Will success spoil the White Rock Marathon?

IN THE 12 years since Talmage Morrison organized the first White Rock Marathon, he has watched it grow from a footrace that attracted 82 runners to one that now draws more than 3,000 entrants. He directed that inaugural race and even sold running shoes out of the trunk of his car to help finance it because the White Rock Marathon was, in his opinion, something the City of Dallas needed.

A dozen years and 13 marathons later, Morrison believes Dallas needs something more, something bigger, something better. Something like the 7,000 runners who entered the Boston Marathon this year or the 14,000 who participated in the New York City Marathon in October. An event recognized as one of the best marathons in the land would be just right for Dallas.

“I want the Dallas White Rock Marathon [which will be held December 4] to become a well-known national race,” he says. “I have a desire for a great running event to be held in Dallas. An event that would attract people from all over the United States -a nationally prominent marathon.”

Morrison, who is 61 years old and who founded the Cross Country Club of Dallas in 1969, envisions a race beginning and ending in front of City Hall. The advantages of such a start and finish are obvious, he says.

“We would be able to utilize all the parking down there,” he says. “There are several hotels in the area and many restaurants. It would be ideal, especially when you consider what we’ve got now.”

What the race has now is a start at Hill Middle School on Easton Road in Northeast Dallas. That’s hardly a city landmark, Morrison says. Parking is becoming a problem as race participants choke the surrounding residential streets. After a mile-and-a-half run to the lake, the runners make two loops of the park before finishing at an open field near Poppy Lane, a couple of miles from the start and their cars.

“This way, as the runners are making their way back to the finish, they can set their sights on Reunion Tower and run right back downtown, where they will be close to their cars or hotel rooms,” Morrison says. “It’s ideal.”

By moving the course downtown, Morrison (a veteran of 26 marathons) believes Dallas citizens will be more likely to turn out to support the runners as they do in Boston and New York.

“I can see, in a few years, having tens of thousands of people out to watch the race and cheer on the runners,” he says. “And I think we can have 10, 12, 15, maybe even 18,000 runners in the next five years. Right now, this is just a Northeast Dallas race that is getting more unwieldy all the time.”

Morrison’s dream, however, is not universally shared. Detractors say there is no safe course through the streets of Dallas. Surely, they say, a runner will fall victim to an impatient motorist, angered because his route to the shopping mall was blocked by a herd of thinly clad runners torturing themselves for 26.2 miles. A policeman might be distracted, an engine would rev and a runner could be injured or killed.

“That is a given,” says Dale Hager, a member of the Dallas White Rock Marathon Committee and the number one opponent of moving the course. “If it [an accident] doesn’t happen the first year, then the second or the third. Eventually it will happen, you can count on it.

“They are hoping people will come out and line the streets like they do in Boston or New York,” says Hager, who also is a veteran of many marathons. “Well, Dallas is not like Boston or New York. To start with, there is a tremendous difference in the density of the populations. Those places have many more people per square mile than we do. You run down one block and you may have several hundred or even a thousand people out watching, and all those people live in that block. You aren’t going to find that here.

“Take the Turkey Trot, for instance [the oldest and most popular race in Dallas, an 8-mile run through downtown]. “It’s run downtown, and how many people show up to watch it? Almost nobody. All you’ve got are the runners and their families. People in Dallas simply aren’t going to turn out to see people run a marathon. It’s not a spectator sport here.”

Hager says he has made a study of the possible routes from downtown out to the lake and back. Each route, he says, crosses an average of 52 intersections, and, more importantly, every route crosses either Abrams Road or Gaston Avenue, two of the city’s most heavily traveled streets.

“I determined that on a Saturday on Abrams, there is an average of 15 cars per minute crossing the intersection that they [the runners] would have to use,” Hager says. “Gaston has an average of 10 to 12 cars per minute. If you close one of those intersections for 20 minutes, you will have to hold up at leasl 200 cars. Since the course would be out and back, you would have to keep that same intersection blocked for about two hours. Imagine what kind of problems you’d have then.

“Last year a car ran through an intersection at the Turkey Trot and hit a policeman. Last year, a car ran an intersection and almost hit Glenys Quick [a prominent local runner] at the Symphony Race. What they are going to produce is not a groundswell of civic support. What they are going to produce is a great number of angry motorists. I think they are courting disaster.”

Officer Dan Johnson of the Dallas Police Department’s special events planning division agrees that the traffic problem would be immense, but he thinks it can be handled. Johnson, who has been in charge of the marathon traffic planning for the past four years as well as all downtown parades and Texas-OU celebrations, says the key is rerouting the traffic around the race.

“I’m not saying it wouldn’t be difficult, but I don’t think anything is impossible anymore,” he says. “1 said once, when some people applied for a parade permit and wanted to close Elm Street, that it couldn’t be done, but they got it closed and held their event without any problems. Since then I’ve said that anything is possible. Of course, I’d rather see them stay in the park, but if they can do it in Boston and New York, I’m sure we could do it here.”

One partial solution to the traffic problem is to switch the day of the race from Saturday to Sunday. That would eliminate most of the traffic downtown, although there still would be church and Cowboys football traffic.

Assuming that the safety problems can be solved, there are still several important details that must be taken care of before a race can attain national prominence. Probably the most crucial factor is the caliber of competition. It’s the big names in racing that draw the big crowds. Without them a downtown marathon is merely another 26.2-mile run watched only by family and friends. Big names bring big publicity and nationwide attention. Big names also cost big bucks, and that means at least one major sponsor with a big league bankroll.

White Rock never has had one major sponsor. Instead, several local individuals and companies have banded together -a safeguard against one sponsor pulling out and financially sinking the event. But a major sponsor with big dollars would change all that.

How does the Xerox Dallas Marathon strike you? There’s a strong possibility that the office machine giant might become the marathon’s major sponsor in the near future. Xerox is considering getting into the marathon business in an effort to promote its newest copier: the Xerox Marathon. The Dallas White Rock Marathon is one of 16 being considered by Xerox.

Although nothing has been decided, it is clear that Xerox would like to promote a major race in a town where it has a regional office, such as Dallas. There are a few considerations, however.

“Dallas is a major American city in a state that is one of the three or five of the most significant states, and it packs a wallop,” says Alvin Chriss, director of the trust-fund program organized by The Athletics Congress, the national ruling body of track and field. Chriss is working with the Xerox advertising agency handling the marathon project. “But the race doesn’t exist for the people of Dallas. There are 400 marathons in the United States-80 high-quality ones and 10 that have an impact. The Dallas race doesn’t exist because it is a small, local, running club-type race in a park. Until it comes out of the park and gets out on the streets with some municipality backing, it will never attract big dollars.”

Chriss also said he would expect the name to change. “The only question the advertising company asked was whether the name White Rock meant the beverage company. If a major sponsor came in, they would want the name changed.”

Whether or not the name is changed makes little difference to most runners. Their main concern is the course. White Rock’s course is known for being fast. Many local runners use the race to meet the qualifying standards for the Boston Marathon. A change downtown would mean a much slower course because of the hills south and west of the lake.

Morrison doesn’t think a tougher course would scare off too many runners. He figures the attractiveness of the entire package will more than compensate for any dropouts.

But the City Council could vote down the whole idea. A city with a two-time world championship football team, a top-rated television series bearing its name and the Republican National Convention coming to town hardly needs the exposure or the headaches that an undertaking like this would cause. But a big-time race would focus considerable attention on the city every year, not to mention bring in much-desired revenue.

Morrison and his backers are banking on that type of thinking. But they also are doing their homework.

“Safety is of paramount importance,” Morrison says. “If we look into this and find out the race can’t be moved safely, then we won’t move it. This is, after all, only a suggestion.”

Suggestion or no, Morrison believes therace eventually will grow large enough thatsuch a move will be necessary, and hewould rather the old-time Dallas runnersmake the changes, not some big companyor new arrivals who don’t know or care asmuch about the local runners.


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