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.”