Rabalais: Louisiana Marathon’s lofty goals keep it moving forward

Baton Rouge has had its share of running events that have pounded the often uneven pavement of our fair capital, but a few years back, a group of running enthusiasts wanted something more.

They wanted a marathon. A big marathon. And not just one run, but a whole festival.

“We thought, we can keep whining about it or we can do something about it,” Craig Sweeney said.

And with a single step, the Louisiana Marathon was born.

This is its third year, and like a thoroughbred race horse, the Louisiana Marathon and its accompanying festival is rapidly reaching maturity.

From about 2,800 total runners in 2012 to about 4,400 in 2013, this year’s event has attracted at least 6,100 runners, of those 1,800 will go the distance.

There’s the marathon, the 26.2-mile main event Sunday. There’s the concurrent half-marathon for those not wanting to go to the lengths that left Pheidippides keeled over the in the Greek dust.

Saturday, there’s the 5K and the 1.2-mile kids marathon.

And there’s the party. The two-day-long party, played out on what the weather gods — by that we mean Pat Shingleton, Jay Grymes and Jesse Gunkel — have forecast may be the most beautiful weekend of the season.

“We picked January because it’s always lows in the 40s and highs in the 60s,” said Sweeney, the race director who got his weather wish exactly right. “People look at the temperature, the flatness of the course where they can qualify for Boston, good crowd support. There’s probably another three or four criteria that make it an attractive place.”

The party has something to do with it. We don’t have mountains or redwoods or picture-perfect beaches — but us folks in South Louisiana do know how to pass a good time.

Better than just about anybody.

“We’ve been told we have the best post-race party in the United States,” Sweeney said.

It’s an impossible claim to back up, or dispute, but who cares? Pass the jambalaya and start dancing.

The word has gotten out quickly about the Louisiana Marathon. Earlier this week, Sweeney got the word he was hoping to hear.

“We’ve got Vermont!” he said Tuesday at a pre-race event. This year’s Louisiana Marathon has entrants from all 50 states and 11 other countries.

It’s just a start for the men whose dream drives this event.

“We want this place to be Race Town Louisiana,” said Danny Bourgeois, the event’s marketing director. “It’s really becoming a running state. If we can establish something, other states around us in the South can be envious of us. I think we’re on a good path.”

Unlike a big game at Tiger Stadium or a nine-inning affair at Alex Box Stadium, which have the ability to unite Baton Rouge in spirit, the Louisiana Marathon literally stitches the city together.

Spanish Town. Mid-city. Old Goodwood. Tara. The Garden District. College Town. Southdowns.

Over the marathon course’s long trek, runners click away the miles on their own inner quests. For each participant, victory can be first place overall, or it could be a personal best or just finishing the race.

All along the course, Baton Rougeans will turn out to encourage, exhort and offer a beverage or nourishment.

“They say it takes a village to raise a child,” Sweeney said. “Well, it takes a community to put on a running event.”

An event, Sweeney hopes, will get bigger and bigger. No reason to race without a goal, he figures.

“One of our goals is to be one of the top 50 marathons in the U.S.,” he said. “The 50th last year, from a participation standpoint, was about 2,100 runners. So that gives you an idea of where we need to be.

“New York has 47,000 runners. But just to get into the 50th and the 40th and the 30th, you only have to go up a couple of thousand runners. Then we have the running festival. Those are ranked as well.”

The Louisiana Marathon is probably never going to be the New York Marathon.

But can New York put on our kind of party? Not a chance.