Photo | courtesy l’Arche Mobile
According to legend, in 490 B.C.E. a Greek 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 began in 1896. A “marathon” race was the final event of those games. A year later, the famous Boston Marathon followed.
Despite the many physical and mental challenges it takes to cover 26.2 miles in as short a time as possible, the races attract competitors across the globe. Many of them will be here this Sunday for the 19th annual ServisFirst Bank Mobile Marathon presented by Infirmary Health.
The roots of the local race can be traced back to 2001. The First Night Mobile event was a nonalcoholic arts festival that coincided with New Year’s Eve. Joining them in hopes of raising funds that year was L’Arche Mobile, a Christian organization that creates a community for people with intellectual disabilities in a permanent, family-like environment.
Marty O’Malley, executive director of the Mobile chapter since 1980, said it was first called the First Light Marathon — a play on words for the First Night event. The current name is a recent change.
“It was changed to the Mobile Marathon last year,” O’Malley told Lagniappe. “A lot of out-of-town runners wanted ‘Mobile’ included in the name. Most of the bigger marathons have their race named by location, such as the Boston Marathon and New York City Marathon.
“Our race has a pretty credible history, and it is a great way to promote the city.”
The Mobile Marathon is one of Alabama’s biggest sporting events each year. According to the latest fiscal year report from the Mobile Sports Authority, the 2019 race contributed $748,000 to the local economy.
“The runners love our course because it goes through our beautiful historic districts,” O’Malley said. “In the past, our runners have been responsible for 400- to 800-room nights. This year we are shooting for 500 to 550. That is good tax dollars coming into the city.”
Unique among other races
Also attracting runners are the partnerships that O’Malley and the organizers have worked out with similar contests.
“We had partnered with Mississippi Blues Marathon in Jackson in the past to have back-to-back races, but then they cancelled their race one year the day before it was scheduled,” O’Malley said. “We had all these people signed up for both. Then they didn’t have the race the next year.”
Now for the third consecutive year, an agreement has been set up with the Pensacola Beach Run Half Marathon. It takes place on Saturday.
“We expect 100 people from the Pensacola race to enter either our full marathon or half marathon,” O’Malley said. “We are in the process of talking with race organizers in Mississippi and Louisiana to create a series of races that would take place over three to four months. It is still in the planning stages, but we are hoping to have it next fall.”
O’Malley said the Port City Pacers running group has taken over organization of the Kids’ Marathon. What makes this event special is the how the miles are compiled.
“We’ve been doing it for 10 years,” O’Malley said. “Any child through their school walks or runs 25 miles in the fall and then the final 1.2 miles on the day of race. We treat them like they ran a full marathon. The Pacers help the kids to track their mileage and to promote fitness through the schools.”
Another new feature is the availability of a quarter-zip, long-sleeve reflective tech shirt.
“We did a little special incentive this year,” O’Malley said. “The first 500 who sign up will receive a special quarter-zip shirt. People really got excited. If we get a positive response about it, it will likely continue in some form next year. Of course, the other racers will get the regular race T-shirt we’ve always offered.”
T-shirts, though, are not the only mementos runners take home. The awards that are hand-crafted by the L’Arche residents are what make this race unique.
“We will have about 800 hand-painted awards by residents of L’Arche,” O’Malley said. “We have a lot of repeat runners who keep coming back here. They said they love crossing the finish line and getting a hug from a resident of L’Arche.”
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.
Big turnout expected
Organizers are anticipating between 1,500 and 2,000 competitors this weekend. This includes those entered in the full marathon, half marathon, five-person relay and the 1.2-mile Fun Run.
“The relay has really become popular,” O’Malley said. “Four runners cover five miles and another runner covers 6.2 miles. We usually have 60 to 90 teams competing. Not everyone can doa full marathon. If you want to participate, it is easier to do five-person relay or half marathon. It is very attractive for local runners.”
One of the things that make the Mobile event so unique is that it features a USA Track and Field-certified 26.2-mile course. It is also an official qualifier for the Boston Marathon.
Last year’s female marathon winner was Elizabeth Dollas of Amesbury, Mass. (3:04:50). Just behind her were Erin Padgett of Loxley (3:20:48) and Kelly Keyser of Mobile (3:28:08).
Winning the male division was Josh Whitehead of Madison, Ala. (2:53:17). The highest local finisher was Ron Brooks of Spanish Fort, in eighth place (3:12:13).
For the half marathon, the top female finishers were Donnelly Howard of Mobile (1:24:30) and Jessica Jones of Dauphin Island (1:29:54). Leading the men were Cody Parker of Bay Minette (1:17:54) and Drew Roberts of Mobile (1:18:45). For the back-to-back race with Pensacola, Christopher Ekman of Mobile took top honors (1:23:59).
The full marathon, half marathon and five-person relay will begin at 7:30 a.m. at the corner of Government and Claiborne streets in Downtown Mobile. The Kids’ Marathon and Fun Run start at 2 p.m. from the northwest corner of Bienville Square.
After the races, the award ceremonies, live music and food will occur in Bienville Square. To learn more about the race and L’Arche, visit mobilemarathon.org or call 251-438-2094.
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