By PATRICK STUTZ
Special to Madison.com sports
Posted: Wednesday, May 12, 2010 9:00 am
The number of registrants for the Syttende Mai Run and Walk has been a little inconsistent over the past few years, but longtime event coordinator Margit Gerber said she’s not going to sweat it. That activity she’ll reserve for the runners on May 15.
“We have always edged the 450 mark for the 20-mile run, but in 2008 we were below 400,” Gerber said. “We aren’t worried about our numbers, but we are looking forward and trying to be brave by adding new events.”
The Syttende Mai Run began in 1973 as a 20-mile run — it was a seven-mile distance for women in the first year, before that distance was equalized.
It has since become an annual Stoughton event, part of a city-wide celebration that includes art fairs, parades and performances on the weekend closest to May 17 — or Syttende Mai, in Norwegian.
That represents the date in 1814 on which Norway — the country to which many of Stoughton’s residents trace their ancestry — signed a Constitution that gave it independence from a 500-year union with Sweden.
Despite the longstanding tradition and the large community support, participation in the 20-mile run has become significantly smaller over the past 25 years, Gerber said. That stands in contrast to the 17-mile walk, which has increased in size each year and has become the event’s driving force.
Gerber attributes the decline in numbers for the run both to its high level of difficulty — she recalls it being dubbed “the hardest marathon you’ll never run” at an organizational meeting — but also to the growing list of alternatives for runners throughout the country.
“When you look at the number of marathons back then (in 1973) there were certainly not as many, and you would have to travel in order to get to one,” Gerber said.
“Now, it seems people are more athletic and there are a lot more events in people’s hometowns. And why wouldn’t you do the local event rather than travel?
“And of course,” she added, “there is the Madison Marathon.”
Now in its 15th year, the Madison Marathon has shaken off the weight of a checkered past and has become the second-biggest area running event on the springtime calendar, behind the Crazylegs Classic. Its coordinators expect to hit their registration cap of 8,500 participants for the event, which is always held on the Sunday before Memorial Day. That’s up more than 47 percent from just three years ago.
In contrast, Gerber hopes the 38th Syttende Mai Run and Walk will hit 1,200 participants.
The problem is that because the events fall so close together on the calendar — some years closer than others — runners often are forced to choose.
If they were three weeks apart, the Syttende Mai would be an ideal training run for the marathon, allowing ample time for recovery. For the next two years, doubling up is at least doable, as 15 days will separate the events. But starting in 2012, there will be a run of five straight years in which they’ll be contested just eight days apart.
So, what is driving runners’ decisions on which race to enter?
Madison Marathon event director Keith Peterson believes the difference in turnout for the two events has everything to do with course length.
“It probably comes from the marathon just being a more established distance for runners, Peterson said. “People say, ‘I’m going to run a marathon or a half marathon,’ and (as of last week) we already have runners from 45 different states, three U.S. territories and three or four different countries. We are seeing nationwide that races across the country are increasing every year.”
Rolando Cruz, who has done the Syttende Mai Run five times and the Madison Marathon on seven occasions, agrees with Peterson in regard to runners’ perception of course length.
“Of the two runs, I really enjoy the Syttende Mai, because I tend to focus on the brats and the beer waiting for me at the end,” said Cruz, 32, who has been running marathons since 2000 and in April ran in the Boston Marathon for the first time.
“I think the reason it has not done as well is because a lot of runners who are hoping to qualify for the Boston Marathon choose Madison because it is a qualifier. For some reason, a marathon (26.2 miles) is the thing to do now, and you don’t get the same satisfaction from a 20-miler.”
Gerber — who emphasized that Stoughton has no intention of ending the Syttende Mai Run and Walk — recognizes that fact and helped orchestrate two changes this year to broaden its appeal.
First, organizers added a 10-mile race to target the growing legion of runners who enter half marathons, as well as those who want to fit in a shorter competition before the Madison Marathon.
Second, the 2-mile run at the tail end of the race — traditionally reserved for those 16-and-under — will be opened to all ages as part of a community wellness initiative.
Also, entrants in the 20-mile run will get a new perk — a Dri-Fit athletic shirt, as opposed to the old-school cotton T-shirt.
For his part, Cruz believes the biggest draw for runners should simply be the course.
“I would recommend runners do the Syttende Mai because it’s pretty hilly with these beautiful concrete roads running out to Stoughton, and it will prepare them mentally for the marathon,” Cruz said. “You really have to dig, because most of the time you will be running by yourself and you really get a chance to assess how you would do in a marathon.”