Lee Corrigan still remembers the first Baltimore Marathon 11 years ago, when just 6,000 runners took part in the festivities and the city barely stopped to notice.
The event's founder faced plenty of doubters, many who didn't believe Corrigan and his agency could make the event significant to the community or to the country's top-notch runners.
"We've earned our spot on the calendar in Baltimore, in the state of Maryland and the race calendar across the country," the head of Corrigan Sports Enterprises said. "It's a top-10 race in the country."
For the fifth consecutive year, the Baltimore Running Festival has sold out all five races — the marathon, half-marathon, relay, 5K and kids fun run. Officials expect 24 countries and all 50 states to be represented among the runners, who will compete for the largest purse in race history — $145,000.
The top finisher in the men's and women's marathons will receive $25,000 apiece.
"We were bragging about people coming from various cities in our country, and now they're coming from countries outside the United States," said State Sen. Catherine Pugh, who has supported the marathon since its inception. "That is really exciting."
This year, Corrigan and his team have put a twist on the 26.2-mile marathon course. Starting from the intersection of Russell and Camden streets at 8 a.m., runners will make their way for the first time through the Baltimore Zoo and past the Under Armour headquarters in Tide Point.
"It adds some fun to the race," said Corrigan, who added that each competitor will receive an Under Armour T-shirt. "Running alongside penguins and polar bears will provide our field with a unique Baltimore experience that they will never forget."
But the marathon isn't just for fun. Several of the nation's top runners are also expected to compete Saturday.
Julius Keter, 22, who won the marathon in 2008 in an event-record 2 hours, 11 minutes, 56 seconds, is the favorite on the men's side. Keter used his earnings from the first-place finish to start a private school in Nairobi, Kenya, called Koisegem Academy, which has 300 students.
Last year's women's champion, Olena Shurkhno, has returned to defend her crown. The 34-year-old Ukrainian finished in 2:32:16, the second-fastest time in women's event history. Perhaps Shurkhno's biggest competition are Tezeta Dengersa, a 31-year-old from Ethiopia, and Gladys Asiba, a 34-year-old from Kenya.
Dengersa competed in the 2004 Olympics, while Asiba won the 2007 Baltimore Marathon and is a member of the 2011 Kenyan National team.
Aside from the thousands of runners who will grace the streets of Baltimore, the marathon will house more than 1,000 volunteers — 250 medical personnel stationed along the route and more than 1,400 others who will hand out water and help with festivities at the finish line.
It all adds up to one of the biggest sporting events the city will host this year.
"We all know that we need events like this," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Thursday at a news conference. "Baltimore needs events like this in order for us to grow. Each year, the festival gives Baltimore a chance to shine."
City primed for biggest Baltimore Running Festival yet
Event draws 25,000 runners, features biggest marathon purse in race history
We've upgraded our reader commenting system. Learn more about the new features.