Prairie Fire numbers stagnate as running events explode

The golden age of running has dawned in Wichita and the Prairie Fire Marathon, the city’s premier running event, is slated for a Sunday morning start.

It seems like the event would be primed for a record-setting attendance, but race director Bob Hanson says the opposite is happening: numbers are expected to be a tick down from the 4,700 runners that competed in the marathon, half-marathon, 5-kilometer, fun-run walk, and youth races from last year.

So why, when more people in Wichita are running than ever before, has the growth of the Prairie Fire Marathon been stifled?

“There are so many more races now to choose from, so many more half-marathons and now you’re seeing things like color runs,” Hanson said. “There’s a lot more competition for us than in previous years, but that won’t stop us from putting on the best possible race we can.”

Hanson and his support staff have worked to research, tweak and refine the Prairie Fire series over the past four years. The result has been a widely agreed-upon quality race that makes Wichita a desirable destination for marathon runners from across the country.

The race resonates with the dedicated runners in the community, but it is struggling to connect with as many casual runners with the burgeoning popularity of “color runs,” where runners wear all-white and are doused with colored powders throughout the race to create a human tie-dye effect.

“It’s not that running is down, running numbers are actually up; they’re just spread across a lot more events now,” said Kevin Swinicki, owner of GoRun Wichita. “Along with the River Run, the Prairie Fire still has that big-event feel to it. It’s definitely still one of the premier events we have for the running community here in Wichita.”

Hanson has done such a thorough job in setting up the event that there weren’t any overhauls this year like there had been in the past. The foundation has been established for a quality race; now there are just minor tweaks to be made from year to year.

After taking feedback from the runners, Hanson will debut a new course that has addressed the congestion issues that flared up last year. He has moved the start time up to 7:30 a.m.

“We can’t make the course any flatter, but we can improve on some of the problems we had last year,” Hanson said. “We’re very cognizant of our runner’s interests.”

There won’t be as many sharp turns, which should allow for better times. The course still features a scenic view, as well as the iconic finishing stretch in downtown Wichita. The medals and shirts are the best the race has ever put out, Hanson said.

Hanson is confident in the quality of product the Prairie Fire Marathon puts out, but he admits it was disappointing to see fewer than 3,000 runners registered by Saturday. That number is sure to grow as race day nears, but it isn’t likely to continue the trend of growth the race has seen since its rebirth in 2010.

“It isn’t a negative, we just have to deal with it,” Hanson said. “The numbers are what they are. We’ve done all we can publicity-wise and put out a lot of information out there. We’re still going to put on a great race and do everything we can to get it as good as possible.”

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