Organizers hope to overtake safety concerns to bring marathon to Hilton Head

Organizers hoping to bring a marathon to Hilton Head Island are anxious to get out of the starting blocks but have been stalled by safety and traffic concerns.

State Rep. Andy Patrick, R-Hilton Head; his wife, Amee, a personal trainer and island firefighter/EMT; Patrick'sbrother-in-law; and a group of island athletes asked for a special-event permit from the town in November for the Hilton Head Island Marathon.

The 26.2-mile footrace is to take place sometime next winter, from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. on a Saturday.

Organizers hope to have the route certified by USA Track & Field, making it a qualifying event for the Boston Marathon. A half marathon also would be offered, according to a letter sent to the town.

"Our goal is to create a marquee event for both the first-time runner and those that are veterans of the sport," said Ryan Stefonick, Patrick's brother-in-law. The marathon would be an economic boost to the community "during a time of year that has been traditionally slow with regard to hospitality."

Organizers predict a marathon would draw about 1,100 runners -- similar to the turnout for the Snickers Marathon in Albany, Ga., in 2009.

For that marathon, an estimated $195,250 was spent by runners over two days on meals and lodging, according to marathon organizers.

A proposed race route would take runners from Coligny Circle to Pinckney Island -- via Pope Avenue, Palmetto Bay Road, Cross Island Parkway, William Hilton Parkway and the Wilton Graves Bridge -- and back.

But the route proposal received a cool reception from the Sheriff's Office.

The route would require shutting down Coligny Circle from 5 to 7:30 a.m. and the north side of Pope Avenue for the duration of the race -- about seven to eight hours. Sea Pines Circle also would be closed to traffic for the first 15 minutes of the race, reopen for 45 minutes, then remain closed for the duration of the race -- shutting off access to Sea Pines Plantation and the south end of the island, Sheriff's Office officials say.

With so many intersections along that route, more than 100 law enforcement officers would be needed to control traffic and crowds, said Capt. Toby McSwain of the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office. That would cost about $22,000 -- more than twice what organizers budgeted, McSwain said.

Multiple lane changes would be necessary, forcing traffic and runners to cross from one side of the road to the other.

"Hilton Head is not designed for a 26-mile marathon. It sounds attractive, but it's not reasonable," Sheriff P.J. Tanner said. "There's no convenient route. There's not enough room -- not enough roads to connect to and get you around the island."

Instead, Tanner on Friday recommended to Patrick the race start in Sgt. Jasper Park near Hardeeville, run along U.S. 278 and end at the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn. The inside lane closest to the median would be dedicated for runners.

Tanner said there are several advantages to using that route:

  • The Jasper County Sheriff's Office and the S.C. Highway Patrol could assist.
  • It's a hurricane evacuation route and authorities are already familiar with procedures for using cones to separate lanes.
  • It would allow the Sheriff's Office to practice setting out the cones on the evacuation route.
  • Since there would be no doubling back, law enforcement can take up the course as soon as the last runner passes.
  • There are fewer intersections, requiring fewer officers and fewer encounters of vehicles with runners.
  • "You don't have vehicles and pedestrians crossing, except for two places, so that reduces the public-safety fears," Tanner said. "And you don't have Sea Pines Circle shut down for eight hours. You also have signalized intersections, which are easier to control."

    Patrick was receptive to the idea.

    "It goes a long way to eliminating many of the challenges we encountered with routes we looked at on the island. We want a safe event and a way that makes the most sense for everybody," he said. "We feel very positive in working toward an event the entire community can participate in and feel good about."

    Stefonick said the group hopes to have approval of its permit request from the town soon.

    "Time is of the essence," he said. "It takes 12 months to plan the marathon. If we hold it in January 2012, we're almost falling behind schedule, which is unfortunate. But we're flexible and can move the date. We want to do it right. We don't want to wing it."