The Cowtown has come a long way since 1979 debut

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The Cowtown

Friday-Sunday, Will Rogers Memorial Center

Expo: 11:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Friday, 6 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday

10K: 7 a.m. Saturday

5K: 8:30 a.m. Saturday

Kids 5K: 9:30 a.m. Saturday

Half marathon, marathon, ultra marathon: 7 a.m. Sunday

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It would have been hard for the commoner to know that something extraordinary was taking place during the last weekend in February 1979.

A scan of the sports pages found no mention of the race, christened the Cowtown Marathon.

It’s not much of a stretch to say that the Fort Worth Herd demonstration that takes place each day for wide-eyed tourists in the Stockyards attracts more runners than did the first Cowtown Marathon.

Certainly more weight.

Some 210 runners were registered for that first Cowtown Marathon. Another 250 were set to run in the event’s only other race, the 10K.

That’s 460 runners total.

This weekend race officials expect a record field between 28,000 and 30,000 runners to descend on the Will Rogers Memorial Center for races Saturday and Sunday, including a record registration of close to 2,500 marathoners and a convention center hall full of vendors.

The adult 5K begins at 8:30 a.m. Saturday, followed by the children’s race at 9:30. The 10K starts at 7 a.m.

On Sunday, the marathon, ultra-marathon and half-marathon all begin at 7 a.m.

In addition to record turnout, though, this will also be the fastest and most competitive field in the history of the event, said the race’s executive director.

The Cowtown Marathon is all grown up, having taken off in recent years like Johnson grass in growing season.

“My first marathon was Austin” in the 1990s, said Tim Tarpley, owner and head coach of Trident Sports Fort Worth. “And that was incredible. Six days later, I get thrown in the Cowtown, and I was like, ‘What have I done?’

“This is a real race now.”

More than 20 elite runners will be in the field and each more than capable of setting Cowtown records. Each has run a pace faster than current marks.

Included among those are Kenyan men Mark Chepses, Edward Tabut, and David Tuwei; Asfaw Getachew of Ethiopia, and Americans Joseph Chirlee, Bryan Morseman and Scott Wietecha.

Ethiopia’s Dehininet Jara and American Camille Herron will be featured in the women’s race.

World-class ultra-marathoner Michael Wardian, a four-time U.S. 50K champion and 2010 world 100K silver medalist who recently won the 141-mile, six-state Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica, will also be on hand.

All are here because of a new incentive offered by race officials: money.

Each is vying for a share of $30,000, prize money being offered for the first time in Fort Worth.

Anyone who runs faster than the course records will earn a share of $25,000. At stake for runners who better event records — current or past courses — is a share of $5,000.

The men’s marathon winner will earn $2,000. Women’s winner $1,000.

“It’ll bring the fastest deepest runners we’ve ever had in the Cowtown,” sexecutive director Heidi Swartz said. “And we’ve already set a registration record in the ultra-marathon, the marathon and the Cook Children’s 5K.”

Outgrowing 2 sites

The Cowtown has outgrown two previous sites, moving in 2004 from the original starting location in the Stockyards to the downtown central city and again in 2011 to its site at Will Rogers.

One reason for the growth of the race is circumstance and social phenomenon.

Swartz said the increase in women participants has expanded dramatically the past six to eight years. In fact, there will be more women among the roughly 7,500 half marathoners this year than men.

“They found a way to exercise and have a really great group of friends to run with,” Swartz said. Running “is more of a social thing than it used to be. It’s not just a sport you do by yourself anymore.

“That’s helped grow it.”

Cancellation of the Dallas Marathon in December because of the ice storm boosted the Cowtown’s record number of registrants for the 26.2-mile race, Swartz said.

Race officials offered discounts to Dallas runners and many took them up on the offer.

More than anything has been a new understanding of the benefits of physical fitness and new goals established by leaders in city government to create a healthier community.

The city and Cowtown have effectively cross-promoted their shared objectives and events.

The expansion necessitated spreading the race out over two days.

That has turned out to be an advantage, because it allows officials to manage the races more efficiently and turn more focus on the runners’ experience, which was one of a number of goals Swartz had when she became executive director in 2004.

Not a serious runner at the time, Swartz said the first thing she did when she took the job was started running.

“I did some halfs,” Swartz said. “And I did that because I wanted to see it from the runners’ perspective, to see what we were missing.

“So then as a runner, I could see that, ‘Oh, we need to change this,’ and we need to add more fluid stations, the types of cups we used on the fluid stations. I wanted to make sure we could give the runner what they needed to make it a really good day for them.”

The difference has been obvious, Tarpley said, who added that “how the athlete is treated is what makes it a good race. It’s all about the experience for the athlete.

“I remember when there was no food or anything, you were lucky to have water on the marathon course,” Tarpley said. “Neighbors would come out and give you stuff. I remember those days to the detail.”

Swartz also credits the Cowtown’s five-year medal series for half, full and ultra marathoners, which “created a buzz.”

This weekend starts a new three-year series.

“I know a lot of runners are joining us because they want to be in the beginning of that three-year medal series,” Schwartz said.

Selling Cowtown

Since Swartz became executive director in 2004, participation rates have more than doubled from the 12,263 who came out that year.

It’s just one part of a vision fulfilled by the executive director, whose first order of business upon starting her new job 10 years ago was promoting the race to vendors and potential runners.

She and her staff did just that by hitting the pavement, traveling from city to city and state to state talking up the race and reaching out to every demographic.

“There were only a certain amount of vendors to get in a tent,” said former Fort Worth Police Chief Ralph Mendoza, who now serves on the Cowtown board. “We had to decide whether to move or not and, if so, where to. And will we be able to recruit if we move.”

The tent of booths downtown has been replaced by a more feasible and attractive — to runners and vendors — Amon Carter Jr. Exhibits Hall at Will Rogers.

Like the elite runners, the vendors show up now because of the potential for income in the emerging market of up to 30,000 people gathered in one spot.

“There used to be a booth or two,” Tarpley said. “Now it’s a real expo. When you see those same vendors at all these other events, that’s what they’re doing … they’re paying money to be there.”

It’s just one other example of how the Cowtown world has turned over in the past 36 years.

The potential was there. It just needed a leader to prod. Swartz, Tarpley said, “is the one who’s turned it around.”

“She’s done a great job, including attracting good staff,” Mendoza said. “All the planning and execution is Heidi and her staff. She does a superb job.”

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