Live music, an expo and, yes, a race or two

A decade ago, Baltimore joined the country's biggest cities by getting a marathon of its own.

The region's runners celebrated, long eager to carve 26.2 miles along the city's scenic waterfront and red-bricked neighborhoods. Tourism officials cheered too as Baltimore's Running Festival grew, doubling and eventually tripling in size, becoming a sporting spectacle that lured more than 22,000 athletes.

The rest of us weren't so blissed out.

For couch potatoes, it's been 10 years of blocked traffic on race day, 10 years of jealously watching lithe participants train religiously, 10 years of feeling vaguely guilty and definitely pudgy.

But this year, on its anniversary, the marathon is throwing bystanders a bone.

There'll be a free concert at the Inner Harbor on the eve of the race, more bands playing all along the course and even more entertainment waiting at the finish line. There's also a fitness expo Thursday and Friday, and a "Kids Fun Zone" at the finish line with games and interactive activities.

"It's our way of saying thank you to the city and its citizens for the 10 years of incredible support," says the festival spokesman, Dave Gell. "We're doing something above and beyond."

Lee Corrigan, a local sports event marketer, started pushing for a running festival a dozen years ago, when he realized that Baltimore was the only major city in the country without a race.

He managed to sell then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke on the idea, only to learn the mayor wouldn't be seeking re-election. Schmoke's successor, Martin O'Malley, also liked the marathon idea, but with roads to close, a course to protect and myriad other officials to win over, it wasn't easy going.

"Let's just say things weren't as smooth as they are now," Corrigan says. "There was an understanding that the greater good of this thing would carry the day. And when I say 'greater good,' I mean significant economic impact."

In 2001, the first year, about 7,000 people signed up for the festival, bringing the city an estimated $7 million to $8 million. This year, it's 22,281 runners, weekend road warriors and elite athletes from all 50 states and 25 foreign countries. Corrigan estimates the race will give the area a $25 million boost.

Over the decade, festival organizers have ironed out kinks in the course, added the popular half-marathon and forged a partnership with Under Armour — an arrangement that lends a certain cachet to the race and allows runners to go home with a cooler-than-average souvenir T-shirt.

They've also made a name for the race in the community, something people look forward to in the fall, not entirely unlike the Preakness in the spring or Artscape in the summer.

Thousands upon thousands of people line the course to cheer friends and family, toss snacks to runners or just to get out and make a morning of it. The free concerts this year should bring even more people out. The live music roster includes bands that include '80s party music, classic rock and a Johnny Cash tribute act.

"After all these years, we've convinced people to quit [complaining] and crying about the traffic, and now they just come out and make a party," Corrigan said. "That's what we're after."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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