Rachel Benzoni is used to running alone, but this weekend during the Omaha Marathon the 25-year-old will be one of roughly 4,200 runners racing through the city.
The event’s new owners estimate that nearly five times as many people will participate in three years. Race director Mark Wilson said organizers hope to attract 20,000 runners in 2016, which would eclipse the Lincoln Marathon as the state’s most popular long-distance event.
This year’s Omaha Marathon will be HITS Endurance’s first running race. The national event production company, based in New York, purchased the rights to the Omaha Marathon earlier this year for an undisclosed amount.
Runners will notice several changes by the new owners, including a revamped route, a jaunt through TD Ameritrade Park and additional, shorter races on Saturday.
This year’s half and full marathon courses are flatter. That might mean faster finishing times, a particularly attractive feature for competitive runners, said Tom Whitaker, the president of the Omaha Running Club. He helped design the course. Previous, hillier races took runners as far south as Henry Doorly Zoo. Race organizers have eliminated five major hills in the last decade to attract more runners.
Still, the course this year isn’t completely flat.
“In Omaha, you’re not going to get a flat course, that’s all there is to it — unless you run around in circles,” Whitaker said. “The only way to get anything relatively flat is to go north.”
The entire route is north of Dodge Street.
The hills this year are less steep and early in the event, Wilson said, adding, “They’re going to fly on the return.”
It’s an out-and-back course, not a loop. Benzoni, who is running the Omaha Marathon for the first time Sunday, said the out-and-back route should amp up crowd support because spectators can stay in one spot and see runners twice.
If the race grows as organizers expect, the course will evolve again — an out-and-back route could not accommodate that many people.
The race starts and ends on Mike Fahey Street in downtown. The marathon course is certified and a Boston qualifier.
For the first time, the 10K, half and full marathon will take runners through TD Ameritrade Park before crossing the finish line outside the stadium. The move is modeled after the Lincoln Marathon’s Memorial Stadium finish.
“It’s costly, but it’s worth it to us,” Wilson said. “We think that’s going to draw a lot more people.”
Organizers also added a 1-mile and 5K race Saturday to attract more people.
Kelly Crawford said moving the race to October might help the marathon grow, too. Crawford is the president of Team Nebraska, a non-profit that sponsors runners who race competitively.
He said cool running temperatures are not guaranteed in September so competitive runners might opt for October races in Chicago or the Twin Cities. A later date might draw them here.
Though non-competitive runners might not travel to run, cooler temperatures might be the nudge they need to sign up for the Omaha race.
Wilson said moving the race date “is not out of the question,” but it has not been discussed.
The forecast Sunday is “sunny, breezy and pleasant,” according to AccuWeather.com.
Expect temperatures in the mid- to high-50s at the 7 a.m. start. It is not expected to hit 70 degrees until noon.