About 12,500 runners will descend on downtown and West Raleigh this weekend for the biggest road race in the city’s history – a major tourism boost that also brings some logistical worries.
After a full year of planning, the marathon makes its Raleigh debut starting at 7 a.m. Sunday. Runners from 49 states and five nations have signed up for the sold-out race.
“Rock ’n’ Roll Raleigh is going to be incredibly good for the entire area,” said Denny Edwards, president of the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We’re looking at direct visitor spending in the millions and hotel nights in the thousands.”
Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon is a for-profit event held annually in 28 cities in North America and Europe. The draw is its musical model – a rock band performing to runners at each mile along the course.
But the Raleigh race has drawn some fire because it requires the most extensive road closures ever seen in the city, and the course passes near 20 churches on one of the most important dates in the Christian calendar: Palm Sunday.
Drivers will find roadblocks on some of the busiest streets in Raleigh’s core, including Western Boulevard, Hillsborough Street, Peace Street and Blue Ridge Road. A section of McDowell Street – the primary artery through downtown – will be closed from 6 a.m. until 4 p.m.
Several churches have opted to cancel or move services to avoid potential traffic hassles.
Along Hillsborough Street, West Raleigh Presbyterian and Pullen Memorial Baptist are surrounded by the race course. The Presbyterians canceled morning worship and will hold a service at 5 p.m. instead. Pullen is moving to Jones Chapel at Meredith College.
“We just knew after seeing the map, it just wasn’t tenable,” said Brooks Wicker, church administrator at Pullen. “Our hope is that the City Council will at least look at the liturgical calendar before they set a date in the future.”
A few blocks away, Fairmont United Methodist Church encountered the same problem and worked with Rock ’n’ Roll to secure access points to cross the race course. Organizers have established eight “metering” locations spread across the marathon route, where police will allow cars to pass whenever there’s a safe break between runners. No estimates have been provided for the potential traffic delays at those crossings.
Fairmont’s pastor, Beth Gaines, is dropping the traditional service to hold a “Jerusalem marketplace” outdoors along the race course featuring live animals from biblical times. “We’re going to celebrate outside and watch the runners go by,” Gaines said. “Jesus is coming in on a donkey. ... We wanted to make worship that morning as enticing as it could be.”
Rock ’n’ Roll’s Josh Furlow said race organizers met with each affected church to plot a viable route for its congregation. Residents of neighborhoods along the route – Oakwood, Boylan Heights and University Park – have received multiple rounds of notification to prevent any surprises Sunday.
“This is all about advance notifications,” Furlow said, adding that his company has set up a community hotline, 919-996-5046 or 919-996-5047, to field complaints and questions during the race. “It’s a live person talking to you. Our whole idea is a personal touch.”
Sights and sounds
Raleigh leaders have approved what’s called a “postcard route” for Rock ’n’ Roll to showcase the city’s sights.
Runners will pass the old State Capitol, the Executive Mansion, N.C. State University, Chavis and Pullen parks, the Dorothea Dix property and PNC Arena.
Along the way, they’ll get a taste of the local music scene from 27 North Carolina bands selected for the event. Most are rock bands, but the diverse lineup has the Shaw University pep band playing atop the school’s Blount Street pedestrian overpass, Irish punk rockers My Three Kilts playing next to Oakwood Cemetery and a Johnny Cash tribute band on Hillsborough Street.
The first sound runners will encounter is Raleigh folk-pop band Saints Apollo, performing from a stage next to the N.C. Museum of History. “We thought it would be a unique opportunity to gain exposure,” cellist Kaitlin Grady said, adding that the 7 a.m. gig is “a solid 15 hours earlier than we normally play. ... We’ve selected our most upbeat songs.”