It might seem like this interview is being posted way farther in advance than usual, but I have good reason! The Columbia SC Marathon , which will be run this year on March 9, is a race that is very close to my heart for a few reasons: it’s in my hometown, it was unexpectedly one of my favorite races last year, and oh yeah – I’m the assistant race director. I fell so in love with this race last year that I decided I wanted to be involved this year, and when Dan asked me to help, I was thrilled! I’ve learned more in the past few months than I thought was humanly possible. Anyway, the reason I am posting this interview so early is to give those of you who may have been on the fence about attending this year some incentive to sign up! The next price increase is at 11:59 pm on Saturday January 12, so you have to sign up by then to avoid the higher rates and most importantly, to guarantee your shirt size for this year! I of course am available to help you with all your travel needs, and if you come to Columbia, we can meet up and be best friends. It’s going to be really super fun. Deal? Deal.
Without further adieu, I give you my interview with Dan Hartley, race director of the Columbia SC Marathon. For someone I meet with every Monday at Starbucks, it shocked me how little I apparently know about him. Oops. As always, all italicized remarks are my unwelcome additions and not Dan’s fault.
1. Tell me a little about your marathon history. How many marathons have you run? Do you still actively race?
I’ve run for most of my life. I ran in high school and into my early 20s to stay in shape. I didn’t run much for about 10+ years after that – life just got in the way. I started distance running in 2008 when I heard about ultra marathons. I thought the idea was incredible and I wanted to see if I could do one. So I actually started running specifically so I could do ultra marathons and run 100 miles, basically. I went from not running at all to competing in ultras. I didn’t build up to it by running a 5k and then gradually moving up from there. Meanwhile, I literally started running using the Couch to 5k program. Haters gonna hate. The only race distances I’ve done as an adult have literally been ultras. I’ve actually never run a half marathon or a marathon, a 10k or anything. I still actively race, and I’ve got a pretty busy race schedule all year. I run about one ultra a month on average, and I’ve got four 100 milers coming up this year, including the Leadville 100 out in Colorado in August.
2. How did you get into race directing?
Running out at Harbison State Forest all the time, I thought it would be really cool if there was a 50k right there. It’s a beautiful area with tons of trails, and it seemed perfect. There were no other 50ks around, so I just challenged myself to see if I could create one. I know what I like in a race, so I figured why not? I started thinking about it in 2009 and we had our first race in January 2011. It’s now one of the biggest 50ks in the area! As far as the marathon, as I got more involved in the running community and people heard what I was doing out at Harbison, they kept asking me why there was no marathon in Columbia, and I never had an answer. Honestly, it didn’t make any sense. The more people I met in the community, the more I realized there was a demand for it. I had already kind of figured out Harbison, so Columbia seemed like an obvious extension of that. I’ve always been an entrepreneur, so I just decided to do it. If you’re a runner and you like to do it, what better way to do it than to make running your job? I’m trying to do this. It’s not working. Who wants to be my sponsor? Anyone? No?
3. What is your favorite race you have ever run?
I would have to say the Pinhoti 100 in Alabama is my favorite. It was my first 100 miler, and I thought it was exceptionally well run. I loved it! Um, I am 100% confident that my first time running 100 miles will not be my favorite race ever. Mostly because it will never happen.
4. What is the race course like? Describe some important sites along the way.
The course has a reputation for being hilly. While it definitely has some hills, it also has some long, straight, flat sections, especially with the slight course revisions for this year. This is a double loop course that highlights the nicest neighborhoods in town, including some of the old historic neighborhoods. You will run past the oldest section of the University of South Carolina (the beautiful “horseshoe”) and the Five Points entertainment district, plus the full length of Main Street in Columbia. Main Street has been completely revitalized in the past few years, and now it is home to some of the best restaurants and shopping in Columbia. The course runs directly past the host hotel, too! The finish line is directly in front of the state capitol building, which still has cannonball marks on it from Union troops during the Civil War. With this being the capitol city of South Carolina, what better place is there to have a finish line than in front of the capitol building? The finish festival will be on the state house grounds.
5. What sets Columbia apart from other marathons?
I think the biggest difference between Columbia and other marathons is that I truly approach it from the mindset of an ultra runner because I am one! For people who might not know what that means, it means there is a well stocked aid station almost every mile. We’re talking every single flavor of Gu gels (He’s not kidding. It’s literally every flavor.), four flavors of Gatorade, water, bananas, oranges, you name it! You can get all of those things at every mile. It’s the ultra runner in me! I would put our shirts and medals up there against any in the country. I think you can really tell when the race director is a distance runner. I’m not just some random person putting on a race for profit. This is my passion, and I want to cater to other runners and give them a great experience!
6. What changes can runners expect this year?
The biggest changes are probably the new locations of the start/finish and the expo. After the success of last year’s race, the City of Columbia approved our move to the state capitol for the start and finish of the race, which will make for a great finish festival and a fantastic run down Main Street. As a result of the new start and finish, the first mile of the race and the last two miles of the race have changed slightly, which has eliminated some hills. There is slightly less elevation gain this year overall. Also, instead of a 10k, we now have a 5k in hopes of reaching more of the local runners and encouraging them to come out. We’ve also added a 4 person marathon relay for the first time, which should be exciting.
This year, they’re also adding mile markers at EVERY mile. Last year, there were mile markers (I think) every 3 miles or so. Bless Dan’s heart – as an ultra runner, he isn’t used to having mile markers at all, so he thought it was nice to put them every 3 miles, figuring everyone had a Garmin. This is one area where marathon runners and ultra runners couldn’t be more different! Us marathoners (and especially those of us…ok me…at the back of the pack) live for those mile markers! Dan was shocked at first, but this year you can bet there will be mile markers the whole way. And now he has me to offer the perspective from the back of the pack – lucky guy!
7. What would you say is the focal point of your race? What do you spend the most energy working on?
At this point, I would have to say the planning still takes up most of my time. I don’t have a staff – everyone who helps out is a volunteer, and I do the majority of the work myself. The logistics of every minor detail fall on me, and with the race still being relatively new, I’m constantly working on things and thinking about how I can improve the runner’s experience. I would say this year, designing the shirts and medals has been a huge focus. People really loved them last year, so I wanted to step it up even more this year, but I wasn’t sure how. I agonized over it for awhile and finally ended up putting it out there to the public – we offered free race entry for 5 years or $250 to the winning design, and I think we came up with something fantastic. I agree! And the shirts and medals were designed by a friend of mine from Missoula, Dariusz. How cool is that?
8. How would you describe the running community in Columbia?
I’d say we have an incredibly diverse community that is very strong. We have a lot of younger runners here that are very competitive and also a lot of new runners. We have seasoned athletes, including several people who have competed in the Olympic Trials. How many cities can say that? One of them is my sports medicine doctor/personal hero. No big deal. There’s different training groups for all different levels, motivations, times of the day, days of the week, etc. We also have multiple races almost every single weekend -there’s always a 5k somewhere. You can race almost every weekend the entire year if you want! There are so many opportunities here, but no marathon until last year! Seems kind of ridiculous, right?
9. What should traveling runners make sure to do when they visit Columbia?
I suppose I could answer this question myself, but that seems like cheating. I’d say they should definitely go downtown to the Vista and check out our nightlife and entertainment district. There’s an abundance of restaurants there that could appeal to pretty much anyone. There are also a ton of cool restaurants and shops on Main Street, right near the host hotel. Our city is really proud of how this area has been revitalized, and it gives visitors a great feeling of historic Columbia. If you have some extra time on Sunday and feel like walking around a little bit and getting some of that soreness out of your legs, definitely check out the Riverbanks Zoo and Gardens.
10. Why is this the best race ever?
Because T-Rex Runner will be there, and she knows a good race when she sees one. Goooooooooooooooooooo Columbia! Maniacs, Half Fanatics, and 50 Staters get a special discount, so check your respective message boards for information! Tell me: Will I see you in Columbia this year?