Murph's Turf: Half marathon gets facelift

If HGTV had a show about refurbished road races, the recent Pamby Ridgefield Half Marathon would have been ready to air unedited.

Still old school in terms of longevity, the 13.1-mile race (which took place Oct. 1) was given an overhaul elsewhere — most noticeably at the new finish line. Instead of ending in relative anonymity on Market Street, runners finished at the Boys & Girls Club on Governor Street, where music blared, family and friends gathered, and Little Pub sliders and Palm beer awaited.

“People are expecting more of an experience now when they run a race,” said Megan Searfoss. “They don’t just expect to be handed a bagel and a cup of water.”

Searfoss, who’s lived in Ridgefield with her husband and children for the past 12 years, is an accomplished athlete herself — she’s run the Boston Marathon and competed at the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. But her contribution to this year's half marathon came in a new role as co-race director, along with Nancy Barlow.

When long-time race directors and Wolfpit Running Club members John Dugdale and Rick Favier decided to retire following last year’s 40th half marathon, they wisely approached Searfoss, a co-owner of the Ridgefield Running Club, who began the popular (and now national) Run Like A Mother 5K race series here in 2007.

“It’s a great event with a great tradition … the half marathon is part of the fabric of Ridgefield,” said Searfoss. “But at the same time it needed some updating.”

In addition to new starting and finishing areas and food and beverage options, the race included other changes. Mile markers were placed on the course; more Gatorade and water stations were added; and competitors tiring near the end of the race got a motivational boost from a group of strategically placed young cheerleaders.

The most significant tactical shift? Runners who expected to complete the course in two hours and 40 minutes or more got a half-hour head start.

“When the final runner came across the finish line last year, it was the just me and the timer waiting there. The other runners were all gone,” said Searfoss, who continued in her role as race announcer. “Having the slower runners start earlier meant that there wasn’t nearly as much of a gap at the end. When the runners who had finished heard that the final runner was coming in, they moved down from the area where they were eating and drinking to cheer.”

According to the official timing service, 448 runners finished this year's half marathon. That was up from 331 finishers two years ago but down from the 511 finishers last year.

“There were a few glitches,” said Searfoss. “The new course wasn’t approved until later than we thought, and the race had also been scheduled on the same day as Yom Kippur, which was probably accidental but still might have affected the turnout.”

Although Searfoss said she is already thinking about ways to improve next year’s race, one thing won’t need fixing. The commemorative medal that runners received at the finish line displayed the race’s new logo and also doubled as a bottle opener. That was perfect for those too tired to open a Palm with their teeth.