The eighth annual Mississippi River Marathon is approaching, and Race Director John Conner gave a full run-down at this week’s Greenville Rotary Club meeting.
Conner, who is serving in his third year as race director for the Mississippi River Marathon, said this year’s marathon is set to kick off at 8 a.m. Feb. 8.
The full marathon will, as always, start in Lake Village, Arkansas, cross the halfway point on the Mississippi River Bridge and finish into Greenville.
Before getting involved with the Mississippi River Marathon, Conner, who lives in Jonesboro, Arkansas, served as Lake Village Chamber of Commerce director and the Southeast Arkansas Community Foundation executive director.
He discussed the several modifications to the marathon that have been made over the years since its inception in 2013.
Always held the second Saturday in February, the marathon was started by a group of gentleman from Teach for America who were living in Lake Village, according to Conner.
“They decided it would be a good idea to try to put on a marathon in this area to promote health and wellness education in this Delta area between Lake Village and Greenville,” Conner said.
The first race in 2013 had over 1,500 participants — an impressive number.
Conner said many times, a lot of people really get involved in wanting to run in an inaugural marathon, wanting to be a part of the “first one ever.”
“It was a huge deal. They had a lot of sponsorships, a lot of registration fees and runners from 40 states and one country were represented in the first marathon,” he said.
In the history of the marathon, Conner said there has been a runner represent from every state in the country.
In the beginning, all that was offered was the full and the half marathon.
However, since then, the marathon has evolved.
With Greenville being the size that it is, the city could not quite hold 1,500 people coming to town the first year, so there were runners who had to lodge outside of Greenville in areas such as Cleveland, Indianola or Greenwood.
In addition, the restaurants had significantly long wait times, unable to accommodate so many patrons in a more timely fashion.
“It was an estimated half a million dollar boon to the area with people buying gas, eating, staying in hotels and things like that,” Conner said.
Conner displayed comments made by runners from the marathon, some eliciting extremely positive experiences and some eliciting not so great experiences.
“The only thing bad was the water,” was a comment Rotarians could not help but find humor in.
Nonetheless, the good outweighed the not very good with many of those reviews commending the volunteers for their efforts in making the marathon a great experience.
Conner shared the marathon gets a lot of praise and publicity for being a two-state race and a point-to-point race.
Year two of the race in 2014 saw a slight decline of about 300 people, but, according to Conner, the registration fees were just as much.
One explanation Conner offered for the slight decrease based off his interactions and experiences is many runners may have run a race and don’t care to repeat it; a lot of races for people are just one and done, not because the marathon organizers did a bad job.
“It becomes a challenge trying to encourage people to come back year after year and find new runners who’d want to come, but that’s part of the job,” Conner said.
The first year also had a title sponsor — United Healthcare, which brought in a notable amount of sponsorship money.
The winter weather conditions in the second year, not being very favorable, also caused a lot of people the misfortune of being unable to travel.
Only 950 of the 1,200 people made it to the race, but still an estimated $500,000 boon to the area.
Conner recalled year three (2015) of the marathon falling on Valentine’s Day and there was yet another slight decrease in marathon runners.
That year, Conner recommended to the board adding a 5K race, in an effort to be more inclusive of the people in the community who couldn’t necessarily run 13 miles.
In addition to the 5K, they added community walks in Lake Village and in Greenville, which were well attended, Conner said.
Another innovative idea to encourage participation was free race photos for all the participants.
Conner asked a photographer friend of his for a set fee for the service and it turned out he could indeed provide it at that price.
In 2016, Conner’s first full year as race director, the marathon was fortunate enough to see no decline in participants and the registration fees were up as well.
In year five, the first year Conner had full authority, the marathon held stead with only a three to four percent decline in participation and registration revenue, respectively, according to Conner.
Unfortunately, 2018 had a 20% drop off in both participants and registration revenue.
That year, they added the Delta Double Half option, which starts in Lake Village with the full marathoners.
The Arkansas Half Marathon finishes on the Mississippi River Bridge and 10 feet beyond that is the start to the Mississippi River Half Marathon — created for those who might want to run two half marathons in two states on one day.
The Delta Double Half has a seven hour time limit.
Runner participation continued to trend downward slightly in participation.
Conner shared Teach for America, which was the original beneficiary of the marathon, underwent some restructuring, which didn’t allow them to continue being involved with the marathon.
“The board voted for the beneficiaries again to be the Community Foundation of Washington County and the Southeast Arkansas Community Foundation, where they can give out grants towards health and fitness and education in those areas,” he said.
Delta Regional Medical Center stepped in as sponsors for the 5K race in an effort to get local community members to continue participating in the race.
Those interested in participating can visit raceroster.com and serach Mississippi River Marathon.
Registration fees increase after Jan. 31.