Of all the Olympic sports, perhaps none is purer than the marathon. Even its fabled beginnings are shrouded by the mist of Greek mythology.
According to legend, in 490 B.C. a runner named Pheidippides (or Philippides) left the battlefield near the town of Marathon with news of a tremendous win over the Persians. He covered the 25 miles as quickly as possible to inform the citizens of Athens. As the story goes, he used his final breath to yell “victory” before he collapsed and died.
The heroic tale was not forgotten when the modern Olympic Games were resumed in 1896. A “marathon” race was the final event of those games. The world famous Boston Marathon followed the next year.
Because of the tremendous demands long-distance running places on the human body, there are approximately only 500 such races in the world today. Fortunately for us, the city of Mobile in on that select list.
The Servis 1st Bank First Light Marathon will start this Sunday morning in downtown Mobile. The thousands of competitors will battle the terrain and themselves to reach the Spring Hill neighborhood before returning for the finish line at Bienville Square.
In 2001, the First Night Mobile event was a non-alcoholic arts festival used to ring in New Year’s Eve. Joining them in hopes of raising funds that year was L’Arche Mobile, a Christian community that shares the lives of people with intellectual disabilities in a permanent family-like environment.
Marty O’Malley, executive director of the Mobile chapter since 1980, said the idea of sponsoring a marathon was not well received at first by the local running community.
“We were given a checklist of items we needed to complete before we got the support we needed,” O’Malley said. “Once we did them all, we got the green light.
“We ended up called it the First Light Marathon, as a play on words for the First Night event. Even though First Night is no longer around, we have managed to keep the marathon going.”
Among the original goals were to have a certified 26.2-mile course, to be able to showcase Mobile and to raise awareness for L’Arche. Along with its Football Preview dinner in May, the marathon has provided vital funding for L’Arche Mobile residents.
To show their appreciation, L’Arche members make special wooden medallions for all participants in the full marathon, 13.1-mile half marathon, relay race and Fun Run. This year 3,000 medallions have been created.
“They start the process in June,” O’Malley said. “It is a 3-inch circle of wood that they sand and apply the race sticker to. Each one is hand painted and then sealed in polyurethane.”
In addition there are approximately 1,200 special awards that are painted canvases. On the back is a biography of the resident involved in its creation. The residents give out the mementos at the completion of the race.
“Many of the runners will write the residents back and thank them,” O’Malley said. “That is what sets us apart. These are not the typical awards.”
O’Malley said another key is the 800 volunteers who give their time to the race. They help with data entry, registration, staff packages and race numbers. The volunteers also operate the 20-plus water stops. Leading the medical staff again this year is Dr. Ron Lee of Foley.
“This is a runner-friendly race,” O’Malley said. “We have the lowest entry fee in the South. Then we get the local restaurants and hotels to provide them with discounts. It really is a team effort.”
FLM is one of Alabama’s biggest sporting events each year. According to a report from the Mobile Sports Authority, it was the third largest money maker ($1,121,600) of the 35 events the MSA worked with during the most recent fiscal year.
“The Mobile Sports Authority is pleased to have been a part of the First Light Marathon, Mobile’s only annually-held marathon, over these last five years – and we look forward to many more,” said Danny Corte, executive director of the Mobile Sports Authority. “In recent years, this event has not only generated a strong economic impact for the Mobile area with an average of 2,500 participants, but has also helped to support an important part of our community in L’Arche Mobile.“
“The First Light Marathon has always been a great destination event for Mobile and we look forward each year to welcoming the runners and their families,” said Stacy Hamilton, vice president of marketing and communications with Visit Mobile. “Their impact on our area businesses — hotels, restaurants, shops and attractions — is felt throughout the entire weekend.”
Local merchants also feel the trickle-down effects. Joe Sims, who has operated the running store at McCoy Outdoors for 17 years, supplies many of the competitors with shoes and clothing.
“A lot of people plan during the whole year for this one race,” said Sims, who has volunteered at many First Light Marathons and now works as the announcer at the finish line. “It takes at least 18 weeks to prepare for a race like this.”
For those training for a marathon, Sims said the most important item is the shoes. During practice, a runner can cover 40 to 50 miles per week. Most shoes will last about six to eight weeks.
An average price for a pair of running shoes is $120 while the cost can exceed $175.
Next on the list is clothing. Gone are the days of cotton T-shirts and gym shorts. Sims said the key is to have clothing that wicks away moisture. “Every garment I sell will handle the moisture,” he said. “Whether it is cold or warm weather, the clothing will really make a difference.”
Other additional pieces of equipment are a water carrier and a “fuel” belt to carry carbohydrate-based energy gels.
“Runners will use all their carbs after an hour and 15 minutes,” said Sims, who has run four marathons in his lifetime. “You squirt them in your mouth and wash them down with water. They contain the sodium, potassium and electrolytes your body is screaming for.”
Sims has been preparing runners for all kinds of races for 34 years.
“We are a specialty running store,” he said of McCoy. “It is important to get fitted properly for such competitive races. I get a lot of pleasure in helping a person train and be able to finish a race.”
One of the things that makes the Mobile event unique is that it is a qualifying race featuring a USA Track and Field-certified 26.2-mile course. This has helped attract runners from all 50 states and 12 different countries.
For 2016, O’Malley is preparing for almost 3,000 participants in all the races. In the full marathon, the organizers are expecting 600 to 700 runners.
“The fact that it is a Boston qualifier draws a lot of people,” said John Brigham, a cross-country coach at St. Paul’s Episcopal School and the FLM men’s champion in 2009 and 2012. “For a city the size of Mobile to attract people from 49 states in one year will be hard to match.”
Brigham first got interested in running in junior high when the marathon ran past his home in west Mobile. “I wondered what it would be like to finish one,” he said. None other than Sims at McCoy fit Brigham for his first pair of running shoes. After running track in college at Mississippi State and Belmont, he returned to coach the Saints.
“Marathons are getting more common,” he said. “They are growing throughout the country. The interest in half marathons has driven this.”
His FLM win in 2009 was actually the first time he competed in a marathon. “I thought I had a chance to win, but it was still a humbling experience,” he said. “I struggled the last few miles. I had to learn how to take in fluids and calories on the run. I did not do it properly the first time.”
Brigham ran the Boston Marathon in 2012 (finishing 72nd) and in 2016 (finishing 66th). Making those results even more incredible is that Boston’s race has about 30,000 finishers.
“By the time I got to run in Boston, I had more experience,” he said. “I knew what I was doing.”
Brigham won the New Orleans Marathon in 2015 and was the runner-up this year. However, he injured his hamstring and is still working with a physical therapist.
“I am not doing a full marathon until I get this injury behind me,” he said. “I had signed up for the Houston race on Jan. 14, but it looks like I can only do the half marathon — if my leg will let me.”
Another unique feature for only the most daring competitors is the Back-to-Back Challenge. This is a special partnership with the Mississippi Blues Marathon in Jackson the day before. Up to 500 runners can join both races and receive special recognition and awards. O’Malley said there are usually two to three charter buses bringing the runners down from Jackson.
“Mobile’s course is pretty tough,” Brigham said. “From the 10-mile mark to the 20-mile mark you are running up and down hills near USA and Municipal Park. People think it is a flat, fast course. You may not run your best times here. They need to understand that before running into trouble by starting the race too fast.”
Walk-in registration will take place Saturday from noon to 8 p.m. in Government Plaza’s atrium. An expo is planned at the same time, with booths offering runners advice and equipment.
The marathon, half marathon and five-person relay will get underway on Sunday at 7:30 a.m. The 1.2-mile Fun Run and the LifeSouth Kid’s Marathon will follow at 2 p.m. After the races, the award ceremonies, live music and food will be in Bienville Square.
To learn more about the race and L’Arche, please visit www.FirstLightMobile.com or call 251-438-2094.