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Half marathon returns to downtown St. Petersburg with visions of big future

By Sharon Kennedy Wynne
DIRK SHADD | Times An aerial view as runners make their way into a turn on the track as the St. Pete Running Company's running club meets to do interval speed work while training to run the St. Pete Run Fest, the first half marathon downtown St. Pete in three years, at the Northside Christian High School track at 7777 62nd Ave N, in St. Petersburg Wednesday evening. The group has about 35-40 people for their 6:30 evening runs on Wednesdays. They also have a Wednesday morning group with about 25 people that meet at 5:30am. This evening they were doing a series of 800s during interval training.

It has been three years since downtown St. Petersburg hosted a half marathon on the waterfront, and the upcoming St. Pete Run Fest aims to go the distance.

Other races have stumbled in recent years. In 2014, the owner of the Rock ’n’ Roll Half Marathon and the Women’s Running Half Marathon in St. Petersburg scrubbed both races, citing poor attendance. Organizers of the Rock ’n’ Roll race estimated that 15,000 runners would compete in 2012, but that year, roughly 7,000 showed up. The turnout was even lower in 2013.

But the business of sports tourism is an attractive one, so frustrated city officials went looking for a locally produced half marathon it could use to lure runners from around the country to trod along an attractive waterfront and even through the baseball stadium at Tropicana Field.

Pinellas-based EndorFun Sports was picked to produce what it hopes will be an annual event the weekend of Nov. 18-19, just before Thanksgiving.

St. Pete Run Fest will feature the St. Pete Half Marathon, Sunshine City 5K, kids’ runs and the Health & Fitness Market. An after-party in Albert Whitted Park will have live music, local craft beer, food, artisans and entertainers.

Brothers Ryan and Keith Jordan said their aim for EndorFun Sports is to make the community healthier year-round, not just for the big event. Local charities, schools and businesses have been enlisted to target kids as well as first-time runners to join the challenge.

Lil’ Shrimp and PeliKids youth runs are for those 13 and younger. The 5K is open to age 8 and older. Half marathon relay runners can be as young as 10. The half marathon is open to anyone 12 or older.

Time limits were extended to appeal to walkers: The half marathon is capped at 3.5 hours, a 16-minute-per-mile pace. Another option is to run the half marathon as a two-person relay with each person running roughly a 10K. And the PeliKids Marathon Challenge will be the culmination of an ongoing challenge for kids in kindergarten through eighth grade who logged a total of 25.2 miles at home or at school. They will complete the final half marathon mile at the St. Pete Run Fest finish line.

The Dolphin Double Challenge is geared toward runners who want to participate in the 5K on Nov. 19 and the half marathon that same day.

St. Pete Run Fest also is providing a little online assistance: a free 5K training program at stpeterunfest.org that’s targeted to middle and high school students as well as first-time runners, said Christie Bruner, St. Pete Run Fest’s youth wellness director.

Bruner has signed up more than 80 kids at school running clubs, and race organizers have offered free running clinics in partnership with Jump for Kids, Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Tampa Bay Rowdies. At a recent Saturday Morning Market, Bruner had kids lined up to do some stretching and strengthening exercises on the grassy area beside the market.

"One of our goals is to be an accessible event and welcoming for those ingrained in the running community and those who are new to running events," she said.

One of the ways to do that was a Rookie Training Program that provided free coaching and training to clients of the St. Petersburg Free Clinic and Goodwill Industries.

Rookie runner Jonathan Childs, 29, has been training with the St. Pete Running Company’s half marathon running group for two months.

He said after a year in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction, he found the training a "really fantastic complement" to his recovery.

"It’s teaching me self-control," Childs said. "I can be overzealous in a lot of things. I now have an intuitive voice that tells me to slow down if I’m hurting. I’m mindful not to lose the groundwork I’ve done."

Keith Jordan, CEO of EndorFun, developed and produced events in New Hampshire and Texas, such as Ironman, the 70.3 Timberman triathlon, and the Gritty Goddess Women’s 5K Obstacle/Mud Run.

His brother Ryan persuaded him to move to St. Petersburg after his sports event company was bought out. When they learned of the city’s interest in creating a signature half marathon, they put in a bid.

"Our focus is to activate the running community and get this event to be the economic engine we think it can be," Ryan Jordan said. "Our vision is to turn this into St. Pete’s version of the Gasparilla Distance Classic," which draws 40,000 every year to downtown Tampa.

Visit St. Pete/Clearwater also liked the idea and chipped in $15,000 and volunteer support to EndorFun, said Tim Ramsberger, deputy director of the tourism marketing agency. If just 5 percent of the first 1,000 participants come from outside Pinellas County, it would have an economic impact of a quarter- to a half-million dollars, Ramsberger estimated.

"They are off to a strong start," Ramsberger said. He particularly likes the timing of a race the weekend before Thanksgiving.

"During peak tourist season, we don’t need the help, if you will," he said. "So rather than holding it in February or March, where you already have waves of tourists here, they have this right on the cusp of the holiday season. So this could have some great economic impact, and it also provides good marketing opportunities for us."

Joe Zeoli, managing director for the city of St. Petersburg’s finance department, said the city was eager to host another major race again and took bids from race companies before settling on EndorFun.

The city gave EndorFun up to $30,000, based on attendance, hoping to have 3,000 runners the first year. So far, some 2,500 people have signed up for events that weekend, and Ryan Jordan said he expect to see 4,000 signed up by race day.

"We realize it’s going to take a couple of years to create the world-class event we hope this will become," Zeoli said, but he thinks it’s the kind of event worth investing in.

"The more visibility we can provide the city through events like this, it helps us attract quality businesses to our area and attract residents and it helps the existing businesses," he said. "We certainly want to see this event grow."

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at [email protected] Follow @SharonKWn.