Mike Lunn doesn’t mince words when asked why the IMT Des Moines Marathon is loved by the thousands of runners who turn out to participate.
“It’s awesome, that’s why,” Lunn smiles. “It’s getting down on the street with a few thousand others and running with them as though they are your brothers or neighbors. I can’t get enough of it every year.”
On Oct. 19, thousands of runners of all ages will descend upon downtown Des Moines for the races associated with the IMT Des Moines Marathon.
The event, now in its 18th year, starts and ends on the Locust Street Bridge. The marathon and half marathon start time is 8 a.m. The marathon course stays open for seven hours, with most runners being finished by 3 p.m. The 5-kilometer road race starts at 8:45 a.m.
More than 10,000 athletes registered for the marathon, half-marathon, 5K and the kids’ race last year. There were 9,100 finishers in the marathon, half-marathon and 5K race in 2013. There also is a marathon relay team.
Runners can register until 7 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 18 at the Scheels Sports and Fitness Expo, located in Hy-Vee Hall in the Iowa Events Center, 730 Third St. in Des Moines. The expo also is where runners pick up their packets on either Friday or Saturday.
Of those who participated in 2013, 12 or 13 runners have participated every year since 2002, says Chris Burch, who is in his 10th year as race director. Twenty-seven percent of the runners are returning participants.
The marathon has grown every year. It started with 1,000 finishers its first year. Helene Neville founded the Des Moines Marathon in 2001, and the first race was held in 2002. It was named among the top 50 marathons out of 306 that took place in the country at the time. In 2005, Neville sold the marathon to Endurance Sports Marketing Corp.
IMT Insurance has been the title sponsor since 2005 and will continue as title sponsor through 2017. More than 70 companies are now involved with the marathon.
Route certified for accuracy, takes runners through much of what Des Moines offers
The race routes have been the same for the past several years since the start and finish were moved to the Locust Street Bridge pending the redevelopment of the Cowles Commons area, formerly known as Nollen Plaza.
The full marathon and half marathon are certified courses by USA Track & Field. This means IMT Des Moines Marathon officials have gone through all of the required steps to ensure the course is properly measured for the correct distances.
“Anytime an athlete sees a number like that; it means it’s an accurate course,” Burch says, adding that professional athletes, in particular, look for courses that are certified.
Certification is also a type of accreditation that ensures the course is accurately measured in case of a dispute. The course last went through re-certification when its start and finish were moved to the Locust Street Bridge. A course’s certification is valid for 10 years.
The IMT Des Moines Marathon also is a Boston Marathon qualifier. The race time is good for 18 months.
Burch says much planning goes into selecting the route for a race, especially the marathon. Organizers are very mindful of the fact that having part of the route in downtown could be a challenge because of ongoing construction and renovation projects.
“The goal is to come up with a course that works well in the city and is pleasing to the runners, the spectators and the people who are trying to get around the city on a Sunday morning,” he says.
While the marathon route is mostly flat, miles three through eight have hills, which surprises many from outside of Iowa who come to run and assume all of Iowa is completely flat. The half marathon and 5K races are relatively flat.
“I don’t think people realize how scenic our course is,” says Burch, who has run in five marathons and more than 30 half marathons throughout the United States.
Runners also comment on the cleanliness of downtown and how much they enjoy running through the various neighborhoods, Burch says. The race route also takes runners through eight miles of city parks, which includes Water Works Park and Gray’s Lake Park.
“It’s a unique opportunity for us to show Des Moines off in a way you might not normally think of,” Burch says.
Crowds, musical entertainment and others help encourage runners through final stretches
Des Moines city officials estimate about 5,000 people watch the races.
Burch says bystanders with signs, costumes, noisemakers and overall cheerfulness get runners through those last difficult miles or when they’re struggling. There are more than 45 bands and other entertainment positioned throughout the course. Signs with funny slogans or “We’re proud of you, Mom” or “Go, Kayla, Go” are helpful even if it doesn’t have the runner’s name on it.
Each runner also will have his or her name printed on their race number/bib, so bystanders can encourage them by name.
“That’s one of the things that people love,” Burch says. “You can go out and run any day on your own, but when you get a spectator out there cheering you on, it helps you run better and faster, and it helps those later miles go by faster.”
Gray’s Lake and Water Works parks are both great places to watch the race, as is Drake University. Runners complete a loop around the track at Drake at mile 12.
For many runners, Water Works Park is the most difficult portion of the race, according to the IMT Des Moines Marathon website. The park marks miles 21 for marathoners, and mile eight for the half-marathon runners.
What doesn’t work: Telling a runner “You’re almost there” or “It’s downhill from here.” Burch says most marathon training programs gets a runner to 21 or 22 miles, maximum, so he or she is running purely on adrenaline the remainder of the time and doesn’t need reminders of the race’s length.
DM Marathon allows average runners to compete alongside professionals, awards cash prizes
The IMT Des Moines Marathon awards $40,000 in cash prizes. First place receives $10,000, plus a $1,000 bonus if the course record is broken. First through fifth places, both male and female runners, receive cash prizes.
Last year, there were 1,742 marathon finishers — 991 men and 751 women. The male winner completed the race in 2 hours, 17 minutes and 23 seconds. The female won in 2:33:03 and broke a new female course record. The average finish time for runners was 4:22:22.
Burch says running is one of the few sports that offers the same amount of money for both the male and female place-winners.
The most recent Iowan to win the Des Moines Marathon was Robyn Friedman in 2009. She finished in a time of 2:41:28 and broke the female course record. Marty Dalton placed second in 2008 with a time of 2:24:40.
In the half-marathon race, the first-place male and female winners receive a $750 Scheels gift card. First through third places receive gift cards. Last year, 5,175 athletes crossed the finish line for the half marathon.
Age division prices also are awarded in the marathon, half marathon and 5K road race. The finishers in all races receive medals.
The marathon gives average runners the chance to compete alongside professional athletes from all over the world.
New runners can gain training advice from the IMT Des Moines Marathon Run Club. There are other running clubs in the Des Moines area, as well, that are not associated with the marathon.
Other running events include:
The 5K race, which is 3.13 miles. It starts at 8:45 a.m. and had 1,451 finishers last year.
The marathon relay, which is the distance of a full marathon but has legs broken up into 4- to 6.2-mile sections. Sixty-six teams finished last year. It also begins at 8 a.m.
The Kids’ Run starts at 9 a.m. It starts and finishes on West River Drive by the Center Street bridge, one block east of the Iowa Events Center.