Philly Marathon preview

Posted: November 19, 2012

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This is a big running weekend in Philadelphia.

Between the Rothman 8k, which was run Saturday, and the Philadelphia Marathon and Half Marathon, which are on Sunday, more than 30,000 runners will be pounding asphalt - helped along by more than 3,000 volunteers and 60,000 spectators lining the course.

But even as the Philadelphia Marathon has grown in the last 19 years, adding space for 2,500 more runners this year at registration plus 1,454 displaced New York City marathon runners last week, it still hangs in an odd place in the U.S. distance- running world with a participant field of 14,500 runners.

Many marathons in the region are smaller, as shown by the number of finishers in their last runnings: Delaware (607), Rehoboth Beach (643), Atlantic City (693), Ocean Drive (676), Harrisburg (1,515), Steamtown (1,939), New Jersey (2,317), and Lehigh Valley (5,100). For local runners who want a bigger marathon experience, Philadelphia is their best local bet.

At the same time, Philadelphia's race is not even close in size to those in other major metropolitan cities, such as Boston (21,544), which requires a qualifying time to enter; New York (46,536), whose lottery lets in just 9 percent of applicants; and Chicago (51,017), which sold out in six days.

The Philadelphia Marathon sold out, but four months after registration opened. It's not even the largest race in Philadelphia. That would be the Blue Cross Broad Street 10-mile run, which this past May had 34,058 finishers and is switching to a lottery system for entry into the 2013 race because the demand is so high.

Why hasn't Philadelphia's marathon inspired the same clamor for entry? A few reasons:

First, the Philadelphia Marathon is put on by the city. The New York Road Runners, which puts on the New York City Marathon, has a full-time staff of 150 people and a CEO, Mary Wittenberg, who makes more than $500,000 a year.

Second, the Philadelphia Marathon doesn't promise huge appearance fees and prizes, which is one reason why a dozen elite men and a half-dozen elite women runners scheduled to run in the New York City Marathon that was canceled because of Hurricane Sandy opted for the Fukuoka Marathon in Japan instead. When name-brand professional runners are in the race field, amateurs follow.

Third, the Philadelphia Half Marathon, with 12,500 participants, is run on the same course at the same time, which makes the marathon a no-go race for many runners.

But keeping Philadelphia a medium-size race isn't necessarily a bad thing, said Ed Maher, president of the South Jersey Athletic Club, which has 23 runners in the Philadelphia Marathon this year. Maher has run the race seven times since 1994. Just 1,600 runners competed his first year, and he said that the race was "a piece of cake."

"It has gotten large, especially after they added the half-marathon, which swelled the number of people on the street considerably," said Maher, who last ran the Philadelphia Marathon in 2007.

"But they do a wonderful job managing the race. With mega-races, a lot of runners get turned off because they're much more of a hassle to deal with."

Plus, the half-marathon distance has exploded in popularity. Since 2000, the number of half-marathon finishers has tripled to 1.61 million in the nation, according to Running USA, so the city has an incentive to keep the Philadelphia Half Marathon as part of its stable of races.

The race brings more than $17 million to the city. A bigger race would require bigger costs, which could mean finding a naming-rights sponsor or a race company to put on the event. Given the lingering bitterness over higher fees after the Philadelphia Distance Race, a half-marathon, was turned over to the Rock 'n' Roll race company, that option isn't all that appealing to the local running community.

Melanie Johnson, the Philadelphia Marathon race director, said that leading into its 20th year next year, the marathon will make changes so the race can continue to grow, though she declined to say how.

One way could be changing the course, which is restricted in places by tight turns and small streets. Another would would be moving the Philadelphia Half Marathon to another day.

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