Under Sweeney, Louisiana Marathon takes flight

Craig Sweeney was almost beside himself during the national anthem, just minutes before the Louisiana Marathon.

The singer’s high notes sent a flock of birds soaring through the dawn sky as the sun rose over the Spanish Town homes.

As race director, Sweeney has done everything in his power to make the race a peerless event. And the birds’ timing was impeccable.

“One of our goals, and it’s pretty challenging to get, is a flyover,” Sweeney said Sunday. “They’re very rarely granted or approved by the military. When I saw the birds coming out of the distance, I said to myself, ‘No way.’ Just with the timing of the national anthem, it was pretty awesome.”

The scene caused Sweeney’s emotions to run, just like the thousands he helped gather were getting prepared to do.

Conditions were nearly perfect, and the racers were ready. Sweeney was about to see the fruit of a year of preparation.

When the starting gun sounded and runners began their hours-long trek through Baton Rouge, Sweeney was all smiles.

Creating a signature event

The Louisiana Marathon is the brainchild of Sweeney and a high school classmate, Patrick Fellows, the course director.

They went to school together at St. Stanislaus in Bay St. Louis, Miss., where they became friends. They reconnected in Baton Rouge in their 30s.

Both were active in the fitness community, and both were searching for a race in Baton Rouge that they could not find. What they thought was missing was a signature event, one that would draw runners from all over the country.

“We realized that there was nothing on level with what we put on today,” Fellows said. “And what happened today is what we envisioned when we had our first conversations. ...

“We wanted the biggest, baddest and best marathon and race experience in the state. We wanted to finish the sucker in Tiger Stadium. That’s how big we dreamed.”

LSU wasn’t keen on the idea of having thousands of people milling around on its hallowed turf, but the duo seem to be on the way toward accomplishing their goal. The number of registered runners in the four weekend races marked an almost 60 percent increase from the previous year, and they expect the numbers to keep rising.

“This is the capital city,” Sweeney said. “We’ve got all the assets. We’ve got everything we need to make this a truly special event. And we didn’t have one (before). It’s one of those things where you can complain about it or do something about it.”

Race day

Sweeney rose out of bed at 2:15 a.m. Sunday. He was on the course by 4 — three hours before the race was set to begin.

Despite getting just five hours of sleep, he was full of energy. It might’ve been the anxiousness from knowing the race he spent a year planning was about to begin.

“I get more nervous with a race as a director — tenfold — than I ever have with a race I was competing in,” he said.

Sweeney focused on minutiae in the hours before the race. That, Fellows said, is why he’s good at what he does.

“There is an art to being a race director,” Fellows said. “The art is dealing with what goes wrong on race day. It’s the small things — not losing your cool, dealing with the problem and figuring out how to fix it so that nobody on the outside knows what happens.”

Sweeney meandered around the start/finish line, making sure everything was in place. He was checking for little things, like making sure signs were oriented properly so runners didn’t get lost before the race.

About 40 minutes before the start, Sweeney finished all of his pre-race checks. Satisfied that everything was “dialed in,” he was ready to watch what he helped orchestrate unfold.

After takeoff

The anthem finished, the birds gone and with runners in motion, it would seem Sweeney could relax.

For a moment, he did just that: He hugged his wife, took a couple of snapshots and smiled.

Then he went back to work. Just 15 minutes after the starting gun, Sweeney made his way to gear check to see what could be improved next year.

“I think the best time to make sure we capture their excitement,” he said before snapping his fingers, “is right after.”

Still, Sweeney gave himself a little time to enjoy it.

“I don’t know how you could say it was any less than perfect,” he said. “Between the weather, the energy and the atmosphere, it was pretty surreal.”