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Heart of America Marathon draws small but dedicated crowd

September 3, 2007 | 1:31 a.m. CST

COLUMBIA — Running 26.2 consecutive miles is an accomplishment, but doing it in the Heart of America Marathon, which runs through Columbia this Labor Day, is a rare one.

More than 390,000 Americans will run in the 300-plus marathons offered throughout the country this year. The Chicago Marathon, for example, already has 45,000 participants registered for the October race.

This year’s Heart of America, in contrast, is expecting less than 150 runners.

Begun in 1960, Heart of America holds claim as the fourth-oldest U.S. marathon. But unlike bigger-city marathons like Chicago’s, which has witnessed soaring participation in recent years as marathons have gained popularity in the United States, the Heart of America has stayed small.

“It doesn’t compare with the big-city marathons,” said Joe Duncan, who has served as race director for the past 37 years. “It’s just basically a low-key, casual, out-in-the-country sort of affair,” he said.

The race’s challenges might offer one explanation for its low turnout. Heat, humidity and Boone County hills – particularly Easley, whose apex marks the marathon’s halfway point – have contributed to the course’s reputation, prompting many an aspiring marathoner to shop around for a more forgiving 26.2-mile route.

“I wouldn’t say it’s the most difficult (U.S. marathon), because that’s something that would be difficult to measure,” Duncan said.

But he said he thinks it ranks among the top five.

On the other hand, the course’s challenges may be a reason to confront, rather than avoid, the Columbia race. On a discussion board, a Heart of America finisher from a previous year called the race a “real” marathon. Another finisher wrote: “… I think anyone who completes HOA gets special bragging rights.”

Heart of America is also a small race by design. Duncan cites traffic concerns along the two-lane blacktop roads, particularly routes K and N, where the shoulders are narrow, as one reason why there isn’t the capacity for huge crowds.

“It’s not a heavily promoted marathon,” he said.

This eliminates the need for “ChampionChip” timing, which is necessary in more crowded races. Runners wear miniature-transponder “chip” devices, which are activated once they cross the starting line. This gives each competitor a “net time,” as opposed to the race-clock time, by subtracting the minutes spent jogging through the thousands of runners backlogged behind the starting line.

At the Heart of America starting line, there will be no such crowds, which might be a good thing for Rick Roeber, who plans to run the race barefoot.

“This is my 29th barefoot marathon,” Roeber said. “I did 18 with shoes before that.”

Roeber, alias “Barefoot Rick” will be running to raise money and awareness for the Kansas City Rescue Mission. It will be his fifth time running the Heart of America, and third time doing so barefoot.

He describes the race as “diametrically different from New York or Chicago,” where there are “like 40,000 runners and a million spectators.”

“It’s a solitary run; I kind of like that about Heart of America. It’s all about just getting out there and seeing what you’re really made of. Sometimes the road is lonely. I think it’s a test of endurance to be out there,” Barefoot Rick said.

Many Heart of America entrants belong to the “50 States Running Club.” Members aim to complete a marathon in every state, and they need Missouri to add to their list, Joe Duncan said.

Sponsored by the Columbia Track Club, the race starts at 6 a.m. outside the Hearnes Center. Twelve water stops will be situated along the course, including ones at Rock Bridge Elementary (3.5 miles); the Old Plank Road turnoff (6.5 miles); the bottom of Easley hill (12 miles); the top of Easley (halfway); Pierpont (18 miles); and Rock Bridge Elementary once again (20.5 miles). At the Seventhstreet finish-line there will be water, Gatorade and fruit, and finishers will receive medals featuring the same design logo as the race t-shirts.

The $25 entry fee is a bargain by marathon standards, and impulsive runners can register until 30 minutes before the start time.

In 1966, the Heart of America was Joe Duncan’s first marathon.

“Why?” he said. “Because it’s here.”

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