- The Washington Times - Monday, March 23, 2009

Twelve months ago, the National Marathon & Half Marathon was at a critical juncture.

Three years young, the District’s spring marathon was not exactly setting attendance records, a major concern for its organizer, the Greater Washington Sports Alliance.

How do you justify closing downtown roads and reworking traffic for hours on a Saturday morning, inconveniencing thousands of motorists so that some 1,388 athletes can enjoy their 26.2-mile hobby and some 2,631 athletes could go half that distance?

It becomes a tough sell to the city and to the police who man the streets. It becomes a tough sell to a city, albeit one now led by a mayor who loves to run but is bombarded with complaints year after year.

Bob Sweeney can take this off his list of concerns. The GWSA president was all smiles during the event Saturday — and that was not entirely attributed to his wife, two girls and little twin sons hanging with him.

Sweeney already was beaming weeks ago when the half marathon sold out at 5,000 and marathon sales were brisk. In fact, the marathon nearly sold out at 3,000 entries. Attendance was up 69 percent from last year despite the recession.

This event is on the verge of a breakout that would set it on course to rival Baltimore, Richmond, Philadelphia and other city races that draw quality fields. Once it does, the race will begin to have leverage in this city. Boston, New York and Chicago never would have grown to prominence without such leverage.

Leverage gives the organizers the power to set some of the race’s important parameters — the race course and start time, for example.

The half marathon course is stellar, a wonderful mix of monuments and unique neighborhoods like Adams Morgan, Howard University and the H Street corridor. But this race still suffers from a lack of spectators, and the 7 a.m. start certainly does not help.

The marathon uses the half marathon course for the first half of its race, but the second half travels mostly through the National Mall area, along the river and through Anacostia Park — all with long, quiet, desolate sections.

To gain leverage in this city, the organizers will need more than just the running community trying to win the city council’s support; the GWSA needs communities along the course to be excited about the race. Cities with hugely successful marathons find runners and nonrunners alike embrace their events.

One day this may happen for this race. Remember that some 34 years ago the Marine Corps Marathon had a thousand or so entrants running on the bicycle path in Alexandria. The New York City Marathon began with four loops around Central Park. Every race has to start somewhere, and 8,000 runners in its fourth year is a great start.

Aging gracefully &#8212 One of the greatest moments in U.S. Olympic history was when Joan Benoit Samuelson strode into L.A. Coliseum en route to gold in the inaugural women’s Olympic marathon in 1984.

Friday at the USA Masters Indoor Track & Field Championships at Prince George’s Sportsplex, she was competing just as tenaciously in the 3,000 meters. At 51, however, she no longer has competition.

But she still has records to break, and she kept it exciting — stiff hip and all — by flirting with the women’s 50 to 54 age group U.S. record of 10:23.84 for nearly the entire 15-lap race. A surge on the last lap helped Samuelson slide under the mark in 10:22.69.

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