The long run: Planning the Quintiles Wrightsville Beach Marathon not a sprint, but a distance race

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WILMINGTON — Similar to how runners are training for the upcoming Quintiles Wrightsville Beach Marathon, the logistics behind setting up an event of this size is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.

This spring, upwards of 4,000 participants will take to the streets across the Wilmington area for the eighth edition of what has become one of the most popular distance running events in the region. Organizer Tom Clifford and his team have been hard at work since last year’s race setting the foundation for what they hope will be another smooth run leading up to a full week of festivities, with marathon day set for Saturday, March 25.

Runners coming over the Heide Trask drawbridge from Wrightsville Beach over to Wilmington. Photo courtesy- Quintiles Wrightsville Beach Marathon.
Runners coming over the Heide Trask drawbridge from Wrightsville Beach over to Wilmington. (Photo courtesy of Quintiles Wrightsville Beach Marathon)

“It’s funny because the planning starts and talking with the different entities involved for the 2018 race will get started before this year’s race,” Clifford said. “You want to do that for a number of reasons. It’s hard, but you try to figure out what dates work and you want to get some of the meetings done because when you get done with the race you’re not going into a million meetings. You burn out.”

While Clifford takes control behind the scenes and makes most of the major decisions preparing for race day, a committee of contributors, including Jason Adams and Kyle Shepard, play a big part in setting up the course.

After spit-balling a number of ideas, this year’s race map features a new look. Beginning at Wrightsville Beach and continuing through Landfall, runners will wind their through the neighborhoods surrounding UNC-Wilmington ahead of the finish line on campus. Several different groups are involved before getting the stamp of approval.

“We really studied how we were going to do the course because it’s so different,” Clifford said. “With getting UNCW involved it’s definitely tricky. They have sports schedules and don’t always know them in advance, so you just have to take a risk as far as getting the race date set. Then we sit down with the City of Wilmington, New Hanover County and the Department of Transportation to figure out if our ideas work with their traffic structure.”

Long-term growth and sustainability for the Quintiles Wrightsville Beach Marathon has been a focus for Clifford.  Making sure the number of participants increased from year-to-year presented a different challenge.

Early on, the course featured several loops and, as Clifford pointed out, the race plateaued. In 2016, the biggest change included a new finish line, which had been located in Mayfaire Town Center. However, it was back to the drawing board for 2017 because of the ongoing construction inside the shopping center on Military Cutoff Road.  (Click here for complete race course maps.)

The Quintiles Wrightsville Beach Marathon will run on March 25.
The Quintiles Wrightsville Beach Marathon will run on March 25.

With the new course set, Clifford thinks he has a good three- to five-year plan in place to keep marathoners coming from near and far.

More than half the runners competing this March will be from out of town. It was one of a few marathons in the southeast United States when Wrightsville Beach Marathon first launched in 2009. Since then, bigger cities including Raleigh and Atlanta, have added distance running to their portfolios of annual events.

“Slowly but surely, there’s now eight different marathons within two weeks of each other across the region, but our numbers are still growing,” Clifford said. “We feel like we’re doing something right.

“We try to think of the participants first. We want to give them a good experience and find new ways of marketing, studying the market and what people want,” he added.

The marathon has continued to grow in numbers and offerings with the addition of the marathon relay, half-marathon, 5K and-one mile fun run. So, too, has the support from the community grown. Clifford credits an open mind to all those involved in helping ease the process in building this annual experience. Like anything else, the more and more people get used to the idea of hosting a race of this size, the easier it is to get things done.

“You have eight to 10 entities the marathon hits and they all have to be in sequence,” Clifford said. “They need to be on the same page. From Wrightsville Beach, Landfall, the City of Wilmington, New Hanover County, UNCW, (the) Department of Transportation, the Coast Guard, Mayfaire and the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commissions. It’s a beast.

“But, it’s been much smoother as the years have gone by to get everyone on board. If something does need to be changed, those entities are a lot more open to allowing us to move forward because we’ve been able to keep our word,” he said.

As the racing community expands in stature locally, training sessions are already underway for first-timers through groups like Wilmington Road Runners Club, as well as under the direction of Clifford, who owns and operates Without Limits, a coaching company aimed at helping athletes ready themselves for events like the Quintiles Wrightsville Beach Marathon.

Veteran marathoners have also begun to set their sights on race day, with a 16-week regiment in place.