Organizer hits ground running to resurrect Columbia marathon

jholleman@thestate.comMarch 5, 2014 

Jesse Harmon yells out encouraging words during a Run Hard Columbia practice for elementary school boys at Ballentine Elementary School in Irmo, Monday, March 3, 2014.

GMELENDEZ@THESTATE.COM — Gerry Melendez

  • Run Hard Columbia Marathon

    The annual running event returns for a third year with a new name.

    When: March 8, with the marathon, marathon relay and half marathon starting at 7:30 a.m., and the 5K and Kids Marathon at 8 a.m.

    Where: Start and finish near State House, course winds through Shandon to Lake Katherine and then back down Trenholm and Gervais to downtown. Drivers should be prepared to be stopped to allow runners through at some intersections.

    Also: Stop by the health and fitness expo noon-9 p.m. Friday at the Clarion Hotel Downtown at 1615 Gervais St.

— It’s a prove-your-toughness mantra among runners: There’s no shortcut in running a marathon.

Jesse Harmon, who has run seven marathons, knows that well. But he thinks he found a one-time shortcut to running (as in operating) a marathon: Work hard and get lots of help.

In November, Harmon willingly took on the task of resurrecting the suddenly canceled Columbia Marathon. He had only four months to do what many race directors require 12 months to get done.

It appears the 31-year-old from Lexington is going to pull it off. The rechristened Run Hard Columbia Marathon is set for Saturday, with more than 1,200 entries in the various races, including more than 300 in the 26.2-mile distance.

“It’s been tough, but the thing that has helped us so much has been the Columbia running community,” Harmon said. “They latched onto this race and really owned it. They said ‘This is our race in Columbia, and we’ll help promote it, and we’ll be advocates for the program it goes to support.’”

For instance, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training Program’s local chapter helped organize — and provide cowbells and boom sticks for — spirit groups scattered throughout the race course to cheer runners. Cyclists training for the American Diabetes Association’s Tour de Cure have volunteered to serve as bike marshals along the course. The Columbia Running Club has encouraged its members to enter the race and/or help Harmon in any way they can.

“We’re very excited about the race because we essentially thought it was dead,” said Alex McDonald, president of the club.

Columbia was home to the Carolina Marathon from 1977 through 2001, but interest in that distance event among runners waned in the 1990s. The Carolina Marathon Association decided to devote its efforts to the Governor’s Cup half marathon and 8K events.

But marathons have made a comeback nationally in recent years. In 2012, Dan Hartley organized the first Columbia Marathon, and the pent-up demand was evident. Nearly 550 runners finished the 26.2-mile race, with another 1,000 or so in the half marathon and 10K. The numbers grew for the 2013 race, but Hartley ran into logistical and financial problems.

Some runners in the popular marathon relay were angry when transportation provided by the race organizer didn’t get them to handoff spots in time. Then after the race, many age-group winners never received their awards. Hartley said on the race’s Facebook page that he didn’t have enough money to pay for the awards. Then in October, Hartley announced his version of the race was done.

A few weeks later, Harmon jumped into that void, pledging to stage a race in March. Lots of people thought he was crazy not to wait and re-start the race in 2015.

“When he told me he was going to do that, I was just blown away,” McDonald said. “I thought it was an impossible task.”

Russ Pate, longtime race director for the Governor’s Cup, knows how much planning is required for a major race. He can’t imagine having to get it done in just four months.

“Accomplishing this in the amount if time he has had really is tremendously challenging,” Pate said. “At least there was an event there (in 2012-13), so there was some momentum. But he’s picking up an event that had some problems, and that would be doubly challenging.”

Harmon’s first order of business was winning over trust from runners and the businesses that support these types of events. He did it with aw-shucks enthusiasm and dedication, and a willingness to listen to advice.

“They’ve given me more of a first chance than I expected, and it’s been fair,” Harmon said. “Some with obvious and legitimate reasons were at first hesitant, but once they figured out the program it goes to benefit and what we plan to do through the race, they understand.

“It’s really been about being transparent with them. In some areas, we don’t have the answers, so we ask, ‘What do you suggest?’ And I think people respect that.”

Harmon had two big advantages: He knew many of the local players as a longtime runner in the area, and his Run Hard Running Team for elementary school boys established his organizational skills.

Harmon started Run Hard two years ago as the male alternative to the popular Girls on the Run program for young women. He started with after-school training sessions (and life lessons) at two elementary schools and quickly grew to 25 schools this spring. The sessions culminate in a 5K event for the children and their parents. Last spring’s race had 1,100 finishers.

His dual motivations in taking over the Columbia Marathon were to gain publicity for his after-school program and to use the marathoners to showcase for those kids how running can be a lifestyle for them.

“The heart behind this is the kids,” said Tim Watson, the coordinator for the marathon’s expo. “We get them up, we get them out and we get them active. Jesse has a heart for kids, and he communicates that very clearly.”

Based on advanced entries and expenses so far, the first race will break even, Harmon said. If there are any proceeds, most will go to scholarships for the after-school program. And Harmon plans to donate some proceeds the Jack Zeman College Fund, for the son of Columbia marathoner Jake Zeman who collapsed and died near the finish of the Savannah Rock ‘N’ Roll Marathon in November.

Harmon and his top lieutenants — Watson and marathon assistant director Jeannette Farr — haven’t been overwhelmed by the organizational work, though they’ve been extremely busy.

“You follow the same procedures when you plan a race from a 5K to a marathon, but the difference is the amount of volunteers and things needed,” Harmon said. “In a 5K course you have one water stop, and some races don’t even have that. (In the marathon) we have eight water stops. It’s a matter of multiplying everything you do by five or 10 times.”

Harmon always has paid attention to the organization of events when he ran in them. During the recent Myrtle Beach Marathon, he took mental pictures of relay exchange zones, the barricade setup and the number of volunteers at the finish. All of those lessons will factor into the Columbia event.

So far, no major problems have cropped up, but Harmon had trouble sleeping because he keeps dreaming about things that could go wrong.

“We have one shot to make a first impression, and I feel like we’ve been given a lot of grace this time around,” Harmon said. “We need to work hard to make sure we do it well. If we have the wrong attitude or specifically ignore certain things, we may not be extended that grace ever again.”

Run Hard Columbia Marathon

The annual running event returns for a third year with a new name.

When: March 8, with the marathon, marathon relay and half marathon starting at 7:30 a.m., and the 5K and Kids Marathon at 8 a.m.

Where: Start and finish near State House, course winds through Shandon to Lake Katherine and then back down Trenholm and Gervais to downtown. Drivers should be prepared to be stopped to allow runners through at some intersections.

Also: Stop by the health and fitness expo noon-9 p.m. Friday at the Clarion Hotel Downtown at 1615 Gervais St.

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