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How do you make a marathon successful? Add Rock 'n' Roll to it

Just how popular has the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon Series become? In early September, a full two months before a race in Savannah, Ga., organizers were forced to post a 'Sold Out' message on its registration Web page after 23,000 runners forked over roughly $100 each to participate in the series' first foray into Georgia.

And on Dec. 4, 44,000 runners will ignore the temptations of the Las Vegas Strip -- at least long enough to complete their marathon or half-marathon -- and run at night past the lights of the casinos and grand hotels on Las Vegas Boulevard. Vegas does not generally shut its strip down for many events, especially in the evening, but such is the pull (and financial resources) of the Rock 'n' Roll series at this point.

Since The Competitor Group purchased the series from Elite Racing in 2007, the number of events has mushroomed from five with 116,000 total participants to 19 with 390,000 participants in 2011. In 2012, there will be 24 events in the U.S., plus five first-time events outside the U.S. (including Spain and Ireland), giving the tour 29 stops.

Clearly, the concept of combining a party-type atmosphere, with live bands and high school cheerleading squads along the course in weekend destination cities, has resulted in the Series' large growth in the hands of a company that had a background of operating endurance event circuits.

Scott Dickey, president of Competitor Group, said the timing was right for the series to expand on multiple levels. He credits an aging baby boomer generation who were focused on staying fit, plus the ever-increasing social consciousness of health and wellness, and the success of NBC's The Biggest Loser.

"[The Biggest Loser] showed that anybody could get off the couch and lose weight by focusing on two things -- exercise and nutrition," Dickey says. "[When we bought the series] there was no year-round platform to aggregate this audience and deliver it to sponsors and advertisers. The landscape at that time, there were just a few major events. We knew we could create a national footprint delivering a year-round audience with some scale. We knew this was a market opportunity."

The race in Las Vegas debuted in 2009 with 28,000 runners, then proved its sustainability with another 28,000 in 2010. By bumping the race to Sunday evening this year and creating what should be a remarkable atmosphere under the Vegas lights (the race's website is called stripatnight.com), the entries increased to 44,000 and made it the third largest long-distance event in the U.S. behind the New York and Chicago marathons.

"Vegas is our granddaddy," Dickey said. "It is everything the front-of-the-pack majors aren't. It is a huge celebration. It speaks volumes about people's desire to combine fun and running."

The first race took place in 1998 in San Diego, with bands playing every mile along the course with a large party planned at the finish. In the ensuing nine years San Jose, Virginia Beach, Nashville and Phoenix were added all using the relatively same formula, which is still in use under the Competitor Group. No city has lost a race from the schedule as of yet and CG remains committed to races even if their debuts came in under expectations, as Providence did this year with 8,000 runners.

Dickey says about one-third of participants in each event are first-timers in either the half- or the full marathon races. Knowing there is some anxiety and tension that goes along with that, the Rock 'n' Roll Series' goal is to make the event less intimidating and more inviting so the first-timers can have the best experience they can have. Dickey wants it to be less about how fast a runner goes and more about the journey along the way.

"It is like a minor league baseball game and a major league game," Dickey says when comparing his events to others. "It is just a lot different. The local races are great and everyone should support them. We spend time and money supporting local races. But this is the big leagues and a different level of experience and execution. When you operate these things every other weekend like we do now, you get really good at improving the runner experience."

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