Baltimore Running Festival organizers say Saturday's marathon field might be smaller than usual, in part because of earlier civil unrest related to the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, but they don't expect security concerns for their 15th anniversary race.
Organizer Lee Corrigan said a late push has nudged registration numbers closer to normal levels, though still down 7 percent from 2014. Officials have billed the race — which usually draws an international field of more than 25,000 runners and generates an estimated $40 million in economic impact — as an emblem of Baltimore pride.
But Corrigan said it's been an anxious year for one of the city's largest sporting events.
"We've definitely gotten some phone calls and e-mails from people concerned about what happened in April," he said. "But it ain't doom and gloom. The great news is that our event is financially in the black and very healthy."
Earlier this month, organizers of the Twin Cities Marathon in St. Paul, Minn., faced worries that protesters, inflamed by a recent police-involved fatal shooting, might obstruct the finish of their race. But the concerns proved unfounded. The protests, organized by Black Lives Matter St. Paul, were peaceful.
With Baltimore still experiencing the fallout from Gray's death and awaiting the trials of the six officers charged in the incident, Corrigan acknowledged he's kept an ear out for possible marathon-related protests. He said he hasn't heard of any planned demonstrations.
Col. Melissa Hyatt, the chief of patrol for Baltimore Police, said the department has received no credible intelligence suggesting protests.
"But we've been planning thoroughly for this event for months," she said. "We've considered all kinds of possibilities."
Corrigan and Hyatt said security plans will be similar to those from the last two years, with particularly strong police presence near the finish line and in the hospitality areas along the course. Security concerns heightened for every marathon after the 2013 bombings in Boston that killed three and injured 264.
The 26.2-mile races are notoriously hard to police because the courses are sprawling and feature no fixed entry points for spectators. But Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis expressed confidence in his department's preparations.
"What happened late April, early May makes us consider everything differently based on our experiences and based on the intelligence that we gather," Davis said Thursday. "We're at the top of our analytical game, and we're aware of things generally before they happen. We're certainly looking forward to being aware of anything that may pop up on Saturday."
Corrigan said the civil unrest in late April had a clear impact on the Baltimore 10 Miler in June. Registrations were up 25 percent from the previous year before that unsettling week but were up just 5 percent by race day.
The marathon attracts an even broader field, with runners coming from all 50 states and 29 countries this year. Some have expressed concerns about safety.
That's a shame, Corrigan said, because he's always felt proud that the race winds through the entire city, touching eight of Baltimore's nine police precincts. Some of the most vocal support for runners has traditionally come from the toughest neighborhoods, he noted.
Runners registered for Saturday's race expressed little fear about security, and some said they're particularly enthused this year because they want to demonstrate Baltimore's resilience.
Stephanie Churchill, a Parkton resident who'll be running her first marathon, said she's far more concerned about the hilly course than about safety. The unrest in April reinforced her desire to make Baltimore's marathon her first..
"After the April riots, I was even more passionate about running Baltimore," said Churchill, 32. "The national media showed a very dark side of Baltimore to the world. The city isn't without its flaws and problems, but it's not all as bad as the national media portrayed. I even tweeted out to NBC Nightly News and CNN last week that if they want to see what Baltimore is really all about, they should have a camera on the marathon course, in the neighborhoods beyond the Inner Harbor."
Churchill has run the half-marathon three times and knows how many city residents cheer from their stoops and sidewalks on race day.
"Crowd support throughout the entire course is unlike any other race I've done," she said. "Even in the neighborhoods where you would least expect it."
Kristin Adkins of Brooklyn, Iowa, plans to arrive in Baltimore Friday with her nephew, who attends a boarding school in Hagerstown. She said after the race, they'll tour the city and seek fresh seafood — a rare delicacy in her Midwestern home.
The first-time visitor isn't concerned about what she saw on television in April.
"That didn't stop me or make me hesitate at all from signing up," said Adkins, 46. "I booked a hotel right near the finish. We're going to stay right there."
Stephanie Balogh of Richmond, Va. said her mother, who lives in Florida, is concerned. But the 31-year-old emergency room nurse said she suggested her mom cut back on TV news.
"It's got to be somewhat controlled, its so big, I don't feel like its going to be any sort of drama," Balogh said. "I just really have gone with it. I have no concerns. … The only thing I really worry about before any race is I want to finish."
With registrations down about 11 percent as of late September, organizers stepped up marketing efforts, casting the marathon as a chance to celebrate Baltimore pride.
They printed up "Baltimore Pride" T-shirts and sold more than 500 to support the city's YouthWorks program and the Signal 13 Foundation, which aids city police officers suffering from financial hardships. They also urged Baltimore-area runners to compete at home rather than travel to marathons in Richmond, Philadelphia or Washington.
By last weekend, they had closed the registration gap to 7 percent. Last year's race drew almost 26,000 participants.
In many ways, the push for local pride fits the direction the marathon has taken in recent years, since Under Armour dropped its title sponsorship after the 2012 race. Without that sponsorship, organizers stopped offering the $150,000 purse that attracted world-class marathoners, often from international distance-running strongholds.
Dave Berdan of Owings Mills won the men's race in 2013 with a time about 17 minutes slower than the previous year's winner. Last year, a Pennsylvania man, Brian Rosenberg, won in a time three minutes slower than Berdan's.
But Corrigan said he has no problem with the race getting slower.
"In reality, how many people lined up thinking they could win before? Maybe 20 men and 20 women," he said. "This keeps that local flavor. I'm not jammed up about it at all."
Corrigan added that he's always on the hunt for another title sponsor. If a company comes along and wants to make the race more attractive to elite runners again, so be it.
"If you want that international exposure, great, give us money for a fat purse," Corrigan said. "But if what you want is more regional exposure, that's great too. We don't need to go back to the way it was."