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Can this man get more runners — a lot more — to sign up for the Charlotte Marathon?

Charlotte Marathon race director talks about this year’s event

Tim Rhodes, race director of the Charlotte Marathon and owner of Run For Your Life's Midtown and Piper Glen stores, talks about this year's November 3rd Charlotte Marathon
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Tim Rhodes, race director of the Charlotte Marathon and owner of Run For Your Life's Midtown and Piper Glen stores, talks about this year's November 3rd Charlotte Marathon

Tim Rhodes describes the experience of running his first marathon in a way that probably wouldn’t make anyone want to try running a marathon:

“I ran the Space Coast Marathon (in Cocoa, Fla.) in 1987 ... and it got up into the upper 70s and 80s, so either I walked and got leg cramps or ran and got a side cramp — it was just painful,” he recalls. “Anyway, I suffered enough in the Florida heat that I swore I would never run another marathon in my life.”

That pledge didn’t last; he would go on to run 21 more of these long-distances races. A few years ago, he even ran three marathons over a stretch of just nine days.

But more than three decades after struggling through 26.2 miles for the first time, Rhodes now finds himself facing a much more difficult challenge: trying to convince everyone he possibly can to sign up for a marathon — his marathon, the Charlotte Marathon, which will take place this Saturday — despite a variety of forces working against him.

In fact, as the marathon-running boom has tapered off nationwide, Rhodes has continuously tinkered with the event he founded 13 years ago in hopes of hitting on some sort of breakthrough that will attract participants in greater numbers.

Thus far, it hasn’t worked.

The number of half-marathon finishers has dropped in each of the past four years (from 2,741 in 2014 to 2,152 in 2017), while the number of marathon finishers fell two years in a row before rising slightly (from 862 to 905) last year. According to the website FindMyMarathon.com, the Charlotte Marathon ranked 97th in the U.S. in total marathon finishers in 2017; since by most measurements the host city is among the 20 largest in the country, it’d be safe to assume that there’s untapped potential here.

So, what might be holding the event back? And what would it take for a marathon in Charlotte to become as big a deal as Rhodes would like his to be?

A marathon history lesson

The history of marathons in Charlotte is full of highs and lows, dating back to before Rhodes got involved.

But without getting too deep into the weeds, these are the key points:

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In this January 1995 file photo, Stephanie Shooks celebrates as she crosses the finish as the women’s winner of the Charlotte Observer Marathon. Mark B. Sluder Observer File Photo

For 23 years, from 1977 to 1999, the Charlotte Observer owned and operated the event. At its peak, the race drew 7,000 runners and garnered national attention, hosting the U.S. Olympic trials men’s marathon in 1996.

Then, in 1999, organizers shifted the date from the chilly-but-conducive-to-fast-times month of January to much-warmer April in hopes of attracting more participants. Instead, temperatures in the 70s put several runners in the hospital due to heat-related illnesses. The Observer canceled its marathon after that.

Meanwhile — backtracking just slightly — after news had broken in 1998 that the Observer was vacating the January date, another group swooped in and put together the Charlotte Marathon Run For Peace in time to deliver it for runners in the January time slot they’d all become accustomed to.

So in 1999, there were actually two marathons in Charlotte.

Whereas the Observer’s started and finished in front of the old building on South Tryon Street in uptown, this new one started at Davidson College and finished at what was then known as Queens College (now Queens University of Charlotte).

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The Charlotte Marathon Run For Peace lasted six years, from 1999-2004. Layne Bailey Observer File Photo

The Run For Peace marathon stood alone for the next five years (though it did pick up the Observer as a title sponsor in 2002), but ceased to exist after the director of the nonprofit that owned the race pleaded guilty to embezzling about $162,000 from the event, which was to benefit a battered women’s shelter. The marathon was canceled before the January 2005 running of it could take place.

At that point, Tim Rhodes saw an opportunity.

Rhodes had moved to Charlotte from Orlando in 1993 with his wife Robin and their newborn son Grant, and originally had taken a job as a branch manager at the old First Union bank out on Freedom Drive. As was also the case when he lived in Florida, he frequently found himself at local road races on Saturday mornings; here, though, he was underwhelmed by the quality and presentation of the events that were being put on.

So in 1995, he picked up the phone and cold-called Jon Hughes — who then and now is owner of Orlando’s Track Shack running store and an event management company that organizes a variety of races — and asked if he could come down to shadow Hughes and learn the business.

Hughes said yes, Rhodes drove himself to Orlando, and when he returned to Charlotte, he began charting a new career path.

In summary, here’s what happened over the next several years: Rhodes started pitching and successfully selling ideas for races, and became a race director; he started buying timing equipment for races, and became the owner of a timing company; he went from full-time to part-time at the bank as both businesses picked up, eventually getting out of banking business entirely; he bought the Run For Your Life running store at Park Road Shopping Square in Dilworth in 2003, eventually expanding it to additional locations.

Then in late 2004, as word spread that the Charlotte Marathon Run For Peace was going down in flames, Rhodes decided he’d be the guy to make sure Charlotte continued to field a marathon.

Running his own race

Since there was no way he would be able to put together a marathon in time for January, and since history had proven April to be a risky proposition, Rhodes settled on December 2005 for the inaugural event to ensure it would remain a cold-weather race. That gave him plenty of time to plan.

“And I thought, ‘We don’t want to just be the Charlotte Marathon, let’s do something thematic,’” Rhodes says. “So we had a naming contest, and as soon as I saw the ‘Thunder Road’ entry, I’m like, ‘That’s it. That’s really cool.’ Because ‘Thunder’ has some energy behind it — it’s action, it could be pounding feet, or the beat of music, or stock car racing, which I thought it spoke to our heritage.”

The course he got approved by the city was to finish on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard between Caldwell and Brevard streets, and not long after that, NASCAR announced it would build its new Hall of Fame at that exact spot. It almost seemed meant to be.

Rhodes went all in on the theme as he tried to grow the race over the next several years, adopting the tagline “Start Your Engines,” convincing NASCAR teams to commit to parking stock cars at mile markers, and waving a green flag at the start and a checkered flag at the finish.

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In this November 2014 file photo, runners set off at the start of the Thunder Road Marathon in uptown Charlotte. Robert Lahser Observer File Photo

He says he lost “a bunch of money” the first couple of years, but eventually, it started coming together: In 2009 — the event’s fifth year — more than 1,400 completed the full marathon, nearly 3,000 completed the half and close to 1,500 finished the 5K, bringing total participation numbers within striking distance of those from the heyday of the Observer Marathon.

But that was the peak for Thunder Road. And in this decade, despite numerous shifts in strategy and presentation, the event hasn’t come close to hitting those numbers again.

After the 2010 event, Rhodes moved it from December to November, in part due to pressure from the city to distance it from holiday shopping traffic, since the first half of the marathon course flirted with the edge of the busy SouthPark retail district. Participation dropped by more than 30 percent.

In early 2013, former Carolina Panthers president Mark Richardson bought a 50 percent stake in the event and became partners with Rhodes, with Rhodes retaining his job as the race’s managing director and Richardson taking the lead on sports marketing and sponsorships. Sponsorships increased threefold from 2012 to 2013, and Richardson was the key to bringing in Novant Health as the title sponsor. But while 5K and half marathon participation increased, the number of marathon finishers fell 15 percent.

In 2014, the course’s start and finish was moved from the NASCAR plaza to the shiny new Romare Bearden Park next to BB&T Ballpark (which opened its gates to runners, giving them an warmer, cleaner alternative to portable toilets). That brought an uptick.

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In this 2016 file photo, Bert Rodriguez crosses the finish line as the winner of the Novant Health Charlotte Marathon, which was being run under that name for the first time since dropping the Thunder Road moniker and stock-car racing theme. Diedra Laird dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

But in 2016, an ambitious and costly rebranding of the event — from Thunder Road to the Charlotte Marathon, an effort to put the emphasis on the community at large — failed to goose up the numbers; in fact, they dropped nearly 10 percent from the previous year.

As of Monday, Rhodes said there were about 1,200 runners registered for the full marathon, about 2,500 signed up for the half, 1,200 in the 5K, 650 across 150 marathon relay teams, and 150 in the one-mile fun run.

Statistically, it’s estimated that 8 to 10 percent of those won’t finish on Saturday — mainly because, for one reason or another, they won’t get to make it to the starting line to begin with. That will still mark a decent bump up from last year; at the same time, it also won’t flirt with a record-high for the event.

But Mark Richardson, the event’s co-owner, thinks there’s still growth to be had.

“It’s a long game. It’s slow and steady,” he says. “We made significant strides quickly on the sponsorship side, and we’re still making strides on the sponsorship side. We continue to reinvest and spend more money on the event, in the pre-race and the post-race celebration.” (This year’s post-race festival will include more free food, beer and soft drinks than ever, plus live music from two bands.)

“I mean, we’re not only putting on a race, but we’re creating an event, and we think if we continue to do a good job, runners will bring more runners.”

The going is tough

At the same time, Richardson concedes that there are challenges: “I do think we fall in a tough part of the schedule for people that run.”

Indeed, fall is packed with marathons that pull runners away from Charlotte late in the year: Chicago (44,000 finishers in 2017) is in early October, Marine Corps in D.C. (20,000) is in late October, New York City (51,000) is in early November and Philadelphia (8,000) is in mid-November.

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An added appeal to participating in major marathons like New York City is the opportunity to run in the footsteps of top elites like former UNC star Shalane Flanagan, shown here after winning NYC in 2017. Seth Wenig Associated Press

Charlotte also doesn’t have the appeal of a premier destination city, either — it’s not the type of city you’d think of to go run a marathon and then build a vacation around it, unlike, say, Honolulu (20,000 runners last year), or Los Angeles (19,000), or Walt Disney World in Florida (18,000).

A flat and fast course is another selling point for marathons like the one in Kiawah Island, S.C. (less than four hours from Charlotte by car), which is held the first Saturday of each December, or January’s Charleston (S.C.) Marathon, or the Myrtle Beach (S.C.), Wrightsville Beach (Wilmington) or Tobacco Road (Cary) marathons in March.

In Charlotte, though? While the course winds through some of the city’s most iconic neighborhoods — including Myers Park, Dilworth, South End, uptown, NoDa and Plaza Midwood — no one would ever call it flat and fast. (“Those hills!!” Carmen Abernathy of Charlotte wrote on Facebook last week in response to an Observer post seeking feedback about the race. “They never end! Whew.” Added Christi Milledge of Charlotte: “Hills. So. Many. Hills.”)

On top of all that, the Charlotte Marathon is attempting to grow its numbers at a time when Americans’ interest in lacing up their running shoes to go for a 26.2-mile jaunt is waning.

According to RunningUSA.org, the nationwide long-distance boom peaked in 2014 with 550,600 marathon finishers and 2,046,600 half-marathon finishers, while a 2017 New York Times story noted that the number of finishers in road racing events in the United States fell from a peak of about 19 million in 2013 to just over 17 million in 2016.

“We had our height when both charities and women really got involved in the mid- to late ‘90s, and we started seeing phenomenal growth. But like anything, you can only grow double-digit for so long,” says Jon Hughes, the Orlando running store owner who let Rhodes shadow him back in 1995 and who has been race director of the popular Disney Marathon since its inaugural running in 1994.

“We’ve been fortunate for the most part with Disney, which is obviously a huge destination marathon. But after that, you’ve got all of the other marathons fighting for the rest of the folks who may want to do a marathon. And a lot of ‘em are gonna wait first and try to get into one of those big ones, and then they’ll maybe look at the other marathons out there.”

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In this January 2011 file photo, Fredison Costa of Texas crosses the finish line to win the Walt Disney World Marathon in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., as Donald Duck and Goofy cheer him on. Matt Stroshane Disney

What does the future hold?

Despite all of these challenges, Rhodes — now 56 and a father of five who also owns Run For Your Life stores in the Midtown and Piper Glen areas — is soldiering on and continuing to try to come up with creative ways to improve the runner experience.

He’s considering starting an elite athlete program and creating a prize purse for top finishers. He’s overseen the design of flashy new marathon and half marathon medals that can stand alone but also will fit together via magnet with the race medals handed out over the next three years, in an effort to entice race-medal enthusiasts to keep coming back till they have the whole set of four.

He even dreams of helping found a marathon in South Carolina — perhaps Greenville or Columbia, or (ideally) Rock Hill — on the Sunday after the Charlotte Marathon, so that “Marathon Maniacs” could relatively easily knock out marathons in two different states on the same weekend.

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Run For Your Life’s Midtown store, owned by Tim Rhodes, now promotes the Charlotte Marathon on its walls year-round. Diedra Laird dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Still, it’s highly unlikely that these changes would take the event to the next level in terms of participation.

“I think Tim does a decent job,” says Scott Dvorak, owner of the Charlotte Running Company, which is among dozens of vendors that will set up shop at the Charlotte Marathon’s race expo this week.

“I think there’s a lot working against him that he has to deal with to put the event on, and given all that, I think he does a good job. ... But I think the only way that marathon’s ever gonna get to be really big is if big money comes in. It’s just the nature of it. That’s the only way. You’re gonna have to have a big entity get excited, get on board, and want to do it.”

(Last year, Dvorak sold his Charlotte Racefest event, which features a half marathon and a 10K every April, to High Point-based Junction 311 Endurance Sports.)

What he means is a corporation like the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series, which owns about 30 events in nine countries — including popular marathons in Savannah (1,800 marathon runners, 7,600 half marathoners) and Nashville (2,100, 15,000) — and 10 years ago engaged in talks with the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority about starting an event in Charlotte.

Rock ‘n’ Roll’s business model exudes fun, with bands cranking out live music at every mile marker and boisterous cheer squads lining the streets, and is able to appeal to big-name sponsors with deep pockets that for one price can get their brand out in front of runners at dozens of events instead of just one. But they also push hard for deals with city’s that involve discounts or public subsidies through tax dollars.

“We were basically balancing, do we do business with an 800-pound gorilla, or do we continue to invest in a locally created and operated event?” recalls Tim Morgan, who spent eight years as the sports sales manager of Visit Charlotte, the sales and marketing division of the CRVA, before leaving in 2012 to head up the Greater Chattanooga Sports & Events Committee. “Ultimately, we made the decision to invest local.”

That investment continues: The CRVA, a division of the City of Charlotte, annually provides $10,000 in business development funds to the Charlotte Marathon, says Laura White, a spokesperson for the CRVA. In addition to the funding, the CRVA promotes the event via print publications, its website and its social media channels.

This isn’t to say that the possibility of a Rock ‘n’ Roll invasion doesn’t loom.

“Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series views Charlotte as an opportunity market with an engaging and active community that would certainly be of interest in exploring,” Rock ‘n’ Roll told the Observer via an email last week. “Previous discussions with the City about bringing a Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series event to Charlotte haven’t materialized to this point but we are always open to engaging with great cities and communities.”

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A file photo showing the start of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon and Half Marathon in Raleigh in April 2016. Rock ‘n’ Roll has since canceled the event. Liz Condo The (Raleigh) News & Observer

Meanwhile, White says the CRVA is always open to analyzing new events and their potential economic impact, but that “we really believe in what the team is doing at the Charlotte Marathon.” White says the CRVA hasn’t done an economic impact study regarding the marathon; Rhodes says his understanding is that it’s a little over a million dollars.

Rhodes declined to offer specific financial numbers, saying only that “the marathon has been profitable for the past several years.” He added that the event donated $20,000 to Novant Health Hemby Children’s Hospital in 2017 and this year will surpass $100,000 cumulative donations.

“Look,” Rhodes says, “the city’s fantastic to work with. CMPD (the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department) is wonderful to work with. They’re great partners. Visit Charlotte — CRVA — they’re great to work with. Novant Health is fantastic partner. Writing a check to Hemby Children’s Hospital at the end of the event, I love that. ...

“And there’s nothing that I would look back at and say, ‘You know, I wish we’d done five or six things differently.’ Really, everything’s happened that I would wish for it to happen — except for the participation numbers. For one reason or the other, and I don’t know what they are, it’s not been on certain runners’ bucket list of things to do.”

“I just wish,” he says, “that people would give us a shot.”

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