Myrtle Beach Marathon marks 15 years of growth, expansion

The Bi-Lo Myrtle Beach Marathon is just a few days away, with up to 8,000 runners expected to participate in a variety of events.

That's a far cry from the first marathon in 1998, when the race got off to a stormy start - literally.

It began with an idea hatched by five friends back in October, 1996.

"We went up to the Chicago marathon as part of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's Team in Training program and we call it the perfect storm," said marathon president and founder Shaun Walsh.

Make that a brainstorm. After the Chicago race, Walsh said he and his friends thought it would be great to start one of them in Myrtle Beach.

"We went to the city council and said hey, we'd like to do a marathon and Mayor Bob Grissom at the time said, 'Sure, um, what's a marathon?'," recalled Walsh.

It was something new for the Grand Strand, but Walsh said the city got behind it and on February 28th, 1998, 2,400 runners took off for the initial Myrtle Beach Marathon in a driving rain.

"We had a huge, heavy downpour right around start time, we had lightning, we had fog, we had a little cold snap and we had bright sunshine."

Despite a tight budget, the marathon took off. "Year one, we were just trying to survive," Walsh said.

The event attracted 2,800 runners the next year and added more people and events as the years went by. It also helped spark a local running revolution.

Before the marathon, Walsh said, a local running event might attract 80 people at best. Today, Grand Strand running groups have organized at least a half-dozen other events that attract hundreds of runners each.

"Now you pretty much can't go a weekend without tripping over a 5K or a 10K," Walsh said.

One of the runners who spoke to NewsChannel 15 at the first '98 event sounds farsighted today. "People are gonna want to come back," the marathon participant predicted. "They'll spread the word and you'll have more and more people every year."

Indeed, except for one year, the marathon has seen increased attendance every year. Last year, registration dropped after the marathon was cancelled due to snow in 2010.

Back in '98, the race's current status was little more than a dream to Walsh and his running cohorts. "In the back of our minds we wanted to see it continue to grow and be successful. I don't think that we saw ourselves still doing it 15 years later, and to the extent that it is now."

Walsh said if the city and the public continue to embrace the marathon, he hopes the event will have a long future ahead. "We hope to be here for many years to come," Walsh said.

Since 1998, the marathon has raised more than $3 million for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, plus thousands more for local charities.

This year, more than 2,200 people have signed up to run the marathon. Another 4,100 will run the half-marathon.