Marathon bears little resemblance to last year's event.

The 2001 test had approximately 6,600 entrants and more than 4,800 finishers. The marathon field tomorrow will be below 3,000.

Cooley says there's a segment that samples a marathon and then moves on, but he listened to veterans trying to post a qualifying time for the Boston Marathon, and to novices. The consensus among both was for a kinder, gentler course.

Some of the lost marathon numbers will be alleviated by an increased turnout for the simultaneous Geico Direct Team Relay, which has more than 500 four-person teams registered. The three exchange points all carry reminders of renewal of some sort.

The 6.4-mile mark comes as Falls Road deposits on to Maryland Avenue, a block shy of the cranes that linger over the renovation of Charles Street near Pennsylvania Station. Leg 2 finishes at the Maryland Science Center, south of a symbol of a fresh start, Harborplace. The final relay exchange comes in Patterson Park, down the hill from its made-over pagoda.

It seems as if everyone from grass-roots coalitions to developers whispered in Cooley's ear.

Office buildings on Paca and St. Paul streets are being converted into apartments. On McComas Street, along mile 12, sit two new warehouse stores, the only ones in the city. When runners turned onto Boston Street last year, they had a clear view of the water. Now, new townhomes are being constructed there. In Clifton Park, the former residence of Johns Hopkins is due to be spruced up. Up the hill, City College is enjoying a renaissance.

The final mile begins on MLK Boulevard, where townhomes rose on the site where a federal high-rise was demolished in 1996.

Gone is the gorgeous descent down Roland Avenue and University Parkway, but with it went the climb up Walther Avenue and Northern Parkway. Neighborhoods on the north and northeast side are neglected, but South Baltimore felt that way last year. Hills were traded for row homes, but in some areas, gentrification is just a rumor.

The start at Pratt and Paca streets is just north of Camden Station, where the interior will be renovated by the Maryland Stadium Authority. The first three miles, the majority on McCulloh Street, are pretty much uphill to a peak elevation of 240 feet, and rookies would do well to heed the first half of Bay area running legend Walt Stack's credo: Start slowly and taper off.

After passing through Druid Hill Park, the race heads into Hampden. Kenyans Erick Kimayo and Charles Njeru, and then defending women's champion Elvira Kolpakova, will turn west on to 34th Street. Bring the kids back in two months, when the block and its Christmas lights become one of Baltimore's favorite holiday destinations.

The course winds down Falls Road, past abandoned mills and warehouses that have been turned into artists' lofts. It heads south for nearly six miles, down St. Paul, Light and Hanover to a turnaround past the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge.

Conditions are supposed to be overcast and in the 50s, fine for marathoning. On warmer days, you can catch locals crabbing and fishing off what used to be called the Hanover Street Bridge. It has the best views on the course, the skyline to the north and the middle branch of the Patapsco River to the east.

Industrial parks lead to Key Highway and the midway point of the 26.2-mile test, past Webster Street. There's a pass between Federal Hill and Rash Field - an accessible possibility for spectators - then a return to the Inner Harbor and on to Little Italy, Fells Point, Canton and Highlandtown, a swing that came early in last year's race.

Volunteers at the 19th mile marker will wear jerseys bearing that number. The touch memorializes the late John Unitas, and also provides a diversion on Washington Street, a corridor that's supposed to get a biotech park. Some blocks to the north have more boarded up fronts than residences, and runners will have to find inspiration on their own as they approach the wall at mile 20.

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