- The Thunder Road Marathon will affect traffic Saturday morning in uptown and neighborhoods in central and south Charlotte.
- The 26.2-mile race begins at 7:45 a.m. and heads out of uptown on Randolph and Providence roads, then proceeds to Foxcroft near Sharon Road, Myers Park, Dilworth and South End. The second half of the course winds through NoDa and the Plaza-Midwood area.
If you live along the route for Charlotte’s Thunder Road Marathon, expect to hear the pounding of runners’ feet in your neighborhood Saturday.
How loud will that sound be? The short answer: Not as loud as it was a few years ago.
A combination of factors has stunted the growth of one of the city’s marquee running events, which welcomed a record-high 1,411 marathon finishers in 2009 but then fell to just 908 in 2011 – a 36 percent drop-off, from 57th-largest marathon in the U.S. to the 101st.
Race director Tim Rhodes expects to have 1,200 registered for Saturday’s 26.2-mile race, now in its eighth year. An estimated 1,020-1,050 runners will actually finish.
Like marathons in cities across the country, Thunder Road has always been somewhat divisive.
Some view it as a festive community-building event that promotes fitness and injects more than $1 million into the economy (in addition to the marathoners, roughly 2,500 will run Saturday’s half marathon and another 500-plus will participate in a related 5K). “Marathons are something that large cities around the country have as part of their portfolio, and something that they take great pride in,” said Tom Murray, CEO of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority.
Others, though, see it as an inconvenience, a “parade” that clogs streets with runners and prevents motorists from getting where they want to go.
The latter mindset played a role in Rhodes’s decision to move the race from early December to the second weekend in November in 2011. “There were complaints to the City Council about traffic tie-ups in December,” he said. (The southern tip of the course comes within a half-mile of SouthPark’s mall.)
Moving from December to November, however, put Thunder Road in the same timeframe as big fall marathons in New York City, Philadelphia and Richmond, as well as Raleigh’s City of Oaks Marathon and the Outer Banks Marathon. Additionally, the inaugural Rock ‘n’ Roll Savannah Marathon stole some of Charlotte’s thunder; nearly 5,000 ran that race on Nov. 5, 2011.
Another factor: There are simply more marathons to choose from. MarathonGuide.com reported an increase of 22 percent between 2010 and 2011, and cited that as a reason the average marathon size nationwide decreased from 1,151 to 1,041 over the same timeframe.
Still, some runners miss the December date.
“It really competes with a lot of the other races now,” said John Chambers, 36, of Charlotte, who did the race in 2005 and 2009, and is running again Saturday. “December was tough – it was pretty cold out – but people dug it … I think because it really worked as sort of a ‘this is my last race of the year.’ … I would love to see them reconsider going back to December.”
Rhodes did reschedule again this year, but only slightly – from the second Saturday in November to the third, to accommodate the Veterans Day parade. Another concession: He moved the race expo from the convention center to the Blake Hotel on McDowell Street, because of this week’s International Auto Show.
“We do everything we can to be good partners with the city,” said Rhodes, owner of the Run For Your Life running stores in Dilworth, SouthPark and Piper Glen. “That’s not just putting on a quality event and putting our best foot forward and showcasing Charlotte, but that’s also finding the right time to do that.”
“No matter how good the event is, you’re gonna have people who aren’t interested, who don’t really care about anybody that runs and don’t really care about having people come from out of town.”
Rhodes said 1,171 participants were registered for the marathon as of Thursday morning. His hope is that someday it will grow to 3,000 runners, which would put it in the same ballpark as those in similarly sized cities like Detroit (3,760 runners in 2012), Baltimore (3,024 in 2012) and Memphis (2,364 last year).
But Ryan Lamppa of California-based Running USA, an organization that tracks running trends, said it won’t be easy for Thunder Road to get there.
“It’s tough. There’s no doubt about it,” he said. “It’s like the old saying: The rich get richer. Those events that people want to be a part of and are selling out in record time, they keep on selling out because they have this momentum. And those events that are having a harder time selling out or they’re not selling out as much, then it’s harder for them to keep up with the joneses.”
“It’s just how humans are. Humans are a herd animal, and if they are hearing about Rock ‘n’ Roll Savannah being (popular), invariably they’re gonna go there over Thunder Road.”
Rhodes acknowledges there are challenges, but said he simply plans to continue putting on the best event he can for runners – about half of whom travel here from outside the area – and for the city.
“Last year was a little bit of a stinger just because we didn’t really see the rapid decline come, but it was really more of a one-year correction,” Rhodes said. “The marathon’s not in trouble. In fact, this year is a fairly healthy year from a budget standpoint because we planned accordingly.”
“If we do our job and put on a great event, people are gonna talk about it and it’s gonna continue to grow.”