The Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon and miniMarathon presented by Walmart and HumanaVitality has grown from a small local road race into the largest day of road racing in Kentucky history. Runners from all 50 states and several foreign countries annually complete the scenic 13.1- and 26.2-mile courses that start and finish in downtown Louisville. Now in its 43rd year, the miniMarathon attracts more than 12,000 entrants each year and is ranked among the nation’s top 100 races by USA Track and Field. The Marathon, which debuted in 2002, draws nearly 3,000 entrants.
Both races share the same start and finish lines, with runners from both races staying on the same course until Marathon runners split off at the 11-mile marker. Large and enthusiastic crowds line the sidewalks along the route, and volunteers handle duties ranging from race registration to handing out bottled water and orange slices. The course is scenic, yet challenging, including a hilly stretch through Iroquois Park and passing through historic Churchill Downs race course.
Not many people would have thought that an event with barely enough organization to get off the blocks in 1974 would become a cornerstone of the annual Kentucky Derby Festival celebration. The late Gil Clark, a longtime director of the miniMarathon, remembers working at his Metro Parks job when his boss, Carl Bradley, gathered a group to chart a course for a new road race that would be part of that year’s Kentucky Derby Festival activities.
Phil Fowler, a member of the then prominent track club, Louisville Striders, suggested an alternative to sending local runners out of state to run such notable races as the Boston Marathon or the Chicago Marathon. He believed that a high quality race like those had serious potential right here in Louisville. He took his vision of a half-marathon held during the Kentucky Derby Festival to then-mayor Harvey Sloane. Sloane, an active runner at the time, threw his support behind the event. The team was completed with an enthusiastic Kentucky Derby Festival chairman, William E. Summers, III. The Metro Parks Department was recruited to handle logistics.
Organizers had no idea what to expect with that first race. Only two runners were guaranteed, Phil Fowler and Mayor Harvey Sloane. One hundred and fifty runners’ numbers were ordered. That fell far short; the committee was overwhelmed and unprepared for the 301 runners who showed to participate in that maiden race. “We were scrambling for scrap pieces of cardboard and scribbling numbers with a grease pencil just to get runners entered,” said Clark.
The event proved to be very popular. Spectators came in droves and participation swelled to nearly 3,500 by 1979. In 1980, the race was moved to the last Saturday in April, the weekend before the Kentucky Derby. It has remained there ever since. In 2003, the miniMarathon celebrated its 30th year and silver anniversary with a record 7,306 entrants. That record has been broken every year since, topping out at 12,820 entrants in 2011.
The mini has seen a lot of changes over the years. Stop watches and clip boards have been replaced by sophisticated timing devices and computers that record each runner’s time accurately in hundredths of seconds. Runners now register for the race via the website, www.derbyfestivalmarathon.com and their thirsts are now quenched with filled, compostable cups of Louisville Water Company’s Pure Tap Water, instead of the antiquated “dip and drink from a tub method.”
In 2011, the course for both the mini and Marathon underwent a major change. Responding to a survey of about 4,000 runners who indicated that they would prefer a “loop” course – starting and finishing in the same general area – the route was altered to start and finish within a three-block area in downtown Louisville. The change was well-received by runners, although a handful were disappointed that the mini no longer included a South End start near Iroquois Park. Virtually every participant, however, was pleased with the elimination of two challenging hills on the new course. With the race reaching its 15,000 race cap earlier than ever in 2011, the 2016 races will again be capped at 18,0000 runners.
And yet, there is plenty about the race that has not changed in three decades: the spirit, the heart of the runners. For as large and sophisticated as the event has become, it is still very much a community event. From the lead runners to the back of the pack, you can see the sense of accomplishment on their faces. You know that the personal victory, sense of community and fun during Louisville’s most festive time of the year are the things that drive so many thousands of runners to participate.
The resounding feedback from runners is organization, support and volunteers. That’s why they come back year after year. JoAnne Dewer from Indianapolis summed it up: “I’ve run great races all over the country and right in my own back yard. Never have I seen an event that was so well organized. Incredible volunteers … they’re everywhere! And there’s no better crowd than a Louisville crowd,” Dewer exclaimed. “I’ll continue to travel around to other races, but the mini is one I’ll always come back to.”