In an industry where first place is the ultimate goal, sports entrepreneur John Korff, in his latest venture, emphasizes size over speed.
That event is the Sarasota Music Half Marathon & Rockin' Bridge 4 Miler. Not that Korff and his business partners, Sarasota Open tennis tournament director Tony Driscoll and Molly Jackson, who co-owns several area New Balance stores, aren't concerned about speed. But the primary goal for the debut marathon, scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 8, 2015, is all about being big, bold and beautiful.
“Ultimately we want to be like Gasparilla or Disney,” Driscoll says. “We want an iconic event in Sarasota.”
The road there will be a case study in how to quickly handle large-scale logistics, organization and planning — something many businesses face. Korff, Jackson and Driscoll are the principals behind the race, and they will invest $250,000 of their own money in it for year one. The race isn't connected to the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon Series, which runs races nationwide, including previous events in St. Petersburg.
“Our biggest challenge is this is totally a new concept,” says Korff, a consultant with the New York City marathon for 15 years. “You have to make it look like the 10th year the first year. You have to do it right from the get-go.”
The race is scheduled to start at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, just north of downtown Sarasota. The course hits the Ringling Bridge, St. Armands Circle and the Sarasota bayfront before it zigzags through several neighborhoods. The finish line is back at the Van Wezel. Organizers say the race should be ideal for runners who love enthusiastic crowd support from beginning to end.
The parts that weave through the neighborhoods are where logistics are paramount. That's where there will be bands. There will also be up to 20 nonprofit organizations with booths along the course, aiding runners and promoting their causes. Homeowners along the route will get a cowbell, says Korff, and a sheet that explains how to have a good time during the event. “It's not just about a race,” Korff says. “We are essentially trying to create a 13.1-mile party.”
To pull off a party like that with so many moving parts, says Korff, requires a team of doers who both know how to get stuff done and communicate with each other — constantly. The organizers plan to hire four people in key positions six weeks before the race and there will be 400 volunteers. Says Korff: “A lot of this is positioning and how far in advance you communicate with people.”
Korff says he doesn't have a number of runners in mind that would make for a successful race. He and his partners, instead, say for the first year, success would be to run a technically perfect race that sends a buzz-worthy blast through the region and runners' community. Year three, adds Korff, is when a startup marathon event, at least a well-run one, tends to make a profit.
That makes pre-race awareness a second cousin to logistics. Says Jackson: “We don't want people to find out about this on Monday after the race.”
Jackson, through New Balance, has supported multiple running and fitness events in the Sarasota-Bradenton market for more than a decade. The list includes the First Watch Sarasota Half Marathon & Relay, which will celebrate 10 years next March. Jackson remembers when she and some others planned the first Ringling Bridge Run in the early 2000s, “we didn't know what we didn't know.”
The team now hopes its combined experience in sports events and local logistics will help make the marathon rock — for 2015 and well into the future. “Every city has its must-do race,” Korff says. “The ones where all the locals say this is the best one. Our goal is to create an event for Sarasota that will be on everyone's bucket list.”
Organizers behind the First Watch Half Marathon, held in Sarasota since 2005, have dealt with a lot of challenges.
One obstacle that's rarely come up: competition from another nearby race.
That's about to change, with the addition of the Sarasota Music Half Marathon & Rockin' Bridge 4 Miler. The race is set to make its debut Feb. 8, 2015 — a month before the 10th First Watch Half Marathon, scheduled for March 15.
The First Watch race set a record for runners this past March, says Miami-based race organizer Javier Sanchez, with 4,500 participants. That's up nearly 30% over 2013, when there were 3,540 runners.
Minnesota-based Life Time Fitness, a publicly traded fitness and family recreation firm with $1.2 billion in annual sales, produces the race. Says Sanchez: “The event has seen a constant and steady growth every year.”
That growth, of course, has come without a direct competitor. Officials from both races say from a physical standpoint, well-trained runners should be able to compete in both events. But Sanchez concedes nothing in the battle to keep runners. “At this point we will continue to focus on the great product we have,” Sanchez says. “We will all see and learn.”
Follow Mark Gordon on Twitter @markigordon