- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 1, 2009

Bob Sweeney is bracing for a challenge in the next few weeks.

In the past, the president of the Greater Washington Sports Alliance worried about attracting enough entries for the SunTrust National Marathon in the District. This year is quite the contrary.

“I am contemplating what to do when we sell out, which we are going to do,” said Sweeney, whose 26.2-mile race is scheduled for March 21. “We have just under 7,000 registered runners and a sellout is 8,000. We’re probably going to sell out in the next 30 days, so we’re trying to deal with that. We are trying to figure out how not to disappoint those runners who wanted to run but couldn’t get in.”

Sweeney said the race received a huge boost after New Year’s, with some 1,060 athletes ponying up registration fees in a weeklong period. He said he believed the boost came in part from New Year’s resolutions and post-holiday blues, along with television advertisements that were running full time.

“That’s what got us into the mode this week on how to message that we are sold-out,” he said. “The race is turning out to being a very successful property.”

Just a year ago, the event, which includes a full marathon and a half marathon, struggled for an identity. Shaking off the bad taste that the defunct Washington DC Marathon left in runners’ mouths, the marathon inspired just 1,713 finishers - only 745 marathoners - in its inaugural 2006 showing.

The next year, there were 1,179 marathon finishers and 2,306 half marathon completions. Last year, just 1,388 marathoners and 2,631 half marathoners broke the tape, hardly enough participants to close down the city streets on a Saturday morning.

Sweeney said there were 5,400 entries last year. The 8,000 this year, which includes at least 3,000 marathoners, would be substantial growth.

“We’re not out of the woods by any means; there are a lot of challenges in this race,” Sweeney said. “There are a lot of security issues going through downtown. The police have been wonderful this year, though; they’ve actually become a partner in this race.”

The race got another boost last week when former race director and elite marathoner Keith Dowling was hired back as technical director. Since Dowling left last summer, race officials hadn’t been in a hurry to hire his successor. They relied on an outside company, BlueWolf Events of Grantsville, Utah, the past two years.

Meanwhile, the economic downturn seems to have missed this marathon.

“Sponsorships have been very good,” Sweeney said. “We have more sponsors now than even last year. We have the third-largest running market in the country, and people who want to run a marathon are running one right here and not necessarily traveling out of town now.”

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