When thousands of racers flood the city Saturday for the Baltimore Marathon, they'll run part of their course through Fort McHenry.
Though the fort's role is relatively small - only a mile-long stretch of the 26.2-mile trail - this is the first time it has hosted races in almost a decade, organizers said.
Scheduling conflicts and security concerns have kept the fort from hosting races for about eight years, said park ranger Vincent Vaise.
Vaise said pre-scheduled events such as military ceremonies and living-history programs have taken precedent over races in the past. Then came 9/11, which complicated things further.
"Some of the rangers were spread pretty thin because some of the high-profile parks were borrowing law enforcement rangers from some of the smaller parks," Vaise said. "There was a lot of uncertainty, and now things are a lot more certain."
When Baltimore Marathon organizer Lee Corrigan found out last month that the fort could accommodate this weekend's race, he said he happily rerouted a large chunk of the race path, including the start and finish lines, and mile markers.
"Everything was squared away, and then this opportunity came up, so we basically had to change a lot of the course to accommodate this, but we think it's worth it," Corrigan said.
Vaise and Corrigan feel that the fort will add a more patriotic flair to the race. Organizers dubbed the fort's stretch the "Star-Spangled Banner mile," Corrigan said.
"Most cities have their crown jewels," Vaise said. "Boston has Bunker Hill, New York has the Statue of Liberty, Philadelphia has the Liberty Bell and Baltimore has Fort McHenry. It's kind of like the Alamo - except we won here."
Corrigan said about 10,000 people have signed up for this year's marathon festival, which includes a team relay, a half-marathon and a 5K, and he expects 1,000 more by race time.
Some of the best places to watch the race on foot are near the water stops on Fort Avenue, at Patterson Park, Charles Village and Waverly Farmer's Market, Corrigan said.
This year's purse is $100,000 - the 10th-largest purse in the country, Corrigan said.
Corrigan, who has helped organize the race since its inception in 2001, said the fifth year is a good milestone. "I think every year we've made great strides to make the event better and better."
In coming years, the fort hopes to invite races more regularly and sign up a handful of rangers for the race, Vaise said. He said he might run the marathon next year, if the fort doesn't need him on hand that weekend.
"As long as we have enough people to hold down the fort - in this case literally - I think that'd be neat," he said.
Health and Fitness expo
The lowdown -- Open today and tomorrow to runners and the public, this year's expo includes vendor booths with athletic apparel and free samples. Racers must pick up their race packets and T-shirts at the expo. People can also register for the marathon, 5K, team relay or Kid's Fun Run on Saturday. The half-marathon is full. There is no race-day registration.
If you go -- The expo is at the Northside Club Level of the M&T Bank Stadium noon-9 p.m. today and 9 a.m.-9 p.m. tomorrow.
The lowdown -- Some parking is free, and most spectators arrive at the stadium between 8:30 a.m. and 10 a.m. Saturday to find their friends and family as they finish the race.
Baltimore Marathon: 8 a.m. Saturday start at Camden and Russell streets. Wheelchair division starts at 7:55 a.m.
Team relay: 8 a.m. start at Camden and Russell streets
5K: 8:30 a.m. start at Camden and Russell streets
Kid's Fun Run: 9:30 a.m. start at Eutaw and Lee streets
Half-marathon: 9:45 a.m. start at Conway and Light streets
Direct Connect Zone
The lowdown -- After each race, runners can meet family and friends at the zone, held in M&T Bank Stadium's Lot B.
The lowdown -- At noon, officials will announce the top three finishers in each race. The ceremony is expected to last about a half-hour in M&T Bank Stadium's Lot C. Results from the team relay, 5K, marathon and half-marathon will be posted on a four-sided board in Celebration Village.
The lowdown -- Held near the finish line at stadium Lots B and C from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., the village features a Kid's Fun Zone, live music and food and drinks.
The lowdown -- If you're planning on driving downtown Saturday, allow extra time for road closures. If possible, plan an alternate route. The marathon will affect streets from about 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Both directions of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Boston Street will stay open all day. See the map (above) for road closures.
For more information, call 410-605-9381 or visit thebaltimoremarathon.com.