One City Marathon growth: slow, somewhat steady

Reema Amin
Contact Reporterramin@dailypress.com

When the One City Marathon was announced in 2014, then-City Manager Jim Bourey had three goals in mind: unifying the city, promoting health and wellness and putting Newport News on the map.

"The third reason was really to show off the city; it was to bring people in from the outside," Bourey said recently.

Three years later and days from its third running, the marathon has received positive reviews for its flat course and organization. There are signs of growth: more hotel stays for marathon weekend, growing registrations and a few more runners who qualify as elite.

Organizers have new digital marketing strategies and have expanded where they're looking for runners but are just beginning to move beyond a grass-roots approach to expand the race. They're banking on word-of-mouth to attract elite runners. Telly Whitfield, the city's lead organizer for the race and assistant to the city manager, said that boosting tourism is a tertiary goal.

"I think we'll continue to do what we're doing," Bourey said. Bourey resigned as city manager on Tuesday.

That's an OK plan, if boosting the city's profile is not that important, according to two experienced race organizers. But there are other strategies the city could employ if it wants the race to attract elite attention, they said.

"As far as the exposure for the city, we are a smaller race right now and it takes a little bit of time," said Whitfield.

Total registered participants in the event's three races grew from 2,621 in 2015 to 3,050 last year, according to Elizabeth Gates, director of marketing for Flat-Out Events, the race organizer. As of Tuesday afternoon, 2,565 people had signed up for Sunday's races. Gates expects that number to grow as people make last-minute decisions, though weather may get in the way — 1 to 3 inches of snow is currently in Sunday morning's forecast. More than 485 people would have to sign up by Sunday to beat last year's numbers.

Numbers in the relay, 8K and nautical mile all grew, but the number of marathoners dropped from 496 registered runners to 458 between 2015 and 2016. As of Tuesday, 448 people had signed up for this year's marathon.

James Russell Gill III, race director of the 16-year-old Charlottesville Marathon, said races in general are having a hard time growing because the number of events are outpacing the number of interested runners. So "it's not really surprising" if a course in the Mid-Atlantic area, which is saturated with events, isn't growing rapidly.

One local half-marathon — "Run for the Dream" in Williamsburg — was canceled in 2016 because of a lack of sponsors and entrants.

Whitfield and Gates pointed out that they've seen the number of elite runners — those who have a record of fast run-times — grow from one person in 2015 and 2016 in the marathon and 8K, to about three or four people this year for each. The running community is tight-knit, "so word travels fast when it's a well-executed event, when it's a fast course and when it's a Boston qualifier," Gates said. They're relying on those runners to come organically, she said.

That's not the way to attract elite runners, Gill said.

"The champion elites are going to follow the money," Gill said. The male and female winners of the marathon get a $1,000 prize, which wouldn't attract A- and B-list runners, but maybe the C's, Gill said.

Gill also said One City put itself in "kind of a tough position" by being scheduled a weekend before Virginia Beach's Shamrock Marathon and Half Marathon, which has been run annually for more than 40 years and regularly draws 20,000 or more people. And it's the same weekend as the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon in Washington, D.C.

Gates and Whitfield have said that One City is the only race of its kind on the Peninsula with a remarkably flat course, which arguably are elements that do make it stand out.

Outside interest has grown in some key ways with this year's race, Gates and Whtifield said. As of Monday, there were 70 official marathon-related hotel bookings at the event's official hotels, the Marriott at City Center, Hampton Inn and Suites on Jefferson Avenue and the Courtyard Marriott by the airport, Gates said. Last year, those same hotels logged a total 16 stays, Gates said.

That doesn't include people who are staying elsewhere, she said. Gates credits that growth to an expanded digital marketing outreach, including ads in the online version of Runner's World Magazine and ramping up social media, she said. She also started targeting cities that are within seven to eight hours driving distance of Newport News.

The marketing budget at Flat-Out Events, the event organizer, has remained the same all three years, but a larger portion was allocated toward digital marketing this year, Gates said. The city has contributed a flat $100,000 to the race's post-marathon celebration since the race's inception, according to Lisa Cipriano, the city's budget director. The race's proceeds go to specific charities.

Peter Ciaccia, race director of the TCS New York City Marathon, looked at One City's course online and called it "pretty beautiful," noticed its flatness and that it's a Boston qualifier. Those elements make it a course that could attract a very healthy crowd, he said, if marketed correctly. The city, he said, could partner with a travel agency to sell the entire weekend to people who are thinking, "Why would I go to Newport News in March?"

"If the goal is to call out the city to outsiders, take advantage of the beauty of the course," Ciaccia said.

There is a soft cap of 600 on the number of people who are allowed to register for the marathon, but marathon registrants have never broken the 500 mark. That cap is just "for our projected expenses and ability to order items such as medals, shirts, bibs, etc.," Whitfield said. The race course has a much higher capacity, the city could accommodate more people who were interested, both Bourey and Whitfield said.

Looking forward, the goal is to decide how a runner's experience can become even better, Whitfield said. That's the key to everything: retaining runners and gaining a following.

"For us it's about community engagement, and that ties back to the runner experience," Whitfield said. "Runner experience is huge. What are we doing to set One City apart from the handful of other marathons?"

Amin can be reached by phone at 757-247-4890.

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