Four years ago, the Baltimore Running Festival lost its title sponsor, and along with it the cash purses that drew elite marathoners to the city's signature foot race.
Gone were the aspirations that Baltimore's hilly course might rise one day grow to rival Boston, Chicago or New York, but race organizers said it's found a second wind.
While participation is off by a few thousand runners, the festival still draws more than 20,000 runners into the city from all over the country and around the world. Instead of finishing at Ravens Walk, in the gritty parking lot between Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium, the race will end on Pratt Street at the Inner Harbor, a more scenic backdrop — and one better promoting the city.
Race officials say that what's been lost in winning times has been made up for with local flavor and story lines.
"When that [title sponsor] was going, the winning time was like 2:10, 2:11, 2:13," said Lee Corrigan, the executive race director. "The local guys now win it."
Dave Berdan of Owings Mills, the cross country coach at Stevenson University, who won the marathon in 2013 and 2015 "runs like 2:25 — maybe 10 to 15 minutes slower than the super elite guys," Corrigan said. "But we've had some great story lines from that."
When Under Armour decided to end its title sponsorship, it said the festival could sustain itself and that the company would devote the money it spent on the race — about $500,000 — to other projects in the city. The Baltimore-based athletic apparel brand remains a festival sponsor and contributes thousands of shirts to participants.
Mayor Catherine Pugh said a running event that celebrates local athletes while still attracting outsiders is exactly what she had in mind when she helped establish the event as a first-term city council member in 2001.
"Being a runner at the time, I understood the significance of a marathon and what it could bring to the city in terms of image and visibility," Pugh said. "It certainly has helped to create a positive image."
After the first event, which drew 6,600 runners, Under Armour committed to a 10-year title sponsorship to help drive up participation and attract more elite runners, Pugh said. With that goal accomplished, Pugh said, she's pleased to see local runners taking top honors once again.
Pugh, who said she's never missed the event, will run the marathon this year as part of a four-person team of regional lawmakers, including Anne Arundel County Executive Steven Schuh, Harford County Executive Barry Glassman and Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III.
Josh Levinson, owner of Charm City Run, said he likes that the event has become more local, now that there isn't a hefty purse to attract elite runners from around the world.
"Shipping in folks from out of town who take your money, have a great time and leave the next day — that's not what running is about in my humble opinion," said Levinson, a runner whose store is a longtime vendor at the festival's expo.
When local runners like Berdan come in first, the whole community celebrates the win, he said.
Lauren Seserko, 29, said she made Baltimore's 2013 marathon her first because she knew that the familiarity of running in the city where she lives would calm her nerves. She's since run in larger events, including Chicago's marathon, but keeps coming back to the Baltimore Running Festival.
"I like that it has its own character," she said. "That's kind of how Baltimore is."
Marathons around the country have adopted various formulas to attract runners. Boston, the nation's most prestigious marathon, gives $150,000 to the top male and female finishers in the open division.
Of the lesser-known marathons, "some, like Miami, offer prize money, some, like Big Sur, don't," said Scott Douglas, a contributing editor for Runner's World and co-author of a book called "Advanced Marathoning."
While prize money can add buzz to a marathon, Douglas said it's not essential to a successful event.
The Marine Corps Marathon, for example, is one of the country's largest marathons, with a cap of 30,000 runners a year, and does not offer cash prizes.
"The average person running 4:15, what do they care if it's run in 2:12 or 2:20? They might think, 'Well, that has nothing to do with my race,' " he said.
The Baltimore Marathon, which used to divide up nearly $150,000 in prize money between the top men and women finishers, wasn't attracting world champions, Douglas said. Rather, he said, the winners would be "running a lot of very good regional races and winning enough to scrape together a living — sort of like semi-pro baseball players."
Elite marathoners often seek out flat courses, which yield the fastest times. With its hilly city route, Baltimore's marathon wasn't necessarily a top choice among the world's top competitors — even with a sizable cash price, said Peter Mulligan, owner of the Falls Road Running Store.
This year's marathon will be Berdan's sixth in Baltimore. Like other elite runners, he could choose to race events with the promise of a cash prize to top off the glory of winning, but he prefers to run in Baltimore because the win means more here.
"What it means to the community and the team is what has kept me going," said Berdan, 36.
Berdan said he'll run Saturday knowing the college students he coaches will be cheering him on along the way or watching on television at home. His sons, ages 6 and 8, always root him on, too, though this year they must decide between cheering on Dad and an afternoon soccer match, Berdan said.
While the Baltimore Running Festival isn't attracting the top runners, the event succeeds in ways other don't — it offers something for runners at every level, said Mulligan, who ran his first marathon in Baltimore in 2003 and has since run 70 others.
"They're not just going after the marathoner," he said. "They're going after the runner."
This year's projected field sizes are are 4,000 for the marathon, 10,000 for the half marathon and 23,000 overall. There is also a 5K, a team relay and a kids' run.
That's about the same as 2016, but down from 27,000 participants in 2012, the last year that Under Armour served as title sponsor.
Corrigan said the rioting after Freddie Gray's death in April 2015 knocked participation down about 10 percent that year, but it's been rebounding. This year's numbers also are impacted by the Marine Corps Marathon, which falls on the same weekend.
"The half-marathon distance has been our most popular race for more than a decade, and that is consistent with national numbers," said Dave Gell, a spokesman for Corrigan Sports Enterprises, which manages the event. "Besides the obvious 13.1 mile difference on race day, training for a half is less time-consuming in advance of race day."
Organizers say the event has a $40 million impact on Baltimore. It also has raised $12 million for charity since its inception in 2001, they said.
This year's marathon still starts at Camden Yards, outside Pickles Pub, head out toward Druid Hill Park, then return through downtown to Locust Point. It then wraps around the harbor to Canton and up through Patterson and Clifton parks to Lake Montebello.
Down the stretch, the route has changed. Instead of Eutaw Street, runners will take Maryland Avenue, which becomes Cathedral Street and, finally, North Liberty Street before emptying into Hopkins Plaza. There, they'll turn left onto Pratt and finish beside Transamerica Tower.
Levinson said he likes that the race takes runners on a "real journey through the city."
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