Crescent City Classic gets much-needed overhaul

Now in its 35th year, the Allstate Sugar Bowl Crescent City Classic is getting overhauled.

The 10K road race, held every year since 1979 on the day before Easter, will look markedly different when the starting gun signals the beginning of the race at 8 a.m. March 30.

“It needed a facelift,” said first-year race director and long-time Crescent City Classic volunteer Eric Stuart.

That’s what it got. This year’s Classic features a new route from a new starting line, a new expo host and a new title sponsor among other major changes.

It’s a restoration effort for the largest road race in the state. At its peak, the Classic sent 35,000 runners winding through the streets of New Orleans.

But since that high watermark, numbers have slowly dwindled as other major races have grown. A shade fewer than 17,000 runners finished the race last year.

“For some reason or another, people had stopped coming to the race,” Stuart said. “But with all the changes, hopefully we invigorate people who have run it before and attract new runners.”

Stuart and his colleagues are trying to return the race to its glory days. In order to do that, they retooled and modernized some elements that have been established as Crescent City Classic tradition.

Richard Thomas, who has been involved with the Classic for more than two decades as the president of Blue Runner foods, took a business-minded approach when he partnered with Stuart to revamp the race into something more runner-friendly.

“We didn’t want to change things just to be changing them,” Thomas said. “But those big changes were extremely important to provide a better product to the people who sign up and run the race.”

Where else to begin but the starting line?

Traditionally, the Classic began in the heart of the French Quarter, near the gates of Jackson Square. The starting line was picturesque but impractical.

Parking was a mess, and worse, so was trying to get out of the quarter’s narrow streets packed with runners. It was one of the first things targeted for improvement by race organizers.

The race now starts near the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, at the intersection of Poydras and Rampart streets.

The traditional en masse start has been replaced by modern wave starting, in which different groups of runners corralled by expected finish times are sent off in three-minute intervals.

With a new starting point comes a new route, one Stuart hopes will better show off everything New Orleans has to offer.

“Rather than run out of the French Quarter right away, why not run through it?” Stuart said.

After starting on Poydras, runners will follow the Mississippi River on Decatur Street before hitting a more than two-miles long straightaway down Esplanade Avenue.

Runners will follow Esplanade all the way to City Park, where the race finishes outside Tad Gormley Stadium.

“You run through the French Quarter, run down Esplanade under the Oak trees and finish in City Park, you really cover a lot of the classic elements of New Orleans in one road race,” Thomas said.

Bands will be situated roughly every half-mile, and each mile-marker will feature a large sign indicating the position on the course. Portable toilets are also being added near aid stations.

The Classic didn’t limit the changes to the course. It also has new digs for its race expo, moving from the Sheraton to the Hyatt, whose 70,000 square feet of space are allocated for any and all health and fitness related activities during the expo.

The Allstate Sugar Bowl made the updates possible financially, replacing the New Orleans Times-Picayune as the title sponsor. The Times-Picayune previously served as the title sponsor for the race’s entire 34-year history.

“The sponsorship gives us the wherewithal and the means to do things we’ve never done before,” Stuart said. “Things like the corrals and the signage, making it a first-class race. We owe that to the Allstate Sugar Bowl.”

Not everything is changing with the 2013 Classic. One of the main draws of the race remains the custom print given to the first 500 finishers.

That’ll stay, but it too will be slightly tweaked.

Feeling that women — who made up the majority of finishers last year — were under-represented in the top 500, Stuart decided to give prints to the first 200 female finishers outside the top 500.

Thomas believes the changes can put the races on par with some of the other big road races in the country, to the point of selling out every year.

With more runners, Thomas said, there are more opportunities for charitable donations, something he said the race lacked before.

“My personal goal is to see us generate millions and millions of dollars per year for our local charities,” Thomas said. “It’s not an impossible task. It’s going to happen, because it happens everywhere else in America.”

“New Orleans is one of the best cities in the world to come do this kind of event and generate charity. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be killing it every year.”

Stuart expects somewhere near 28,000 people to lace up their sneakers and go March 30. His long-term goal for the race is to get it back to its hallowed territory among the top road races in the country.

“With the changes that we’ve instituted,” he said, “I don’t see any reason why we can’t get there in a few years.”