Marathons boost West Michigan economy


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As the popularity of marathon running continues to grow, so does the number of marathons, half marathons and alternative racing events that attract out-of-town visitors and have a positive economic impact on the region.

In fact, according to Running USA, which puts out the Annual Marathon Report, there were only 300 marathons held in the United States in the year 2000, but by 2011 that number had grown to 720. Additionally, the number of marathon finishers has grown, up 8.6 percent in 2008, 9.9 percent in 2009 and by 2.2 percent in 2011, and participation in half marathons is also growing substantially.

“It’s a gigantic goal,” said Don Kern, executive director of the Grand Rapids Marathon and avid marathon runner. “It’s a life changing accomplishment, which is what makes it such an important thing to people and why there is so much growth going on, because people have come to realize that. People are using the marathon to challenge their limits, to find out if they can actually put together a plan that will allow them to do something that big. Because (when) you put together a gigantic plan like that, work all the way through it and actually cross the finish line after 26.2 miles you’ve done something, something that changes your life.”

In addition to being a great individual accomplishment, marathons are beloved community events and a great way to entice visitors to a city. Each year “marathon tourists” travel to destinations across the country, and globe, to participate in marathons, they stay in local hotels, eat at local restaurants and visit local attractions. The Grand Rapids Marathon, which celebrates its 10th year this year, registered 4,400 participants in 2011, several of them from out of town.

According to Mike Guswiler, executive director at the West Michigan Sports Commission, about 50 percent of the Grand Rapids Marathon participants come from out of town. His organization looks at visitor spending to determine the economic impact a running event has on the city. He estimates that the Grand Rapids Marathon has an economic impact of a half million dollars, and that the other approximately nine running events the commission is involved with bring in another $1.5 million annually.

Guswiler said he has seen plenty of new marathons and similar events added in our area recently, which he expects will continue to positively impact our economy.

In addition to participant spending, a lot of local companies benefit from the operational costs involved. There are rental costs for chairs, tables, tents, portable toilets and sound equipment, there is also the rental of barricades and traffic cones for closing off streets and costs for timing services and course certification. Participants also have to have access to food, water and sports drinks throughout the day and there is the t-shirt and medal they receive for being part of the event.

Kern said that one of his biggest costs for the Grand Rapids Marathon is advertising for the event.

Still, despite the costs associated with the event, marathons can be a profitable business venture. And though Kern said most organizers get into the marathon business out of love for the sport, they do have to make enough money to live on as organizing an event of this size is easily a full time job.

Another growing signature running event in Grand Rapids is the Fifth Third River Bank Run, owned and organized by Fifth Third Bank.

Fifth Third River Bank Run has grown to include multiple distance races, as well as the only 25K wheelchair racing division in the world and 25K hand cycle division.

The event has contributed to the downtown economy annually since 1978, when more than 1,000 runners participated in the first race. The race will be 36 years old this May and more than 21,000 people are expected to compete, many from out of town.

The River Bank Run will be held on May 11 and includes a Sports and Fitness Expo, on May 10 from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. at DeVos Place, featuring more than 130 vendors, as well as 25K course trolley tours, among other highlights.

This year, Grand Rapids is seeing the launch of at least two new marathon events, Kern’s Groundhog Day marathon, which occurred in February, and the Gazelle Girl half marathon, being put on by Gazelle Sports in partnership with Nike.

The Gazelle Girl half marathon is an all female event being held on Saturday, April 13, that was created to honor the 40th anniversary of Title 9, which is the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in educational institutions. It is also quite appropriate given the historical significance of women’s participation in marathons. Although marathons were one of the first sports included in the Olympics for men, the women’s marathon event wasn’t added until 1984.

Tiler Webster, community outreach administrative director at Gazelle Sports, said there are many factors to consider when planning a running event.

“A lot of people don’t realize how much really goes into designing a course,” Webster explained. “We had 10 proposed courses (that we) put into the city. You don’t think about things like if you block off this one road than people can’t get to certain areas . . . they look at hospital routes, mailing routes, trucking routes, businesses that are open on Saturdays and how that’s going to affect local businesses. They look at events that have happened and businesses that have not had positive experiences, and may avoid certain roads based on all these things.”

Safety is another huge concern that needs adequate attention during the planning process.

“There are some really big health risks for participants,” Webster said. “It’s not just running three miles. I would work with and partner with a local hospital and get an emergency plan, weather related, injury related, death, I mean you have to think the worst when it comes to what could happen so if something does happen you are prepared and you can save the lives of the people that are running in your event.

“That is something that we are definitely concerned with and we are working with Metro Health and our timing company so that we will have an emergency plan.”

The Gazelle Girl half marathon is primarily billed as a community building opportunity, but it will also serve as a fundraiser since the proceeds will go to charities selected by Gazelle Sports.

Although most marathons are business ventures, many have a charitable component, and some are organized specifically to raise money for a charity. Kern points to the St. Jude’s Memphis Marathon and the Wyoming Marathon Races, both of which serve as fundraisers for local charities.

In addition to charity affiliates, there are two other primary ways that charities can benefit from marathons according to Kern. The first is through aid stations. Many charities send a group of volunteers to man an aid station along the route, and, in the case of the Grand Rapids Marathon, those charities often receive a donation in return. Second, marathon training is a major way for charities to fundraise. Team in Training is an example. The organization provides training to individuals planning to participate in a running event and pays many of the costs associated with the event for the runner. In return, the individual commits to raising money for the organization.

A profitable marathon, however, really comes down to planning and collaboration, not just a good cause.

Kern noted how much collaboration it has taken to build the Grand Rapids Marathon to what it is today. He has no paid staff members, only volunteers who come together throughout the summer and fall to pull together all the pieces required to make the event successful.

In the end, building a successful running event comes down to the passion of the people involved, from the volunteers to the runners.

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