It's not Boston or New York, and it probably never will be, but the second District of Columbia Marathon will outdraw the first, and race organizers say they are pleased that the marathon is developing into a hometown "people's race."
As of yesterday afternoon, 875 runners, including 69 women, had registered for Sunday's race, a modest increase over the 837 who signed up for the first D.C. Marathon. Even though the growth has not been spectacular, the city's Department of Recreation is not discouraged.
"We're trying to run a race for the people in this city," said race director James Purce. "We want to build it the right way. We'd like to have about 5,000 runners by Year 5."
Purce said that when no-shows are accounted for, probably no more than 800 runners will cross the starting line on Madison Drive on the Mall in front of the Museum of Natural History. Last year, 716 started the race, and slightly more than 500 finished on a hot, hazy and humid Palm Sunday morning that was less than ideal for long distance running.
This year's race begins at 8 a.m. and runners will traverse a 26-mile 385-yard course through neighborhoods in all eight wards of Washington before reaching the finish line on the Mall.
"D.C. wants this to be a significant hometown event," said Phil Stewart, president of the D.C. Road Runners Club and managing editor of Running Times magazine. "Most of these citywide marathons seems to be a type of citywide extravaganza or celebration."
As a primarily local race, Stewart said, the D.C. Marathon is similar to marathons organized within the last dozen years in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Atlanta, Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New Orleans, Detroit, Kansas City, Richmond, San Francisco and Lincoln, Neb.
Stewart says it's doubtful that the D.C. Marathon will ever achieve the national status of the New York and Boston marathons. But with each successive year, the field will probably increase, he said.
"I could see the marathon doubling or tripling in size in the next year," Stewart said.
"Not everyone has the potential that New York City has to bring in the top athletes in the world, and if everybody tried to do what New York does, the whole thing would just become diluted," Stewart said.
In New York last fall, almost 15,000 runners entered, and Alberto Salazar of Eugene, Ore., set a world record of 2:08.13. The Marine Marathon in Washington last fall drew more than 9,000 runners.
Jeff Darman, past president of the Road Runners Club of America and a local sports public relations consultant, said the D.C. Marathon will probably never become a major event on the running calendar.
"It's hard for a race to just happen into stardom," said Darman. "If you want to go big time nationally, you have to earn your stripes. This seems to be a pretty low-key effort. They're doing a lot of promoting, but I don't get the feeling of intense excitement."
William H. Rumsay, director of the Department of Recreation, said this year's race was moved back three weeks on the calender, partly to avoid conflict with religious observances on Palm Sunday and Easter (April 4 and 11) and partly to avoid conflict with other races.
The Boston Marathon is scheduled for April 19 and the Cherry Blossom Race in Washington will be held April 4. Approximately 5,000 runners will compete in the 10-mile Cherry Blossom around the Tidal Basin and East Potomac Park, and another 5,000 were turned away.
Rumsay said the department will probably stay with the early spring date for the marathon.
Among the leading runners expected to compete Sunday is Will Albers, 26, a track coach at Fairfax County's Robinson High School, who won last year in 2:27.58.
"I've run nine or 10 marathons, but this is one of the more interesting I've run," said Albers. "Even though the first half is hilly, it is conducive to a very exciting, tactical race."
The first part of the race goes through Georgetown, Cleveland Park and Adams Morgan before crossing into Northeast Washington, passing Catholic University and Brookland, crossing the Anacostia River on the Benning Road Bridge and coming back on the 11th Street Bridge.