New Brunswick

Marathon by the Sea could face finish line next year, says founder

The founder and executive director of Saint John's Marathon by the Sea says next year's 25th anniversary could mark the end of the event, given a lack of funding and a shortage of in-kind support.

Saint John marathon in its 24th year needs more financial and in-kind support, says Mike Doyle

Mike Doyle, executive director of Saint John's Marathon by the Sea, says the volunteer Marathon by the Sea committee is committed to seeing through next year's 25th anniversary event 'come hell or high water,' but the future is less clear. (CBC)

The founder and executive director of Saint John's Marathon by the Sea says next year's 25th anniversary could mark the end of the event, given a lack of funding and a shortage of in-kind support.

Mike Doyle says the marathon has lost between $1,000 and $8,000 for each of the past three years.

And while a record 2,600 runners from as far away as Australia have registered for this year's event, being held Aug. 10-12, Doyle says the bottom line is still too hard to predict.

"A week out from a marathon, you can double your numbers, so we've got to be very cautious as to where we spend the money," he said.

"We're a not-for-profit … we don't want to make money, but we want to break even."

About $10,000 from the provincial and/or federal governments, along with in-kind services from the city, such as free use of pylons, barricades and tables and crews to set them up along the 26-mile course, would ensure the marathon's survival, said Doyle.

No government money

But no level of government has offered to help cover any of the marathon's $120,000 budget this year and services that used to be provided for free now come at cost, he said.

Policing and traffic control to protect the runners on the roadways, for example, cost about $8,000. That's on top of the minimum $6,000 it costs to close one lane of the Harbour Bridge for runners.

Corporate sponsors have also been increasingly difficult to secure, said Doyle. He sent about 250 requests for between $500 and $30,000 each and says many simply went unanswered.

Even the number of volunteers has dwindled to fewer than 80, down from about 300. Meanwhile, the marathon committee has only four volunteers — about half of what it should be. 

"We have people that come in that want to volunteer and then they come in and they say, 'This is a lot of work,' said Doyle, who estimates he puts in about 20 hours a week year-round

"It's one of those jobs that you really [have] to be on top of because if one person pulls out, then it's a domino effect , everything starts to fall."

Some changes

The marathon's route was changed again last weekend due to construction. Runners will now use the half marathon double loop, which is still a IAAF-certified course. (CBC)

Doyle says he's trimmed costs where he can.

He changed the marathon route to reduce the number of major intersections, cutting the policing costs in half from about $16,000 three years ago.

But he had to pay $4,500 to have the route remeasured and recertified by the International Association of Athletics Federation so the marathon could continue to serve as a qualifier for the Boston Marathon.

Doyle also eliminated the marathon's only paid position, an administrative role he has since taken on as a volunteer, and has stopped travelling to expos in other regions to promote the marathon, focusing instead on social media.

He says the registration fees, which range between $40 and $140, are competitive and increasing them would risk losing participants.

And he doesn't want to take away any of the extras the marathon currently offers, such as the free Kids Run for up to 300 children from organizations such as the Joshua Group, complete with T-shirts and medals, entertainment and fireworks.

"We want to maintain I guess what everyone expects – what we've been doing last [24] years," he said. "We might be a small market event, but when they get here they say, 'Holy geez this is like being in New York.'"

Not just a running event

Instead, Doyle is calling on all three levels of government and more businesses step up to help the marathon.

It's not just a running event, but rather a community event that provides an estimated $1.2 million in economic spinoffs, according to Discover Saint John, he said.

"Next year is our 25th year and I've been holding onto that number … that if anything ever was to happen, then the 25th year would be a good conclusion to the event."

Saint John native Alex Coffin, who has won the marathon at least seven times, says it would be a shame to see the marathon end.

Alex Coffin, pictured here on the right with running buddy Luis Rubio, says he can see an event like Marathon by the Sea, which 'has history and impact ... being around for 100 years.' (Submitted by Alex Coffin)

"I was very lucky to win that first year I did it and just the memory of finishing by Market Square with everybody cheering from the sides and then hanging out afterwards … I mean, that's an incredible memory and I know many other people have that similar memory of how exciting that finish line was and still is," he said.

"It's just such a very Saint John event and I think for people coming from out of town, it really shows off what's beautiful about this city."

'Tremendous competition' for 'limited dollars'

Saint John Mayor Don Darling says he didn't realize the marathon is in jeopardy.

"I will certainly follow up after this conversation to see exactly where we are and what can be done," he said.

But Darling stressed there's "tremendous competition for very limited dollars when it comes to those types of events" and even in-kind services have associated costs. 

"All of these type of conversations,which are agonizing for the organizations and for the volunteers, all fit in to the bigger picture that we're not sustainable and we have to fix our finances and we have to free up cash and resources so that we can invest in these kinds of events that add, I think add tremendously, to the quality of life, and sports tourism is very important to us."

But Doyle remains hopeful.

"Hopefully now that it's been put out there we'll get more co-operation with the different levels of government and we can work together."

If the economy improves, a title sponsor of $30,000 could also emerge, ending the marathon's financial struggles, he said.