Map: 2012 Omaha Marathon routes (printable)
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They called it heartbreak hill. The hill from hell. Or, if you’re a glass-half-full type, the hill for heroes — because you couldn’t climb it if you weren’t one.
“It was a concern for folks,” said Susie Smisek, race director of the Omaha Marathon. “But it’s no longer on the route. We were able to redirect through downtown Omaha.”
And so the course will be a little less heartbreaking for the 4,300 registered for Sunday’s full, half and 10K races.
The marathon gained its reputation as a hilly course shortly after its debut in 1974. It’s next to the river, Smisek explained, it can’t be completely flat.
In 2003, when Smisek took over, the race boasted at least six sizeable hills. This year, it’s down to one.
The incline begins on Sixth and Pacific Streets in downtown Omaha, roughly 7.8 miles into the race. It continues to climb for about one mile. Heartbreak hill 2.0? The streets before it feature rolling terrain, and after mile 11, the course levels off.
The course is typically considered more challenging than the notably flat Lincoln Marathon, which welcomed 10,000 runners in May. The Omaha race is growing slowly, but the hills sometimes intimidated casual runners and kept numbers lower than Smisek would like.
The terrain isn’t the only factor, though. The Omaha Marathon is competing with other national and local races in September. And unlike the Lincoln Marathon, it doesn’t have a Memorial Stadium finish to entice football fans.
In Omaha, TD Ameritrade Park is the next best thing. If the park hosted the finish line, “I can guarantee you we’d have more registrations,” Smisek said. But for a $25,000 fee, the price wasn’t right.
So she makes other, more affordable adjustments. Changing the route will broaden the marathon’s appeal, Smisek said.
Stacy Shaw, who ran the Omaha Marathon in 2010 and 2011, almost didn’t sign up for the race because friends told her it would be too hard.
“(The hills) end up scaring everyone away,” said Shaw, 46, of Hastings, Neb. “(Serious) runners want to PR, and new runners don’t want to bonk it. It ends up hurting the marathon.”
Though Shaw thrives running hills — she placed second both years — she understands why organizers would take them out.
“If that’s what it takes to make it grow, I think it’s a good thing,” she said. “I’d rather see more people there.”
The city approved the altered course last month, which means the new route didn’t affect 2012 registration. But Smisek expects at least 5,000 people to sign up next year. By 2015, she hopes to eclipse the Lincoln Marathon and register between 10,000 and 12,000 people.
Many of them will be first-time runners, but Smisek estimates the more level course will also attract elite runners from outside Nebraska who are on the hunt for a personal record. The flatter the route, the faster the race.
Even so, Smisek is disappointed the hills are disappearing. She ran the Omaha Marathon in 1989 and 2001 and the half marathon in 2010. The “hill from hell,” near 10th and Bancroft Streets, was one of her favorites.
“A race with some variation, some hills, it’s easier on your body because you’re using different muscles and you don’t have the same pounding on your joints,” she said.
Plus, she said, running hills earns you bragging rights. There are people, like Shaw, who agree with Smisek, though she said they are in the minority.
Hills or no hills, Smisek hopes runners will return and bring a few friends to the race in years to come.
“I want people to say, ‘Don’t miss out on Omaha.’”
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