Time for a Marathon Makeover?

By Chris Welch • Photos by Gregg Gelmis

Everybody, it seems, is into the extreme makeover thing. On television there’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” “Restaurant Makeover,” even “The Nanny” to make over your bratty kids.

So what about an Extreme Makeover for the Rocket City Marathon, which turns 37 this year and has been on the same basic course through south Huntsville for the last 35 or so years?

UPDATE – The Huntsville Track Club has announced plans for route and other significant changes to the Rocket City Marathon.

Although the Rocket City Marathon is named the best marathon in the southeast by Running Journal, many runners believe it’s time for some new scenery on the fast, flat but otherwise non-scenic course. The flat course has historically brought in many elite runners trying to qualify for Boston or the U.S. Olympic Trials, but nowadays there are many flat and fast options for runners to choose from.

“The Bailey Cove-Green Cove-Chaney Thompson (roads) doldrums need to go,” said Rob Youngren, one of the top local runners who has participated in the Rocket City Marathon as a competitor and pacer, posted on the Facebook site We Run Huntsville. “I don’t mind the early/late neighborhood running though. However it would make a lot of sense to include some more of Huntsville’s attractions: Space & Rocket Center, Botanical Gardens, etc … since this is the Rocket City Marathon.

“Having raced/paced/swept the Rocket City Marathon 11 times, I think it’s time the event had a fresh face lift.”

So, how about running past a real rocket at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center? It’s a no-brainer, right? Or cruising past the sights and smells of the Botanical Garden. Winding through the cultural, artsy Five Points District. Going by Maple Hill Cemetery, where Civil War soldiers and Alabama governors are buried. Passing the beautiful Big Spring Park and Huntsville Art Museum. Then, finishing in the Von Braun Center Arena with a band playing and hundreds cheering you on?

Sounds like fun, huh, even if you have to do the 26.2 miles?

The Huntsville Track Club and organizers of the Rocket City Marathon think so and want to jazz up the race course and make the field bigger – from 1,500 to 5,000 entrants – while still holding onto its smaller race charm.

An announcement is expected to be made at this year’s marathon on Dec. 14 about changes for next year’s marathon, but at press time those details were still being ironed out.

“The Rocket City Marathon Committee has been working on a potential new course for the marathon for the last year,” said Rocket City Marathon race director Suzanne Taylor, co-owner of Fleet Feet Running Store. “We would love to include some of the Huntsville landmarks like The Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville Botanical Gardens, Lowe Mill, Maple Hill and Downtown Huntsville.

“We are working closely with the city officials to develop a new course that will be exciting for local marathoners as well as those from out of town. In fact, we believe this will be a huge draw to Huntsville, which will ultimately promote tourism and stimulate our local economy.”

Mayor Tommy Battle is all in favor of looking at ways to get more people – including runners – to the city’s landmarks and attractions. The current impact of the Rocket city Marathon on the city is about $200,000, according to Huntsville Track Club president Eric Fritz, and would rise to $1 million to $2 million with 5,000 entrants.

“Going out to new, more popular sites is great, we just need to make sure we can fit into traffic schemes and what’s happening during those times,” Battle said. “You know, during holiday times we have to keep the roads open and not close them.

“But we want to look at a whole lot of things that make running more fun in Madison County and brings more tourists in the area because they’re such an asset to our community.”

Photo by Greg Gelmis

Photo by Greg Gelmis

Fritz said the track club has been working with Huntsville Police since March, bouncing off ideas about a new course. HTC and Rocket City Marathon organizers thought they might have to change and recertify the course this year because of the new Gateway Boulevard the city is constructing to get downtown easier. But the road, which when completed will close all entrances to the Holiday Inn back parking lot and make it unusable for a finish line, has been delayed, allowing this year’s marathon to run without problems.

“Our thinking is ‘Let’s take a fresh look since we’ve got to redo it all anyway and we can make this course better,’” said Fritz, who added this year’s marathon activities will include music and bands on the course and a kids’ marathon. “One of the things that’s been restrictive is the number of participants. We’ve had to cap it at 1500 and that’s about the amount of people the Holiday Inn can handle at the finish line. We’ve talked about adding more people because it fills up quickly, and if we do that, we need more room.

“My opinion is we live in a day of rock and roll marathons with 10,000 runners,” Fritz said. “They’re put on by a for-profit company and they put on a good event, but they take a lot of the revenue when they leave the city. Our goal, as a non-profit Huntsville based group, is not to mimic, but emulate what they do and keep the revenue in town and bring more people to Huntsville’s destinations.”

The first Rocket City Marathon was held in 1977, starting at the top of Monte Sano at the elementary school, Youngren said. It ran a loop around Panorama Drive, passed through the park and ran down Bankhead Parkway and on out through the University of Alabama in Huntsville, looped around Research Park and finished at UAH, Youngren said. The course remained that way for two years and then started and ended at Grissom High School, winding through south Huntsville and parts of downtown. After several years, the start/finish was moved to the Holiday Inn downtown.

The courses were designed long before I-565 carved a path through Huntsville, and the only reason it can run across Governor’s Drive/U.S. 431 is because the Rocket City Marathon was grandfathered in, Youngren says. Now, “there are major issues with trying to get a race to cross or run along any major highway. It just won’t happen,” Youngren said.

So, how do you design a course that goes out to the Space and Rocket Center off (I-565)?

“Clinton Avenue,” Fritz said. “Really, if you want to go west, one way in and out of town, and that’s Clinton Avenue. We’re working with the city to approve a course where we can do a loop downtown to the Space and Rocket Center via Clinton Avenue. We’re also trying to figure out a way to go northeast past things like the old site of the Dallas Mill, Maple Hill Cemetery, Five Points and other spots.”

Many runners are excited about the news.

Chrisjen Hayme: “It would be nice to see some rockets since it’s in the name, but I still enjoyed it nonetheless last year.”

Kevin Mack: “Definitely should be changed. Heard they might be moving it out near the Space and Rocket Center and Botanical Gardens, that would be cool.”

Eric Broyles: I think a point to point course from Huntsville (Bridge Street) to Decatur (Point Mallard) would be pretty epic.”

Scott Perry: I could go for a point-to-point from Monte Sano through downtown and finish at the Rocket Center.”

Joanna Whisenant, on the other hand, is running the course for the sixth time this year and doesn’t see the need to mess up a good thing. “I love it. I do not see that it needs to be changed.”

Fritz has talked to the Madison County convention and visitors bureau, Ralph Stone of the Sports Commission and members of the Huntsville Police Department, but said many details need to be ironed out before the course can be “made over” and before 3,500 or so more runners could be added.

“We’re trying to make it a big celebration rather than a small town race,” Fritz said, “but we want to keep the small town detail, the personal hometown touches that (former race directors) Harold and Louise Tinsley brought to the race that people all around the country talk about.”