Louisiana Marathon aims for cultural experience

In its second year, the Louisiana Marathon is trying to live up to a lofty goal: a state race that gathers people from across the world for a rich cultural experience unique to Louisiana.

It doesn’t hurt the race’s draw that it meanders through relatively flat downtown Baton Rouge, the only stark elevation change coming in the form of an overpass, but organizers say their true goal is to cultivate an experience.

The Louisiana Marathon, the brainchild of founders Craig Sweeney, Danny Bourgeois and Patrick Fellows, is trying to give its participants a true taste of Louisiana through food, music and Southern hospitality. If they can make it a great race, too, then that wouldn’t be so bad.

“That’s one of the things that’s real wonderful about Baton Rouge and Louisiana in general — we like to be hosts and show folks that true hospitality,” said Sweeney, who also serves as race director. “So Baton Rouge welcomed the event, and that helps makes the event successful. You can have a beautiful course, but if you don’t have a good community … you’re missing out on something.”

The race has undergone minor changes after what Sweeney called a successful inaugural running. He expects the number of runners to grow this year after a large contingent of area runners last year traveled to the Houston Marathon, which hosted the U.S. Olympic Marathon trials on the same weekend as the Louisiana Marathon.

“I think, from a runner’s perspective and from also a community’s perspective, you’re going to see some subtle changes,” Sweeney said. “Certainly, our growth in numbers will be felt out there on the course, but it’ll still be at a level that is not going to overwhelm. At this point in time, it’s not like Tiger Stadium emptying out on a Saturday night.”

The flat course and cool yet comfortable January temperatures make it a tempting race for locals and travelers to enter, especially those looking to set a personal record. More than 15 percent of the finishers in last year’s race qualified for the Boston Marathon, a number that Sweeney thinks will only grow.

“As our race gets a little more recognition each year, we’ll start getting more faster runners as well,” he said.

Both the marathon and half-marathon start at 7 a.m. Jan. 20, and they will serve as the culmination of a weekend of events that includes several concerts and smaller races.

The race expo will stay open from noon to 6 p.m. Jan. 18 at the Belle of Baton Rouge. After the expo, brass band The Michael Foster Project will highlight the kickoff party held at the Hilton from 7-9 p.m. The band hails from Baton Rouge, making it a big get for festival director Heather Sewell-Day.

“A lot of times Baton Rouge gets lost between Lafayette and New Orleans, so I love that this marathon is happening here and this concept was born here,” Sewell-Day said. “We want to include our Baton Rouge musicians.”

The Advocate Cypress 5K and Advocate Kids Marathon kick off Saturday’s festivities. Race organizers set Family Fest to take place immediately after the kids marathon; it features inflatable play houses, balloon animals and an obstacle course.

The Family Fest also will include music from the Dunham School jazz band and students of Baton Rouge Music Studios.

Double Date with Joelle Savoy and Lindsay Young will take the stage after the marathon and half-marathon, followed by Hot 8 Brass Band from New Orleans.

Papa Grows Funk will close out the all-Louisiana musical set for the weekend from the post-race party at the Manship Theatre on Sunday night.

“(Papa Grows Funk has) a good following,” Sewell-Day said. “It’s somebody that you would see at Jazz Fest. It’s Louisiana-grown music that we wanted to show people.”

The post-race festival will have its share of local food as well, though it doesn’t necessarily all adhere to rigid nutritional values.

This is, after all, Louisiana.

“We think it’s OK to eat and drink and have a good time,” Sewell-Day said. “We just want to encourage people to throw some running in there and think healthier. Even with the jambalaya at the showcase tent, we’re going to offer a healthy version of jambalaya for people to try.

“We’re not all gluttons.”