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VOL. 126 | NO. 235 | Friday, December 2, 2011

Marathon Weekend Boon For Hospital, Economy

By Don Wade

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The number of people participating in the annual St. Jude Memphis Marathon continues to climb.

More than 16,000 runners will compete in the St. Jude Memphis Marathon, Half Marathon, Memphis Grizzlies House 5K and Family Race to be held Saturday, Dec. 3.
(Photo Courtesy of ALSAC/St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital)

So does the amount of money raised through the event for researching and treating childhood cancers.

But the money offered to “elite” runners is going away.

And it’s all a sign of the event’s growing success.

Saturday, Dec. 3, marks the 10th year of St. Jude Children Research Hospital’s affiliation with the Memphis Marathon Weekend. The growth of the event can be measured in several ways, but perhaps this one is most telling:

“The worst part of my job is turning people down and it starts in July,” said ALSAC/St. Jude event coordinator Dwight Drinkard.

Last year, there were 16,387 registrants for the full marathon, the half marathon, the Grizzlies House 5K race (added in 2005) and the Family Race (added in 2009).

In 1978, the first Memphis Marathon attracted 103 runners. Though the marathon later grew under the sponsorship of First Tennessee Bank (860 runners in 2000, the last year of the bank’s sponsorship), the race really took off when St. Jude and the Memphis Runners Track Club became partners in 2002 and a half marathon was added to the event.

When you combine the proceeds from the race and the Heroes program (per-mile pledges), the 2010 weekend generated about $3.6 million – or more than double the $1.5 million of 2006.

Race organizers never gave out a lot of money to the elite runners; last year, it was $20,000 total to the top three male and female finishers in the marathon. But this year, the only prize money will be $2,000 distributed to the top three male and female marathon runners who are members of the MRTC and live within a 75-mile radius of Memphis, said race director Wain Rubenstein.

“We’ve always believed in supporting Memphis runners and that money has been provided by Memphis runners,” Rubenstein said of the remaining prize money.

Drinkard said the elite program only attracted about 20 runners and “after nine years of doing this, we felt there was no reason to be spending money on a purse that doesn’t do anything for us when we’ve been selling out months in advance and our mission is maximizing the money we raise for cancer research.”

Allyson Carroll, 32, who ran the half marathon in 2009 and this year will run the full, agreed.

“It’s a great move on their part,” she said. “Most of us are not doing it to win prize money.”

The truth in that statement is evident to anyone along the 26.2-mile course watching this moving mass of humanity go from starting line to finish line.

“It’s pretty cool when the first wave of runners comes through,” said Amanda Ball, a board member with the Cooper-Young Community Association who will be part of its aid station on race day. “And then there’s this huge drove of people … all shapes and sizes, all ages.”

It is this large and diverse running community that forms the race’s core. Many runners come from beyond the Memphis area, but MRTC also has more than 3,500 members and is one of the five largest running clubs in the country. Carroll, who said she had never been an athlete, started running through the MRTC’s beginner’s program for women.

“That’s what’s neat about running,” Rubenstein said. “I don’t have to be an elite tennis player or golf pro. … I can line up with an elite runner and I may be at the back of the pack and he may finish first.”

Regardless the caliber of runner, everyone seemed to like the course change that occurred a couple of years ago and now sends runners through the St. Jude campus. LaDell George, 38, ran the half marathon last year and was moved by the experience. This year, he will run the full. In between the two races, he toured the hospital.

“There’s actually a meaning behind why we’re running,” he said. “It makes me push a little harder. This is only 26.2 miles. They (patients and their families) have to do something so much harder.”

Rubenstein said there are no changes to this year’s course, which begins at Fourth Avenue and Beale Street Downtown and ends at AutoZone Park.

After each race, organizers send out a survey. One result of the last survey is that this year there’s a tracking system connected to a chip each runner will carry so people can watch a specific runner’s progress online.

“I love it because I have family that does not live here and can’t be at the finish line for me,” Carroll said, “so it gives them a way to follow me.”

Last year’s race had an economic impact of more than $5 million on the Memphis area, Drinkard said, and he expects it to top $6 million this year. Next March, the Road Runners Club of America will be in Memphis for its national convention.

“One of the workshops we’re doing is how running clubs can hook up with charities,” Rubenstein said. “People are always kind of amazed that we have this relationship and are doing so well.”

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