A look back at the Publix Georgia Marathon History from our Chief Running Officer, Mike Cosentino.
Ed. Note: This is part 1 of a 2 part blog post referencing the 2016 Publix Georgia Marathon.
Publix Georgia Marathon History
I’m not telling too many local runners something particularly novel when I state that March 20th brought us the tenth rendition of the Publix Georgia Marathon & Half Marathon… And, quite frankly, I’m not sure I can generate much original content now on the quality of the event production, the perfect weather or the level of difficulty of these courses for both distances. I’m also not one of the 200+ “Streakers” who can claim they have participated every year since the inception of this race – – and I am certainly not a past or present champion of any kind in this race, whether overall, age group or personal best.
But my enthusiasm for this race is presently tough to hold back. And I have, perhaps, the most unique historical perspective on this event of anyone who has ever been involved in any capacity… Truth-be-told, it wasn’t even six (6) months ago that I didn’t care if I, or my business (Big Peach Running Co.), had much to do with the Publix Georgia Marathon & Half Marathon. And, yet, now I can reveal why I am so amped about the prospects for this event in the subsequent decade to come (and beyond)… For sure, things can change in a hurry!
OUT WITH A BANG!
In 2006, my business partner, Steve DeMoss, and I were asked to join the Board of Advisors for the inaugural event. For those who have been around the sport and our city long enough, it is easy to recall the pomp the original title sponsor, ING, brought to the announcement, along with its local clout, financial muscle and fine reputation from an identical role with the globally-renowned ING New York City Marathon. The race Founder, Victoria Seahorn, worked tirelessly to not only validate such a sizable corporate investment, but also present her adopted city as a rightfully reputed runner’s mecca and urban showcase. The task-at-hand was gargantuan, as less than two (2) years separated the celebrated opening press conference and the ceremonial Starter’s gun. And with just a couple full-time team members and a handful of others who shared her vision, there was hardly an excess of resources or opportunity for rest or pause. I remember numerous Board meetings where tensions were elevated, tempers were flaring and time was tight… But in even more abundance was Victoria’s determination and the depth to which many others would go to assist what was arguably the most highly publicized and anticipated first-time event in the history of road running.
By the time thousands of orange cones, miles of temporary fencing and tons of scaffolding and trestles had been loaded onto dozens of semi-trucks, it was apparent that Atlanta had a new sporting tradition on its roster of high-profile events held annually. For sure, those who participated in the inaugural event would rightfully cite that there were a couple of important items that were poorly facilitated. The most widely reported was the lack of supplies at some aid stations. Especially when coupled with record heat on race day, the inability to keep pace with the demand for water brought quick and appropriately concerned response. To this day, very few persons know how much water was allocated – – but never used. Further, no one could have been more concerned about runner safety than what Victoria was when allocating resources for water – – even increasingly so as the forecast for the race day temperature solidified. Along with Steve and our colleagues, Joe Gibson and Jeff Campbell, the four (4) of us saw this firsthand, as we literally spent from 11:00 p.m. the evening before the race until 6:30 a.m. on race morning at Underground Atlanta unloading gallons and crates of water off 18-wheelers onto various transports to aid stations…
But if there is ever a time not to misplace keys, early morning before a big race is one of those times.
Said differently, much of the water that had been taken and placed in temporary storage containers for security purposes never made it onto the course. Aid Station managers did not have the correct keys – – and by the time such was realized, it was too late to break into these big housing units and get the water where it needed to be… The same was similarly true for energy gels and coolers for sports drink. Thank goodness the discomfort experienced by some of the athletes did not culminate in an even greater tragedy.
For me, on that inaugural race morning, I went to the Starting Line without a second of sleep the evening before and only four (4) hours in the last three days. I hadn’t run in weeks and my dietary choices were poor by almost any standard. In short, the position Big Peach Running Co. had taken at the expo, the aforementioned assistance with the water distribution and the general anxiety and responsibilities associated with ancillary events had me committed to a never-say-snooze routine during race week. By the time I dragged myself to the Starting Line, I remember wondering if someone could do permanent damage to himself when running 26.2 miles with such a recently tragic sleep pattern and nutrition plan… Ultimately, I concluded there was only one (1) way to find out.
By mile three (3), however, I could not remember a time when I felt more excited about being a runner or a resident of Atlanta. Sure, it was hot – – but I was out there to far more “take in” the course than “leave it all out on” the course. And from all the time spent in meetings about the race, I had the course perfectly memorized. Whether on the half or full marathon route, the course was going to reveal the best of Atlanta to the almost 20,000 participants, one mile at-a-time… but it was going to do so while also requiring runners to pay a predictable toll. This levy was likely to be heavy breathing, an accelerated heart rate and plenty of groaning about the level of difficulty. For me, my depth of course knowledge – – and a pace that had me ahead of any water shortage – – made it so that neither the temperature, nor my grossly inadequate pre-race conditioning dampened my giddiness. Although increasingly fatigued, I blissfully covered the miles as my own stresses from the last few weeks figuratively (and literally?) melted away. Really, what a day it was, as the local Springtime beauty, the thousands of enthusiastic volunteers and the palpably energetic environment of a big-time event capably coalesced to burn a truly special memory into my mind. I was unashamedly in tears at the Finish line, as I hugged Victoria and told her that she made dreams come true.
AN UNFORTUNATE TURN OF EVENTS
Although I cannot vividly recollect the conversation with Victoria when she informed me of her decision to sell a majority interest in Georgia Marathon, LLC in 2008, I can remember my initial thoughts of the impending arrangements for the race were, at best, curious… For sure, I could not deny that the demands of the race, the expectations of the title sponsor and the difficulty in ensuring a profit in the midst of both sizable revenues AND sizable expenses were probably too much for any individual – – whether they made dreams come true or not. But there was something about the division of assets and responsibilities in the new structure that seemed too one-sided. Too trusting, perhaps.
Victoria would remain in Atlanta as the Race Director, with day-to-day responsibilities to facilitate publicity and various course considerations. She would also serve in an advisory role on other race and business aspects for US RoadSports (USR), the new majority owners. A couple other Atlanta-based positions were added or remained in position to keep a reasonable pulse on the race – – but, for sure, the real decisions were being made elsewhere. The company was based in Dallas, TX, while sponsorship was facilitated from Miami and operations from Indianapolis. In full admission, I am NOT qualified to know whether this type of arrangement, if done more completely, would, ultimately, be best for a race seeking financial stability and planning growth. However, I do remember the first meeting we had with USR about the Big Peach Running Co. partnership with the race. And it took less than 15-minutes for me to realize everything would change, whether the content of the meeting implicitly indicated such or not. I wanted to scream… or vomit… or go for a really long run. Yet, even in the immediate absence of all of those options, it did not take Steve and me additional meetings to conclude that we would not renew our Partnership Agreement. Our decision seemingly began a string of sponsorship ejections. Mizuno USA, headquartered in Norcross and a valued partner of ours that we encouraged to come to the figurative partnership party for 2007, walked from their deal, with ING doing the same the following year. It was later revealed that not a single corporate partner cultivated by Victoria for the inaugural race continued their investment through the USR ownership. A few other partners replaced some of those that exited, but the race went through the next few years without a title sponsor or any significant sponsorship or media partners. Not surprisingly, the level of participation steadily decreased, too… For me, after having run the full marathon each of the first three (3) years, I was so personally disgusted with the direction the event was taking, I knew the continuation of my own streak was not worth the discontent that would surely accompany my own race-day trek through town. As strange as it was for me, on Sunday, March 21, 2010, I was on the trails of Sope Creek with my dog for a run, as the Starter’s gun for the Georgia Marathon & Half Marathon fired. For better or worse, this new plan for the third Sunday in March became a streak of its own for me… This 6-year string encompassed the remaining years of the USR ownership and the brief affair the race had with Lifetime Events. Of course, our business was connected to the details of the race each year and, for sure, we wanted the race to reverse its trend of declining participation. I’m not disclosing unexpected sentiments when I indicate that the business in local running stores is better when a robust local running calendar exists. But I just couldn’t find any enthusiasm for the event personally, having watched it cascade from a spotlight event that truly brought the City of Atlanta together to a ho-hum date on the running calendar that was seemingly either going to totally flame out or, simply, come to exist as little more than burning embers and never achieve its estimated potential.
FROM THE ASHES
To say that a massively needed reversal of fortune was unveiled on December 15, 2015 when the Atlanta Track Club announced it was acquiring the race from LifeTime Events for undisclosed financial terms is not an exaggeration.
And to be clear, I wasn’t anywhere close to this deal. In addition, Big Peach Running Co. is not an official sponsor of the race. In short, I cannot comment on the business-dealings or race preparations leading up to the race this year. And no matter what, having less than 100 days from acquisition to facilitation for a sizable event is a Herculean task for any entity. BUT make no mistake, the change-of-heart I have for this race – – and the belief that it will now be able to move in the direction of its aforementioned potential – – come exclusively from my confidence in the team and leadership at the Atlanta Track Club AND the personal experience I had on the marathon course this year, as I brought my non-participation streak to a close and toed the Start Line for the marathon for the first time in over five (5) years. Here’s how my race unfolded and the five (5) most impactful places where the basis for my renewed enthusiasm was founded.
For video on the Publix Georgia Marathon, click here.