Running events stretch to the 'burbs

  • Article by: KATIE HUMPHREY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 30, 2011 - 10:24 PM

With bigger cities trying to keep a lid on the number of now-ubiquitous marathons and other races, organizers are beating a path to outlying communities looking to attract more crowds.

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As more parks and roads in big cities are filled with running events like the Joyful 5K run around Como Lake in St. Paul on Christmas Day, suburbs are proving to be attractive alternatives.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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Once or twice a year in Eagan, the cars would cede streets to runners and walkers hitting the pavement for fun or charity fundraising.

This year, however, city officials were surprised to see a record nine requests for permits for such events -- a walk to fight breast cancer, a 5K run "Tribute to the Troops," and a triathlon among them.

With races proliferating, urban venues such as the Chain of Lakes getting booked up, and Minneapolis tightening its restrictions, more and more races are finding a home in the suburbs, with cities from Eagan to Woodbury to White Bear Lake seeing an uptick and reacting with their own rules to keep races safe and orderly.

"We were able to accommodate most of them," said Juli Seydell Johnson, Eagan's parks and recreation director. "We went from one or two [events] to nine in a very short amount of time."

Minneapolis in 2011 started more consistent enforcement of its parks policy limiting special events to twice a month for each lake or parkway, and never on back-to-back weekends. That meant the city, which has seen an increase from 100 events in 1999 to about 200 in 2011, had to turn down some inquiring race organizers and help some existing events move to new locations in the city.

"People want to still have their events, but they're trying to figure out where in the heck to go," said Mary Anderson, who organizes events through her company, Anderson Race Management.

The influx of requests for road closures and park rentals has sparked a discussion among suburban officials about the balance between fun community events, resident inconvenience and safety.

"We love that the community is active and doing these events," said Seydell Johnson, an avid runner herself. "We just felt like there was a need to have some better guidelines in place for the new year."

Those guidelines for Eagan, which still need City Council approval, could include a limit of two events per month, pre-approved route suggestions and safety requirements for medical emergencies.

Anderson said she welcomes guidelines from cities because it prevents people, especially those groups new to race organizing, from cutting corners -- not hiring enough officers to do traffic control along a new route, for example -- that could jeopardize the safety of participants.

"They will listen to the city," she said.

As for sudden popularity of suburban race routes, she said that's only natural given the still-growing number of races and stricter enforcement of the number of races at more traditional spots, such as the Chain of Lakes. Her company alone manages 200 events annually statewide.

The parks department in Roseville has fielded a few calls from race organizers who can't get into Minneapolis for 2012.

"They're looking for the next alternative. A first-ring suburb makes it convenient," said Jill Anfang, the city's assistant parks director.

But Roseville already hosts eight to 10 events annually and the city prefers not to have more than two a month.

"We do support the events, but we need to take into consideration the community and the community's use of the parks at the same time," she said.

The Three Rivers Parks District in suburban Hennepin County has also seen an increase in requests for walks and runs.

"We do say no to some, particularly if the demand is at one certain park," said Linda Seaton, director of facility operations for the park district.

But the races have their benefits.

"It is a good way for people who maybe have not been to that park before to see the park," she said. "They may come back another time with their family or on their own."

Gary Westlund, who organizes dozens of 5Ks through his nonprofit Charities Challenge, said he usually keeps the number of runners relatively low and sticks to courses in parks, usually around Lake Como, to avoid road closures and safety concerns.

The Joyful 5K on Christmas Day drew about 350 participants.

"The roadways are getting crowded in certain places," Westlund said. "Municipalities understandably want events, but they want safe events that are good for the community. I wholeheartedly agree."

Katie Humphrey • 952-746-3286

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