Marathon organizers pledge to help downtown Raleigh churches

ccampbell@newsobserver.comNovember 1, 2013 

  • City of Oaks Marathon coming Sunday

    The City of Oaks Marathon will bring street closures to downtown and West Raleigh on Sunday morning, but the homegrown race has drawn fewer complaints from churches.

    That’s because the more than 5,000 runners expected will clear downtown before most services begin. Ed McLeod of First Presbyterian Church on Wilmington Street says the event has only minor effects on his congregation.

    City of Oaks organizers have said they’d like to move the finish line from N.C. State to Fayetteville Street – much like Rock ‘n’ Roll’s approved route. But they say city officials have denied their request for years, citing the large number of church services in the area.

    Not every church avoids hassles with the City of Oaks route. Runners pass in front of Brooks Avenue Church of Christ around mile 10.

    “When they close Brooks, it makes it very difficult,” pastor Dennis Conner said. “You have to come through a bunch of neighborhoods. ... It does affect some of our older folks who are hesitant about navigating new routes.”

    But Conner said the marathon route has been in place for several years, and his congregation hasn’t made any official complaints. “We’ve come to accept it,” he said.

— Organizers from the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon are meeting with downtown churches this week to ensure the April race doesn’t hurt Palm Sunday services. But in St. Louis – another Rock ‘n’ Roll host city – churches had mixed reviews of the event.

Rock ‘n’ Roll officials scheduled the meetings after churches complained that the April 13 event could make it difficult to get to the heavily attended services. The nationally recognized marathon will bring an estimated 7,500 to 12,000 runners from across the country and more than $2 million in visitor spending, but it also will require some of the most extensive street closures in Raleigh’s history.

“My entire team is working very hard to have these one-on-one meetings,” said Josh Furlow, senior vice president for operations at Rock ‘n’ Roll. “We’re very confident that we’re going to alleviate all the concerns.”

So far, pastors like what they’re hearing. Ed McLeod of First Presbyterian Church – which borders the race route – said he met with Rock ‘n’ Roll for an hour and was assured that key nearby streets will remain open for churchgoers.

“We left the meeting very confident that they’re going to make this a great event for the city and accommodate people along the route,” McLeod said Thursday.

But Ed Zumwinkel, pastor of Hope United Church of Christ in St. Louis, said Rock ‘n’ Roll didn’t follow through on its promises when the marathon went past his church several years ago.

“We were concerned as you would imagine, and we met with some race officials and got a lot of lip service about how they would ensure there were clear paths to the church,” Zumwinkel said. “It didn’t turn out that way.”

Zumwinkel said the race organizers offered information in advance about available routes across the race course, but his congregation found the suggested roads blocked on race day.

“One guy spent 45 minutes trying to get here and just could not get through,” he said. “It ended up hurting our attendance, and that ended up hurting our offering.”

Rock ‘n’ Roll is held in St. Louis in October, so the attendance problem occurred on an ordinary Sunday. Downtown Raleigh pastors wish that were the case here; on Palm Sunday, they expect hundreds of additional worshipers to kick off Holy Week.

Marathon organizers say they’ve got a detailed plan to make sure everyone gets to their destination on race day. They provide fliers with directions on how to get to churches and other facilities without hitting roadblocks. Brochures are delivered in person to all homes within a quarter-mile of the route; the first of several notices is sent three months ahead of the event.

“The outreach is most targeted at those who will be most impacted,” said Raleigh event director Alan Culpepper.

Culpepper and Furlow also stressed that streets won’t be closed for a solid six-hour stretch. Instead, they’ll reopen as soon as the last runner passes, and some streets that cross the race course will have police officers allowing cars to cross when there’s a break in the runners.

Rock ‘n’ Roll also plans to alter the original race course – approved by the Raleigh City Council earlier this month – but Furlow wouldn’t say what changes are planned. “We’re going to make a few edits to a handful of the downtown streets to alleviate anyone blocked in,” he said.

In St. Louis, those “edits” took care of the complaints voiced by St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church. This year’s Rock ‘n’ Roll route was originally set to pass in front of the church, blocking its driveway. But organizers instead decided to take runners around the block, church secretary Katherine Ellis said.

“All the streets that we needed to use were not closed,” she said. “They accommodated us.”

St. Louis poses the biggest church-related challenge for Rock ‘n’ Roll, which holds marathons in 32 cities worldwide. And despite the company’s outreach, some churches opted to join the festivities rather than hold regular services amid a traffic headache.

Some provided a water station, while others brought their church choir to sing to the runners. Centenary United Methodist Church moved its service to Saturday night and invited runners to a spaghetti dinner to “carb up.”

But with Raleigh’s race coming on Palm Sunday, rescheduled services could prove less popular here. Palm Saturday Night just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Campbell: 919-829-4802; Twitter: @RaleighReporter

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