Twenty-six point two miles. Over 18,000 entrants. The third year of the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon — and Half! — in Savannah is here.
"We learned so much coming out of the first year. Now we're in the third year and we've got it down to a science logistically," says Malain McCormick, event director with the Nashville-based Competitor Group, which runs the R 'n' R Marathon brand.
As from the beginning, the Marathon is a work in progress.
"Year one we weren't quite sure how everything was going to go," says Joe Marinelli, Visit Savannah president. "We frankly got crushed in a couple of areas. But we made the necessary improvements for year two. I really do think our plan this year is the best yet."
Running-wise, one of the most notable changes this year is the addition of a two-person half marathon relay, which will have about 700 participants in its inaugural local run.
"We'll be able to open up the event to people of all abilities, not just those interested in running 13.1 or 26.2 miles," says McCormick.
It works like this:
One person is at the starting line. "They will run 6.5 miles and hand off the baton to their partner who then runs the remainder of the relay and finishes at the full marathon finish line," McCormick says.
The handoff point is near Screaming Mimi's at Oglethorpe and Price.
"The start and finish of the relay are within walking distance of each other, so the partner can go to the finish line and meet their partner as they finish the race," explaining McCormick of another perk of holding the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon in a compact, usable space like Savannah.
As with the second R 'n' R Marathon, the main course itself has also been tweaked this third time. "There will be a little route change in the Daffin Park area, highlighting some more of those neighborhoods."
The main transition point on the Truman Parkway will be at the DeRenne exit. "To offset the additional amount of time on the Truman, we added a mile of music, with more wireless speakers all along the way."
Another addition is the "Rock Around the Block," where community groups compete for cash prizes by adopting a costume theme and cheering on runners and walkers during the race.
While the natural evolution of the event is ongoing, the Marathon's commitment to Savannah is genuine. Indeed, the City of Savannah and the Competitor Group have agreed to extend the initial three-year contract another three years, into 2016.
"There's no doubt Savannah is one of the top destinations in our series. We saw an overwhelming response to the previous two, and that excitement speaks to the destination of Savannah. It's such a cool place to visit, and there's such great energy and atmosphere," says McCormick.
To keep in touch with what runners are thinking about the course each year, participants are given a survey to fill out.
"We really take what we hear from that to heart," says McCormick. "One thing we've noticed is that runners can comment very differently and they're running the same race! For us it's all about being confident in the product and making sure we've done our due diligence."
The other ongoing issue has nothing to do with the course at all, but rather with getting runners their participation packets.
"We knew Hutchinson Island has that top level facility, and that's where we wanted to hold our Expos," says McCormick. "The second year we knew we needed to make some changes in the flow of traffic over there. It's a matter of balancing the use of the ferries and the trolley system to make sure people don't have to take more than an hour getting their packet. That's what we're shooting for."
That said, there's always an effort to lessen the Hutchinson crowds on Friday, the day before the run.
"We're trying to make Thursday the day for locals to get packets, to alleviate the crush of Friday when people are coming in from out of town. So on Thursday there will be hourly drawings for prizes, things like that."
As one of the physically smallest cities in the R 'n' R Marathon series, there have always been transportation issues here and likely always will be.
"In bigger cities we don't require a separate transportation plan. Bigger cities are so used to moving that amount of people already. When working with smaller cities you have to take a look at capacity and flow," says McCormick. "We tend to work with police departments most closely, because they're the ones that know the city and the roads the best. We're also working with people at Chatham Area Transit to ensure we're moving and processing people."
So far, the event seems to be a win-win for both the host city and the for-profit corporation which holds the Marathon. A recent San Diego State University study of last year's Marathon pegs the total local economic impact at over $26 million.
"It's really interesting, first, to see the number of hotels sold out this weekend," says Marinelli. "And secondly, the kinds of prices hotels are getting this weekend gives you a real sense of the economic impact. "
"This is a market we've seen that compared to others is one of the top destinations — meaning runners will bring one or two people with them and they're staying longer," McCormick says. "Among our cities, Savannah is on a par with New Orleans and Las Vegas in terms of nights per person," nearly three nights according to that SDSU study.
Mentioning that over 80 percent of participants are from out of town, Marinelli concludes, "What I love about this event is it brings 20,000-plus people to town who are the kind of people we want visiting Savannah. It's the demographic of people likely to come back again and bring friends."