The Des Moines Marathon: Hassle-Free with All the Fixins'
by Beth Dyba & Erin Kandel
The inaugural Des Moines Marathon is less than two months away, but when we caught up with race director Helene Neville earlier this week, she seemed to have all the time in the world. Sure, putting on a world-class marathon in a small-town presents its challenges, but they're nothing this easygoing marathoner isn't prepared to overcome.
"I've run in eight marathons and I've learned something from each one," explained Neville, looking the part of the professional runner with her bronzed skin and toned body. A Chicago and London Marathon veteran, Neville couldn't escape the feeling that her hometown deserved an unforgettable marathon - and that she was the one to make it happen.
"After traveling to other marathons, I thought we could offer something that was just as appealing to runners but make it even better," said Neville with a confident smile. "I wanted to have a hassle-free marathon without skimping on being very professional and well-run."
Neville's designs for convenience include a large finishing area awaiting runners, along with showers at the nearby YMCA. The local traffic sergeant has pledged to close down any roads necessary during the race, and the "top-shelf" host hotel is within walking distance from the start, finish, expo and pasta dinner.
"Everything is right outside the hotel," she assures. "There are very few marathons that do that."
For the first time in Iowa history ChampionChips will be used, despite the "flack" Neville faced from local timers who prefer the old-fashioned way. The "PR-friendly" flat and fast course will provide aid stations every two miles, increasing to every mile after Mile 18. They will remain open and stocked for the slower runners and walkers, who are encouraged to attend.
"I'm really targeting those in the back-of-the-pack," she said. "They're the ones who financially support these events. We're allowing walkers to start at 5:30 in the morning if they want to - with the Chip you can do that."
Gotta Love that 'Mid-Western Hospitality'
Though Neville will be the first to admit that Des Moines is not "obviously a destination marathon," the charming Iowa town "really is a nice place to get away to - especially for the mid-western hospitality."
In the marathoning world, there is no greater hospitality than enthusiastic fans. Inspired by the London Marathon, where screaming fans left her "ears ringing for days," Neville is determined to leverage strong community support for her marathon. Like a politician lobbying for votes, she visited every home along the marathon route to get residents "fired up" about what they can do to help the runners and participate in the event.
"If the community buys into the event and takes ownership, then they're your best friends," Neville said of her door-to-door expedition.
But she didn't stop there. Neville made arrangements to pack the race's halfway mark, an archway spanning the course, with spectators cheering and dancing to the rhythm of Indian drums. Volunteers at each aid station will sport a different theme - from an army outfit to drag queens - as part of her Water Station Contest to entertain runners. She also plans to bus hundreds of cheering children and fans into Water Works Park at Mile 23 to urge runners onward to the final mile, signaled by music from a rooftop band.
'This Ain't No Cornfield'
The sideline displays add to the striking scenery along the course, which winds through tree lined boulevards, historic neighborhoods, and breathtaking parks home to more four-limbed spectators: wild deer, geese, and horses. To Neville, the diverse route and spectatorship reflect the race's theme "This Ain't No Cornfield." The slogan, created by her son Dan, draws on Neville's belief that Des Moines offers runners much more than stereotypical scarecrows and farmland.
"The race definitely supports the theme, 'not a cornfield,' and we're throwing everything at runners to prove it."
Still, there's no harm in poking fun at the mid-western typecast. The race t-shirts, designed by Neville herself, feature the stone-faced country couple from the famous painting "American Gothic" wearing colorful marathon bibs.
Hard Work Pays Off
It seems Neville is handling her role as head honcho remarkably well from the calm, assured way she speaks about her handiwork. Still, she admits that organizing this marathon is complicated by the fact that it's the first one to hit Des Moines.
"Whether I'm going in for donations or looking for tables and chairs, I have to give the whole spiel because it's a new thing," and that takes time. But Neville is optimistic that "next year they'll all be in line" to participate. True to her back-of-the-pack friendly philosophy, Neville is also expending energy to build a sense of confidence in her potential participants and donors. "It's very difficult to get the person who doesn't think they can do it to try," but if they come around it's usually a rewarding experience, she explains.
In the end, Neville wants to attract runners and walkers of all abilities and send them away satisfied. "I want everyone to go home and tell ten other people how much fun they had."
More information is available at: www.DesMoinesMarathon.com