Tacoma City Marathon organizers want race to grow

It seems like a big deal.

The Tacoma City Marathon. Tacoma’s largest marathon.

It’s a 26.2-mile tour of some of the greater Tacoma area’s best features. Over the Tacoma Narrows bridge. Through Point Defiance Park. Along the waterfront.

Yet, as more than 2,000 runners pull on their compression socks Sunday morning (May 3) for the ninth running of the race, organizers will be trying to figure out how to make it an even bigger deal.

The race’s growth has plateaued with 1,700-2,200 finishers in the event’s four distances (marathon, half marathon, marathon relay and 5K) in each of the past five years.

“I’d like to see Tacoma embrace the race a little more,” said event co-founder Tony Phillippi.

Last week, Phillippi said he’d like to see the race draw a field on par with the South Sound’s most established race, the Sound to Narrows.

The Sound to Narrows, with routes of 5 and 12 kilometers, draws more than 5,000 runners each year.

So with more race options, why isn’t the Tacoma City Marathon drawing as many runners as the Sound to Narrows?

For starters, it’s still building what the Sound to Narrows already has — a long, rich tradition. The Sound to Narrows turns 43 this year and long ago established itself as the place to be the second Saturday in June.

By the time Phillippi and Paul Morrison resurrected the Tacoma City Marathon in 2007, the region was already saturated with running events. And May is right in the heart of running season.

Phillippi and Morrison tried Mother’s Day first, before settling into its current spot — the first Sunday of May.

The race grew for a few years before plateauing.

Phillippi has a hunch the leveling off has to do with the abundance of competition from other races.

Bloomsday, the seventh largest race in the world (nearly 47,000 participants), according to runningusa.org, is in Spokane on the same morning as Tacoma’s race.

And that’s not even the closest competition. Also Sunday morning, the 44th Vancouver (B.C.) Marathon is expected to draw more than 14,000 runners for its three races (marathon, half and 8K).

The Eugene Marathon is the week after Tacoma. The Capital City Marathon, the South Sound’s oldest marathon, is May 17 in Olympia. Seattle’s Rock ’N’ Roll Marathon is in June.

It’s so much competition, Phillippi sometimes ponders changing the date of the race.

Moving it to St. Patrick’s Day weekend might provide instant growth. The Tacoma City Marathon Association already hosts a St. Patrick’s Day race, and it’s the organization’s most popular event.

While the weather is typically chilly, the St. Paddy’s Day Run (half marathon, 10K and 5K) had 2,668 finishers this year, almost 500 more than the Tacoma City Marathon’s best year (2,189 in 2013).

Merging the races would also lighten the workload for the small (four office workers and volunteers) association staff. It’s already eliminated some of its races for 2015, opting to focus on its biggest events, Phillippi said.

But merging Tacoma City and St. Paddy’s would take away an important source of revenue for the association.

In a conversation near press time, Phillippi said he doesn’t think the date will change for next year’s 10th running. The association had planned to open registration for the 2016 race on Friday, at its Tacoma City Marathon Running Expo.

So what else might perk up membership in the Tacoma race?

Adding a 10K race? Maybe. There’s quite a gap between the 3.1- and 13.1-mile shortest options. But that’s yet another course to manage.

Lower the price? Racing isn’t cheap, but at $65 ($45 for the half and $20 for the 5K) for early registration (prices are approximately double by race weekend), it’s already in line with other big races.

Publicize more the least expensive and most accessible race, the 5K? The number of 5K finishers has dropped each of the last four years.

In 2011, the 5K had 342 finishers, 19.3 percent of the event’s total finishers. Last year, 164 finished the 5K, 7.9 percent of the total finishers for the event. Not accounting for walkers and the military race, the Sound to Narrows 5K makes up 31.9 percent of its total finishers.

“We definitely don’t promote the 5K as much (as the marathon and half), but it’s on all our material and the website,” Phillippi said. “I don’t know.”

Whatever the solution may be, Phillippi, Morrison, and their band of associates and volunteers should be commended for the work they’ve done over the past nine years to give Tacoma a marathon.

A town that loves running as much as Tacoma really should have a marathon.

“It’s my city, and I’m glad we have a marathon here,” Phillippi said. “And I’d like to see it stay forever.”