The organizers of the Prairie Fire Marathon are not lost in delusions of grandeur.
They know Wichita will never contend with major races hosted in Chicago, New York and Boston.
But the Greater Wichita Area Sports Commission, which took over operations of the race three years ago, eyes an opportunity waiting to be seized. There is a chance for Wichita to still be a destination for marathon runners across the Midwest.
More than 4,100 runners, with 40 states represented, will take part in the combined races, up from the 500 or so before the commission assumed control.
“Whenever I take on a job, I always try to do it and do it well,” said Bob Hanson, executive director of the commission. “We want it to be the best that it can possibly be and we think we’re headed in the right direction. I’d like to get it to 10,000 and see where we can go from there.”
Hanson traveled to similar markets such as Tulsa, Dallas, Omaha, Joplin, Kansas City and Little Rock. He jotted down notes of his favorite features and cherry-picked the best ideas to bring to Wichita.
A new focus will be revamping today’s Fit for Life Expo, which Hanson has expanded at Century II’s Expo Hall to include a social media lounge for runners to sign up for texts, tweets and Facebook messages sent to up to five people during the race tracking their performance. It is also free to the public.
“It’s a huge health and wellness fair, it’s not just any other expo,” said Meg Sytnick, part of the Prairie Fire operations team. “We’ll have a lot of different vendors there, pretty much anything a runner could ever need to be successful. We want it to be a place where people can engage and talk, market and advertise.”
Runners from out of state have taken notice.
Oklahoma City native Jacob Buhler, the defending marathon champion, has run in several comparable markets to Wichita and says it stacks up favorably.
“The atmosphere was really good last year,” Buhler said. “You get this competitive vibe and it was really well-organized. It’s definitely a good marathon and it looks like it’s only going to continue growing in popularity.”
Wichita’s own Raquel Stucky, who will run instead at the Chicago Marathon this weekend, is a veteran on the runner’s circuit and is thrilled to see the race take off the way it has.
“There are always going to be marathons bigger than Wichita, but what it comes down to is the hospitality,” Stucky said. “If they can reach out and make runners feel welcomed, that makes a huge difference and that’s something people will continue to come to.”
There was always a running community in Wichita, but it wasn’t until Hanson and the Sports Commission was brought on board that it could be exploited.
It won’t be long until other city’s race coordinators travel to Wichita to see how a marathon can grow.
“This is a major community initiative and you get a true sense of what Wichita is capable of,” Sytnick said. “A lot of people don’t think much of Wichita, Kan., but then they get here and see the cool people, the shopping, the good food, the entertainment, the live music. We are never going to be New York or Chicago by any stretch of the imagination, but this makes me proud to say I’m from Wichita.”