As if a divining rod were mounted on her front bumper, Nancy Lieberman, president of the Spirit of St. Louis Marathon, took off driving the streets of Mound City. With her was Dave McGillivray, race director for the Boston Marathon. Their quest was to plot a course -- a fresh, distinctive course -- on which to run the 2000 Spirit of St. Louis Marathon.
"Dave had never been to St. Louis," Lieberman says. "He has designed lots of race routes and has served as consultant to many race directors. I thought he could bring some fresh perspective."
As Lieberman drove east on Market Street, just past Harris-Stowe State College, the downtown skyline rose from the road -- and McGillivray had a flash.
"Just to see that expanse unfold -- that landscape of downtown -- he said, 'Here it is. You have to start it and end it here,'" Lieberman says.
At 7 a.m. Oct. 15, more than 1,500 runners will commence trudging the new marathon route, through neighborhoods such as Soulard and the Central West End, touching such mileposts as Forest Park, Washington University and the University City Loop.
The race is part of the Spirit of St. Louis Marathon and Family Fitness Weekend, an event being presented for the first time. The two-day program, which begins Oct. 14, offers fitness activities for people of all levels of ability, including a marathon relay, a 1-mile children's fun run, a 5K run and a 10K walk. The event is presented by the Spirit of St. Louis Marathon Family Fitness Weekend nonprofit group in conjunction with the Special Olympics.
"The mission is to showcase St. Louis and to promote health and fitness, as well as to benefit the Special Olympics," Lieberman says. "One goal is to present and promote St. Louis as a place for running."
About 35 percent of the weekend's runners and walkers will hail from outside the St. Louis area, Lieberman says. Participants from at least 38 states and four countries have signed up. The average age of the participants is 39.7 years, and approximately 60 percent are male. About 1,400 volunteers will assist the event.
"In New York, Boston and Chicago, one of the largest single revenue-producing events is their marathon," Lieberman says. "Anywhere from 30,000-35,000 people run in their events, and it can have a real economic impact. People come for the weekend, stay a few nights, eat and sightsee. St. Louis can be the same kind of tourist destination -- and an affordable one."
Paul Gallant, 67, a board member of the Spirit of St. Louis Marathon, has run three New York Marathons, two Chicago Marathons and the Boston Marathon, as well as marathons in San Diego, San Francisco and St. Louis. "In a place like New York, you have 2 million people on the street," Gallant says. "It's quite an exhibition. And Boston -- well, Boston is an exclusive race. But what St. Louis offers -- which is fascinating -- is probably the prettiest course.
"The course is pretty and it's new, and the neighborhoods are great. There's a friendliness that will be here that will at least be equal to other cities'.
"And St. Louis is more intimate because it's not as crowded. When you run 30,000 people, it can be a problem, just logistically: getting to the start line, getting to the finish line, picking up your bag at the end, finding your family.
"There's a little more confusion. Like, in New York, you're bused to the start line. In Boston, you're bused to a start line. Here you can literally -- if you're in a downtown hotel -- fall out and go to the start line."
The 26 miles and 385 yards of St. Louis streets were chosen both for their scenery and for their width -- a broader road meaning more room for runners. Marathons are best run over a varied terrain, which seems to come with the territory over St. Louis streets.
"St. Louis is pretty hilly," Lieberman says. "I don't think people realize that. The elevation change over the course is about 200 feet. It's a good balance for a marathon."
A hill, in fact, can be a runner's friend. Gallant, who ran his first marathon at age 58, says, "Unless you're a world-class runner, it's nice to have a breakup of a hill or two. It kind of breaks up the monotony. Chicago is deemed the fastest course in the United States, 'cause it's flat. Now, Boston is all hills. Boston has a huge amount of hills. You'll never set a world record in Boston. But you'll set it in Chicago. St. Louis is a nice combination."
Lieberman hopes to draw at least 5,000 participants to the two-day event. Festivities begin at 8 a.m. Oct 14 with the 5K race and 10K walk. The same morning, children ages 6-12 can participate in the 1-mile children's fun run. The marathon and marathon relay take place the next day. Through the weekend, a health-and-fitness exposition is held at America's Center downtown.
"A marathon is an extraordinary event for an ordinary person," Gallant says. "Virtually anybody can run a marathon if they put their mind to it. Absolutely, it's the greatest thrill in the world. I'm not sure than any marathoner would trade that first experience for anything. It's a feeling of accomplishment -- a body, a soul and a mind accomplishment."