Interest in the BMO Vancouver Marathon had waned, the number of runners finishing the race in recent years down 25 per cent from earlier in the 2000s.
So two years ago, race organizers decided to overhaul the long-established course, a bet that an extensive reconfiguration would spark more interest in a race they believed had greater potential.
The new route traverses far more of the city and 70 per cent of the 42.2-kilometre route runs along shoreline. This year will feature marathoners circling the entire Stanley Park seawall as they head to the finish near the Olympic cauldron and Vancouver Convention Centre on Coal Harbour – all in doubling the amount of ocean exposure of the previous course. With the new course – and a hefty 600-page traffic and transit management plan – organizers' ambitions are global. They want to establish their race as one of the best in the world.
"We want to be part of the big marathons of the world, that class of 10, and in order to do that, we need an inspired course," says Charlene Krepiakevich, executive director of the race. "There are a lot of marathons in the world. Runners have a lot of choice."
Road racing has surged in popularity in the past two decades. There is no comprehensive tally of road runners in Canada but statistics from industry group Running USA shows that 13-million people – more than half female – finished a road race in 2010 in the United States, more than double the figure of five million in 1990 – when three-quarters of the runners were male.
Of iconic marathons, the list Vancouver hopes to crack, most reckonings of the best generally feature many of the same names and always cite cities such as Boston and New York. Aspects such as remote location and natural beauty win a place on lists for the likes of Big Sur in California, which is often noted as a go-to destination race, exactly the category where Vancouver wants to get noticed.
An early endorsement of the new Vancouver course came unexpectedly in January, when Forbes Magazine ran a travel guide that included Vancouver among the top 10 marathons worth travelling for.
Runners like Vancouver's changes. The Sunday race is sold out with 5,000 marathoners and the number of finishers will likely top 4,000, around the levels of 2003-05 and up about a third from lows around 3,000 in recent years. But the long-term goal for marathon isn't more runners, as a cap around 5,000 will likely be maintained. For Vancouver race organizers, it's about reputation.
What Vancouverites think of a marathon whose course now stretches through much more of the city – disrupting wide swatch of Sunday morning traffic – is not yet known. Vancouver already is host of Canada's most popular running event, the annual 10-kilometre Sun Run, which takes in mid-April, three weeks earlier than the BMO Vancouver Marathon.
The Sun Run began in the 1985 with 3,200 people, a number that peaked at almost 60,000 in 2008. It is one of the world's biggest annual races and this year attracted close to 50,000. The scene on West Georgia Street before the start of the Sunday morning jaunt is always extraordinary. The crowd spans all ages and cultures and numbers roughly the same as the near-50,000 who take on the much more challenging New York City Marathon. In Vancouver, the start stretches five full city blocks, people packing all of West Georgia's dozen lanes across.
The Sun Run effectively closes much of downtown Vancouver for the morning and is part of the city's fabric, like the marathons in Boston, New York and Ottawa. The Vancouver Marathon, as it stretches across much of the city, needs the same broad backing.
Vancouver regaining its marathon reputation
A quarter century ago, Vancouver was the epicentre of elite distance running in Canada. Lynn Kanuka had won bronze in the 3,000 metres at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Richard Lee and his wife Sue Lee, top-tier university runners in Ontario, headed west in 1985 and Sue Lee placed eighth in the 10,000 metres in Seoul in 1988, another of Canada's best international results in long-distance running.
Vancouver thereafter faded as a high-end distance running capital but once again is now home to an Olympian. Lee, today a freelance engineer, coaches Dylan Wykes, who just in April posted a fast-enough marathon time in Rotterdam to qualify for London. Wykes moved to Vancouver two years ago, encouraged by Richard Lee and the city's climate.
But moving west put distance between Wykes and the sport's capital in Guelph, Ont. Coach Dave Scott-Thomas is the central force in Guelph, overseeing the university's cross-country team and, in 1997, the founder of Speed River TFC. Scott-Thomas coached marathoners Reid Coolsaet and Eric Gillis, the two men who were first to qualify to race in London.
It is the first time in a dozen years that Canada has an Olympic marathoner. London could also be the place where the Canadian marathon record of 2:10:09, set in 1975, could fall.
Any of Canada's three men, from Guelph or Vancouver, could crack it, Lee said.
"It's not a question of whether it's broken," Lee said. "It's who has it at the end."