The best moment of the annual Baltimore Running Festival comes not when the marathon starts on the street outside Oriole Park at Camden Yards, or when the champion crosses the finish line.
For festival founder Lee Corrigan, the high point of Baltimore's annual celebration of the fleet-footed arrives when the kids come streaming down Eutaw Street at the end of their Fun Run.
"It's the cutest thing you've ever seen," Corrigan said as he prepared for this weekend's 12th annual festival. "It looks like a jailbreak — the kids are running down the homestretch, we've got live TV, Mom and Dad are standing on the side screaming, the kids have their race bands on. It's awesome."
A city tradition since 2001, Baltimore's marathon may be among the world's most proudly democratic (that's with as a small "d"). The marathoners and relay racers, who run the standard 26.2-mile course, and the half-marathoners, who run 13.2 miles, share the road for much of their races. And while the other events, including a 5K run and the heck-bent-for-leather Fun Run, are staggered so they don't interfere with the more serious runners, everyone shares the same finish line. And the crowd's enthusiasm never dims, Corrigan said, regardless of which race they're watching.
That's especially true of the festival's home stretch, the segment of Eutaw Street that runs between Oriole Park at Camden Yards and the old B&O warehouse. As runners shoot through that corridor, the result is pandemonium.
"Everybody that participates in our event gets the thrill of running down the home stretch, and thrill of literally thousands of people cheering for them," Corrigan said. "It's something that the runners really enjoy, running through that stretch of Eutaw Street, right past Babe Ruth, right between the warehouse and right field. They run straight down the pike, and they finish in the shadows of the great Johnny Unitas" outside M&T Bank Stadium.
The idea behind the running festival, Corrigan said, has always been to involve as many people as possible.
"We asked ourselves, 'What's the best way we can get the most people involved right away?' " Corrigan said. "Because people that run 26.2 miles do not grow on trees."
When the first marathon was run, organizers included the team relay and, in a nod to lone wolves who don't quite have marathon stamina, the 5K run. A few years later, in a bid to attract runners from both ends of the competitive field, the half-marathon and Fun Run were added.
"Put all that in," Corrigan said, "and we've got something for everyone. Everybody in this city seems to know somebody that's participated in this event at one level or another."
All told, some 27,000 runners are expected for this year's festival — up from about 26,000 last year — including about 4,000 entered in the marathon and 13,000 in the half-marathon.
But even people with no desire to run can get in on the fun, Corrigan stressed. There are plenty of places to watch along the 26.2-mile course, which winds it way past Tide Point, Fells Point, Patterson Park, Clifton Park and Druid Hill Park before ending across from M&T Bank Stadium.
Water stations are scattered throughout the route, each handled by volunteers — about 40 per station — who are as much cheerleaders as they are water bearers.
There's even a competition among schools along the route for which one can put on the best show, with scholarship money going to the winners.
Essentially, Corrigan acknowledged, the running festival is like throwing a 26-mile block party, without the beer pong.
"We've got a party going on, man," he said.
Not that there haven't been wrinkles to iron out. When Corrigan first proposed the idea, at least one state tourism official somberly informed him that it would never work. Every year, he sits down with city officials to figure how they can tweak the route and allow even more runners to compete.
And this year? Well, the Orioles decided it was time to bring October baseball back to Baltimore. Seems the team had first dibs on the races' start and finish lines.
"Our biggest challenge this year was the Orioles' pennant race," Corrigan said. "We had to do a lot of scoreboard watching, we had to have a lot of meetings with the Orioles and the Maryland Stadium Authority, to figure out what would happen if the Orioles were playing at home, what our Plan B was going to be."
Had the O's won their division and ended as the top seed in the American League playoffs, Oriole Park would have been booked for this weekend. Fortunately, as far as the running festival; is concerned, that didn't happen.
Not, of course, that Corrigan was rooting against the team.
"No, I was rooting for the Orioles to do well," he said with a laugh, "but not be the No. 1 seed."
If you go
The 2012 Baltimore Running Festival runs through much of the morning Saturday. The starting time for the Baltimore Marathon and the Legg Mason Team Relay is 8 a.m. at Russell and Camden streets. The 5K runs begins at 8:15 a.m. at Paca and Pratt streets. The kids' Fun Run is set for 9:20 a.m. (runners age 7 and under) and 9:30 a.m. (kids 8-12) at the Kids Fun Zone on Lot C at the stadium complex. The half-marathon begins at 9:45 a.m. at Conway and Light streets. Marathon runners should start arriving at the finish line around 10:15 a.m. Information, including a full events listing: thebaltimoremarathon.com.