Festival's growth keeps organizers on the run

Marathon draws 2,581 more entries than 2006 event

October 13, 2007|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,Sun reporter

The field is rising, and the temperature is dropping.

For the organizers and athletes involved in today's seventh annual Under Armour Baltimore Running Festival, the best directions don't come with a course map.

The race's popularity continues to increase, with a record 14,500 entries for this year's event, compared with 11,919 in 2006. Approximately 500 runners were shut out of the half-marathon, and about 200 were denied in the relay, which grew in participants by 41 percent and sold out for the first year.

"All we can say is, `Wow, we're grateful, we're excited,'" said founder and state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh. "We consider it the best marathon in the world because we have so many people coming from all around the world."

Once again, the marathon will feature runners from Kenya, Ethiopia, South Africa, Morocco, Peru, France and Russia. The returning women's champion, Rima Dubovik, is a native of Ukraine.

"The growth has been awesome," said Lee Corrigan of Corrigan Sports Enterprises, which continues to manage and promote the event. "It's grown 20 to 25 percent every year. I'd like to say it's all because of the great marketing, but in truth, it's a little bit of everything.

"No. 1, we have a great title sponsor. Everybody's excited about Under Armour. No. 2, we do a good job marketing. ... We try a heck of a lot harder than the Marine Corps Marathon and other marathons because we have to."

Corrigan sends an e-mail to every runner that includes a survey and requests suggestions on how to improve the event. What did they like? What didn't they like? "We look through all of them, and then we write a letter back to all the runners. And we basically fix our shortcomings every year. That's the only way you can get better," he said.

Certain elements, such as the weather, are out of his control. But today's forecast calls for a high of 67 degrees, and only 51 at the 8 a.m. start time.

The mild temperatures bring relief to the runners and organizers after last weekend's Chicago Marathon was cut short because of the 88-degree heat and sweltering humidity. The conditions led to 250 people being taken to area hospitals with heat-related ailments.

Chad Schieber, 35, died after collapsing during the race, though an autopsy showed he had a pre-existing heart condition.

"It's still a little warm for the runners themselves [today], but it's great for the fans and it makes for a great day," Corrigan said.

Course records were set in the men's and women's 26.2-mile runs last year.

By overcoming a one-minute deficit at the halfway point and passing Peru's Maria Portilla at Mile 22, Dubovik became the first nonelite runner to take the women's championship after paying her own way and staying with another participant. Portilla returns this year after winning the 2007 Salt Lake City Marathon.

On the men's side, Ethiopia's Yirefu Birhanu unseated 2005 champion Mykola Antonenko of Ukraine with mile times of 4:47 and 4:49 near the end to win his first marathon.

While Dubovik tries to defend her title, Kenya native John Itati is regarded as the men's favorite. He won the 2004 race at 2 hours, 14 minutes, 51 seconds, which was a course record, and finished fifth in last year's Houston Marathon.

Kipchirchir Bitok, 28, a native of Kenya who lives in Baltimore and attends Johns Hopkins University, will run the first leg of the relay again and pace the marathon field through the halfway point.

"This is the event to do in Baltimore," he said. "Every other city has big 5Ks and marathons and all those things, and this is what Baltimore has in terms of running. And it's great because people can use this as a qualifier to Boston.

"And Baltimore has a lot of great training areas ranging from Patapsco to Loch Raven and all these places just around the city. And it's a marathon. That is everybody's goal. Every runner will tell you, `I want to run one.' Nonrunners, people who don't know anything, whenever they see you, they're like, `Have you ever run a marathon?'"

Bitok expects the event will continue to swell in popularity and participation.

"A lot of people didn't get into the marathon and half-marathon," he said. "They have to expand this. It puts Baltimore on the map."

roch.kubatko@baltsun.com

Runners to keep an eye on today

THREE MEN TO WATCH

John Itati, 33, Kenya: Itati set the course record in 2004, winning the marathon in 2 hours, 14 minutes, 51 seconds. Now residing in Philadelphia, Itati placed fifth in the 2006 Houston Marathon and was ranked No. 5 by Runners World in 2001. He also participated in the World Championships trials at Nyayo Stadium in Kenya.

Sammy Nyamongo, 31, Kenya: Nyamongo brings impressive credentials to Baltimore. A resident of Augusta, Ga., he placed first in the 2004 Memphis (Tenn.) Marathon with a time of 2:20:52. A year later, he took first place in the Rocket City (Ala.) Marathon in 2:23:54 and placed second in the Memphis Marathon with a personal best of 2:18:33.

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