Runners have their pick of long-distance races in the coming weeks.
For the first time, all three of Omaha’s marathons are set for consecutive weekends. The string of road races starts on Sept. 15 with the Omaha Marathon. The Heartland and Nebraska Marathons will follow.
But is it reasonable for a city of Omaha’s size to host three marathons? How sustainable is it for three long-distance races to be held back-to-back-to-back?
It isn’t unusual in larger cities to see marathons stacked one after another on the running calendar, said Rich Harshbarger, CEO of Running USA, a national trade association.
Harshbarger, who lives in Michigan, said that within a four-hour drive from Detroit — a metro area that hovers around 4 million people — the area can see as many as four major marathons within two weeks.
But it’s surprising to see the stacked marathon schedule in a market like Omaha, with fewer than a million people in its metro area, Harshbarger said. Especially in light of race registration numbers dropping nationally.
The Omaha Marathon, in its 44th year, has been the traditional fall running event in Omaha. This year, organizers expect 1,500 runners among the five distances offered: marathon, half-marathon, 10K, 5K and 1 mile. And though its numbers have dwindled, it still leads the race trio in registration numbers.
When New York-based company HITS Endurance purchased the rights to the Omaha Marathon from a local owner in 2013, the races drew about 4,000 runners. In the years following, they heard complaints from runners about snags on the course, and that left an opening for local organizers to join the scene, said race directors for the Heartland Marathon and Nebraska Marathon.
Those two events started two years after HITS took over, in 2015.
“We knew that a lot of the local running community was frustrated with (the Omaha Marathon),” Nebraska Marathon co-director Joe Sutter said. “We saw that as an opportunity to do our own event.”
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The two locally organized races considered teaming up but couldn’t come to an agreement that made sense for both parties.
“Omaha’s odd because every other big city our size has a huge race, even Lincoln,” Sutter said. “For whatever reason, the Omaha Marathon didn’t do that, and that’s why us and Heartland exist. Hopefully that happens some day where we are a one-race town.”
Tom Whitaker, Heartland Marathon race director, said he doesn’t think Omaha is a big enough market for three marathons. He said he wonders when one of the groups will “throw up their hands and say ‘This is not worth it.’ ”
“There’s just not enough runners to support three marathons in three weekends,” he said.
The Heartland Marathon, organized by the Omaha Running Club, should see about 700 runners at its Sept. 22 races. It offers a marathon, half-marathon, 10K and a marathon relay. Those numbers are on par with what the event has drawn in past years.
The Nebraska Marathon, also in its fifth year, was previously held during the second week of October. Organizers bumped it up to Sept. 29 this year, in part, hoping for nicer weather, Sutter said. But it also helps to avoid competing with the Market to Market Relay, a popular race that draws 600 teams to Omaha and Lincoln.
The Nebraska Marathon is expected to draw 1,000 runners, also on par with past years. It offers a marathon, half-marathon and 5K.
Having the three marathons so close together isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Sutter said.
“I kind of liken it to restaurants. If there’s three great restaurants in town, what’s wrong with that? We have options and opportunities,” Sutter said.
John Eickman, vice president of HITS and organizer of the Omaha Marathon, said his group is surprised one of the other races doesn’t move to spring but doesn’t mind the competition.
Eickman said HITS doesn’t organize any other running events. Organizers discontinued running events in other cities after numbers dipped. He said they’re pleased to draw 1,500 runners in Omaha and will keep the fall date.
“I think with the history of the Omaha Marathon and where we’re at right now, we’re perfectly sustainable,” Eickman said. “We don’t have any question that the Omaha Marathon will continue.”
Susie Smisek, an Omahan and former race director, said she wouldn’t have expected the city to host three marathons in such a short timespan. But the city’s growth and the large pool of runners could help support the races. Smisek organized the Omaha Marathon for 11 years before HITS took over.
Runners could use the events to train, running one race’s 10K before tackling another race’s half-marathon, she said.
The key to keeping runners coming back to all three events, she said, is giving them a memorable experience.
“It’s about what the race has to offer and how they treat their runners,” Smisek said. “I tried my hardest to make sure that we were hospitable, to make sure our runners felt welcomed and valued.”
Harshbarger, with Running USA, said reaching the five-year threshold is generally a sign that races are doing things well.
Registration numbers are dropping nationally, he said: In 2015, about 19 million people were crossing the finish line at races. Last year, 18.1 million runners were participating in organized races.
Now, more runners are looking for an experience.
“The days of solitary runs, where it was mostly about running alone against a clock (are gone). It was about achievement,” Harshbarger said. “What we see now ... is a social experience.”
Race organizers try to keep runners interested by offering post-race amenities. Think meals, food trucks, beer and entertainment. They also hope those offerings set them apart from the competition.
The three race organizers said it’s hard to say how all three races will fare moving forward.
Races are expensive to organize, Sutter said. There are costs for permits, rentals, medics, police and more.
“I think that eventually, when it doesn’t become financially feasible anymore, somebody will bow out,” he said. “I don’t wish that on any of us.”
Husker fans will no longer have a chance to see their U.S. senator slinging the most Nebraska food at the most Nebraska of places — Memorial Stadium.
A recent confrontation with a protester during a game has led Sen. Ben Sasse to stop selling Runzas at Husker games.
A spokesman for Sasse said that, “in consultation with Runza,” the Sasse family decided not to hawk Runzas at games while Sasse is a candidate. The Republican is seeking re-election to a second term in 2020.
Spokesman James Wegmann described the incident: “A shrieking protester wearing ‘F*** Trump’ garb decided to scream endless obscenities at Ben and his daughter while they were vending at the home opener.”
“This whole thing is beyond dumb and shows how poisonous partisanship is spoiling healthy civic life,” Wegmann said.
The protester, 67-year-old Judy King, a Lincoln retiree, said she was angry because she and other sexual assault survivors flew out to meet with Sasse during Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings in September 2018. They met with a staffer but not the senator himself — and King has not been able to meet with him since, though she has continued to meet with staffers.
“It’s very upsetting to see him at football games selling Runzas when he can’t take half an hour to meet with women who’ve been sexually assaulted,” she said.
Wegmann said Sasse was in Nebraska when the group tried to meet with him about Kavanaugh.
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King, a Husker fan who said she’s been sitting in the same seat for decades, decided that if she saw Sasse selling Runzas, she would act.
She went to the game wearing a shirt that said, “Will trade racists for refugees.”
The senator showed up with the Runzas, and she pulled out her anti-Trump hat. She had hoped to tell Sasse that she was having trouble making an appointment with him.
According to King, he looked at her, looked at her hat, and said, “We’re not going to do this here.”
She said she then started following him and yelling, “What are you doing selling Runzas here while our farmers are underwater?”
Eventually, she said, stadium security and the police asked her to leave.
King, a registered Democrat, said she got more involved in politics after Trump was elected. She said she’s tried to contact all of her federal representatives and that Sasse is the hardest to reach.
She said she has tried to confront Sasse in public before, including once at the Lincoln Marathon.
She’s not the only one who tried to bring up politics to Sasse at the game.
Elena Salisbury, a 29-year-old social worker from Omaha who was on the same D.C. trip during the Kavanaugh hearings, also separately addressed Sasse at the Husker game. She said she wanted to talk to him about family separations at the border, and he told her that he didn’t have the time to get into a complex policy discussion.
Sasse’s Runza selling “feels very political, and I think if he’s going to do that, he’s got to see it as an opportunity to talk to his constituents,” she said. “You need to be open to conversations.”
Runza officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Wegmann said Sasse’s sale of Runzas has “never been about politics.” He said Sasse has been selling Runzas at the stadium on and off since 1983.
The Sasse campaign has promoted his Runza gig.
“Are you in Memorial Stadium right now? If so, look for Senator Sasse. He has a Runza for you! #GBR,” his campaign posted on Facebook in September 2015.
And the next month: “Senator Sasse once again hawking Runzas in Memorial Stadium for charity. Go Big Red!! #GBR #Huskers.”
He’s also taken other part-time work, such as driving for a ride-hailing service. “I like to work alongside Nebraskans. I drove uber yesterday. (For charity ...),” Sasse responded to inquiring Twitter users in 2016.
AHEAD OF TRADE TALKS
BEIJING (AP) — China will lift punitive tariffs imposed on U.S. soybeans and pork in a trade war with Washington, a state news agency said Friday, adding to conciliatory gestures by the two sides ahead of negotiations.
China will suspend tariff hikes on soybeans, pork and some other farm goods, the Xinhua News Agency said, citing the Cabinet planning agency and the Commerce Ministry. Beijing "supports domestic companies in purchasing a certain amount of U.S. farm produce," it said, but it gave no details.
The move follows President Donald Trump's decision Wednesday to postpone a planned Oct. 1 tariff hike on Chinese imports to Oct. 15.
Hopes are growing that the two sides might defuse the prolonged dispute that is threatening global economic growth. But there has been no sign of progress on the main issues in their sprawling conflict over trade and technology.
Beijing's decision to restore access to low-cost U.S. soybeans also would help Chinese pig farmers who use soy as animal feed. They are reeling from an epidemic of African swine fever that has caused pork prices to soar.
Phone calls to the commerce
and finance ministries weren't answered on Friday, a national holiday in China.
"China has a huge market, and the prospects for importing high-quality U.S. farm produce are broad," Xinhua said. "China hopes the United States will be true to its word, make progress on its commitments and create favorable conditions for bilateral agricultural cooperation."
Beijing imposed 25% tariffs on American farm goods last year in response to Trump's tariff hikes on Chinese goods. Importers were ordered to stop buying soybeans, the biggest U.S. export to China.
China targeted farm goods, hurting rural areas that supported Trump in the 2016 presidential election.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin called Wednesday's tariff delay by Trump a "goodwill gesture to the Chinese."
The Commerce Ministry said Thursday that importers were asking American suppliers for prices of soybeans and pork. It gave no indication whether they planned to place orders.
Washington wants Beijing to roll back plans for state-led development of leaders in robotics and other technologies. The United States, Europe and other trading partners argue those violate China's free trade commitments.
Some American officials worry they will erode U.S. industrial leadership.
Negotiations broke down in May over how to enforce any deal. Beijing says Trump's tariff hikes must be lifted as soon as an agreement takes effect. Washington wants to keep some in place to ensure Chinese compliance.
Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed in June to resume talks, but the last round in Shanghai in July produced no progress.
Chinese negotiators are due to fly to Washington in early October to meet with Mnuchin and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, according to the treasury secretary. He said mid-level U.S. and Chinese officials were due to meet next week or the following week to prepare.
By delaying his tariff hike, Trump allowed for the possibility the talks might make enough progress to avert the increase indefinitely. However, economists say a final agreement is unlikely this year.
Tariff hikes by both sides on billions of dollars of goods have disrupted business for farms and factories in both countries, weighing on global economic growth.
China's announcement Friday also fine-tunes trade penalties to reduce damage to its own economy at a time of slowing growth.
Loss of access to American soybeans pushed up costs for Chinese pig farmers after African swine fever caused the loss of more than 1 million pigs and disrupted supplies of China's staple meat, causing prices to soar.
Authorities have told soybean importers to find new sources, but the United States is the biggest and lowest-cost exporter. Buyers are looking to Brazil and Argentina, but their output cannot fill the whole gap and their prices are higher.
On Wednesday, Beijing announced exemptions from punitive duties for 16 categories of American products.
The Chinese exemptions apply to raw materials needed by farmers and factories and some medicines.
The Commerce Ministry said Thursday that exemptions were granted if no alternative suppliers could be found or the increase would hurt Chinese industry or the economy.
Trying to keep up with the demand for nurses in Nebraska, as in the rest of the nation, involves hitting a moving target.
The state’s population continues to age. With that comes a need for more health care — and more nurses to deliver it. Changes in health care — such as performing more complex procedures in outpatient clinics — are also driving demand for more nurses.
“The supply has increased pretty dramatically, but changes in people’s health and health care are resulting in more demand,” said Juliann Sebastian, dean of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s College of Nursing.
To better track current demand and forecast future demand, the Nebraska Center for Nursing developed a new workforce supply and demand model. It factors in variables that affect demand — such as residents’ age, disease prevalence, available hospital beds — and projects it for nine economic regions of the state.
The center’s latest report puts the current shortage at the equivalent of 4,062 nurses statewide. That’s expected to grow to 5,436 in 2025, an increase of almost 34%.
“Unless something dramatic happens, I don’t see it changing for a while,” said Catherine Todero, dean of Creighton University’s College of Nursing.
Urban residents, according to a report outlining the model, are more likely to seek care at an emergency room or urgent care center and are less likely to have a primary care physician. Suburban and rural residents, by comparison, are more likely to see the same doctor, who is familiar with their medical history. That results in earlier diagnosis and fewer hospitalizations and, consequently, a lower demand for nurses than in urban communities.
Yet rural areas face greater challenges with supply. Most of the growth in nursing — 88% — has been concentrated in metropolitan areas. Eighty-four of the state’s 93 counties have fewer registered nurses than the state average of 1,300 per 100,000 people. Five counties have no registered nurses or licensed practical nurses.
Lisa Walters, president of the center’s board, said the model also allows users to make predictions as conditions change, such as foreseeing the impact of a new hospital wing.
Nationally, the lag between supply and demand is similar. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the nursing workforce is projected to grow from 3.1 million in 2018 to 3.4 million in 2028, an increase of 12%. But 210,400 new registered nurses will be needed each year through 2028 to fill new positions and to replace retiring nurses, according to the bureau.
That means that those hiring nurses are kept busy.
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“It feels like it’s just a constant thing,” said Andy Noon, director of talent management for Nebraska Medicine. “Our (patient) volumes are up. There’s a need for more, and that doesn’t feel like it’s going away.”
The Nebraska Hospital Association noted a 5% vacancy rate for registered nurses at hospitals statewide in 2017. That was down from an uptick that reached 10.6% in 2015.
One of the biggest challenges, Noon and others said, is finding experienced nurses, particularly in specialty areas such as intensive care units and operating rooms. Those positions often require more training than nurses typically have straight out of school.
To address that problem, hospitals may reach out to nursing school partners or rely on on-the-job training.
At Methodist Hospital, 60% of patients are over age 65. There, they’ve emphasized training staff on the needs of older adults.
Children’s Hospital & Medical Center, which hired 191 nurses this year and will open 100 new beds in 2021, offers a program to help experienced nurses coming from the adult world make the switch to pediatrics. Recent grads participate in a two-year residency program.
Health systems also have to be creative about workforce planning, both to make sure that nurses are employed to their best effect and to maintain the care and safety of patients. In some cases, that’s led to nontraditional shifts.
Children’s, for instance, started offering a nine-month contract earlier this year, allowing nurses to work full time for nine months and take three months off, said Suzanne Nocita, senior vice president of human resources. Nurses, if they choose, can take the summer off to be home with their children when school’s out. The hospital’s census tends to be lower in the summer.
“We’re just trying to always keep a pulse on the marketplace,” Nocita said. “As our workforce changes with (different) generations, we have to meet the needs of our employees.”
Methodist uses analytics to project an average daily census and adjusts staffing to meet it, said Teri Tipton Bruening, chief nursing officer and a vice president at Methodist and Methodist Women’s Hospital.
Linda Chase, divisional chief nursing officer at CHI Health, said the system’s hospitals can look at numbers every four hours and adjust staff.
Both Methodist and CHI have float pools that they can draw from, like schools districts tap internal substitute teacher pools, to fill unexpected vacancies or handle surges in patient numbers.
“It’s not easy,” Chase said. “You’ve got to think of something new every day.”
Hospital officials say they generally follow national and specialty association guidelines for how many nurses are on duty per patient.
Sue Nuss, chief nursing officer at Nebraska Medicine, said that health system recently has had high patient numbers, which has stretched nurses to higher ratios.
But the hospital works hard to avoid closing beds or deferring transfers, she said. The hospital occasionally puts lead nurses or supervisors on staff, which helps keep ratios manageable.
CHI’s Chase said pairing registered nurses with licensed practical nurses and certified nursing assistants or other team members is another way to make sure that patients are getting proper care while reducing the burden on nurses. Nursing assistants, for example, can take vital signs and report them to nurses.
Chase said St. Elizabeth Regional Medical Center in Lincoln had some staffing challenges last year. The chief nurse there partnered with area nursing schools and placed upper-level nursing students with nurses to reduce workloads. Now those students are graduating, and the hospital is hiring them.
Hospitals occasionally hire traveling nurses to fill gaps, but that can be costly. In 2017, some 37% of Nebraska health care organizations used temporary staffing agencies to fill vacancies, up from 34% in 2016. Most of those were smaller hospitals. Overall, health care organizations spent more than $30 million staffing temporary employees, which was up significantly from $11 million in 2016.
Those kinds of numbers led Great Plains Health to take a different approach.
The North Platte hospital at one point was staffing up to 50 travelers at a time to keep up with patient load and new services, said Jayne Johnson, senior director of human resources.
Ethan Suh, a registered nurse originally from South Korea, suggested international nurses. The hospital is in the process of hiring 52 of Suh’s recruits — the hospital sponsors their visas — and has employed 61 more through staffing companies on two-year contracts with the possibility of staying permanently.
Most of the nurses have bachelor’s degrees. All have to pass state licensing exams. “It’s just been a blessing,” Johnson said.
To help meet demand, nursing schools have significantly expanded their programs in recent years. The number of registered nurse graduates, according to state reports, has increased from 832 in 2002 to 1,247 in 2018.
This fall, Creighton enrolled a record 154 freshman nursing students. Todero said that’s an increase of about 35% over the past three years.
Research indicates that nurses stay where they train. About two-thirds of Creighton’s students come from out of state, she said, but about two-thirds stay, which works out to a brain gain for the community.
UNMC enrolled 310 freshman bachelor’s nursing students this fall, up from 283 last year, an increase of more than 9%. In Lincoln, the Bryan College of Health Sciences enrolled its largest-ever class of 456 bachelor’s nursing students.
Area schools have also worked to increase access for students, including high school students and those who have degrees in other fields. They’re also taking steps intended to keep nurses in the field once they’ve graduated.
Said Deb Carlson, president and CEO of Nebraska Methodist College, “We haven’t had a problem yet recruiting nurses. It still seems to be a profession that students are excited about.”