Registration for the 2016 Mill Race Marathon has been on a tear, surpassing last year’s totals — so far — by 27 percent for all four running events combined.

The number of young runners who have signed up to participate in the Kids Fun Run has nearly tripled this year, with 87 youngsters registered for the Sept. 23 race as of last Wednesday, compared to 33 who were registered at this time last year.

Participation in one of the three Sept. 24 races — the marathon, half-marathon or 5K — also is flying past last year’s numbers, with 798 runners already signed up for one of the Saturday races, compared to 663 who were registered at this time last year — a 20 percent increase.

But marathon marketing and promotions coordinator Erica Tucker said it is still too early to tell if the current registration trends will get the marathon committee to its goal of seeing 5,000 runners finish one of the three Saturday races.

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Tucker said the committee set the 5,000-finisher goal after the inaugural race in 2013, when 4,112 runners crossed the finish line Saturday. However, the number of Saturday finishers fell each of the following years, down to 3,573 in 2014 and 3,494 in 2015.

Holding steady to a 20 percent registration increase would get organizers to 4,193 finishers for this year’s Saturday races, exceeding the 2013 record but short of the 5,000-runner goal. Reaching that goal in one year would require a 43 percent registration jump overall.

Marketing influence

Tucker said some new marketing techniques have led to the sharp increase in this year’s runner registrations.

The committee will be reminding potential runners this week that registration prices will increase by $5 or $10 on Friday, which always leads to a surge in registration, Tucker said.

Running prices will increase again Sept. 1, and for the final time on race weekend. Historically, registration numbers always have jumped up in the week leading into a price increase, she said.

But marketing, not money matters, appear to have driven the registration increases so far, Tucker said.

Although the marathon has had a Facebook page in previous years, Tucker said she has made a more concerted effort to make the page more active this year, particularly when it comes to photography.

Each Saturday, the marathon committee offers a free training program for runners who plan on competing in September, and Tucker said she has begun posting photos from those training sessions to the marathon’s Facebook page.

That tactic has led to more people looking at the marathon’s Facebook page, which in turn has increased its online exposure.

“That always drives people to our social media pages because they see themselves or they see their friends and it’s just kind of fun,” Tucker said.

Making the leap

The existence of the training program itself helped Columbus resident Jing Wang decide to sign up for the half-marathon this year.

Wang said she had never been much of a runner and had not competed in a race such as the Mill Race Marathon, but wanted to give it a try to see why so many people love the sport. Because she does not have her own established running routine, Wang said she did not know if she could build up the strength and stamina for the 13.1-mile trek in September.

But with the help of the Saturday morning training program — which focuses on long-distance running and other strength-building exercises throughout the week — Wang said she is more motivated to stick to a regular training schedule, which will help her cross the finish line Sept. 24.

Aside from promoting the training group online, Tucker said she has also started taking out Facebook ads about the marathon as a whole to reach a wider audience of potential runners.

Facebook ads appear periodically a on a person’s timeline, generally on the right side of the screen, and can be targeted to appear only on the timelines of people in a certain geographic area.

Most people log into Facebook multiple times a day, so there are multiple opportunities to share information about the marathon with them through ads, Tucker said.

By targeting areas outside of Columbus, Tucker said the Facebook ads have reached a wider audience of potential runners, which has led to more traffic being directed from Facebook to the marathon’s website, where runners can register.

Registration data shows that about 3 percent of all runners who have already signed up for one of the September races heard about the marathon through social media.

Spreading the word

The marathon committee also has continued its tradition of sending out periodic email blasts to keep potential runners apprised of all things related to the marathon.

For example, Tucker said the emails have been used to advertise the annual truck giveaway, one of the event’s most appealing draws.

All runners who finish the marathon or half-marathon — even if they are not among the top finishers — will be entered in a drawing to win a 2016 Ram 2500 Crew Cab heavy duty pick-up truck — a $50,000 value that one runner will get for free. Spreading the word about the truck giveaway often inspires runners to sign up for Saturday races, Tucker said.

The emails also were used this year to encourage runners to tell their friends about the Mill Race Marathon.

An email blast that went out shortly before the One America 500 Festival Mini Marathon in May urged runners to wear their Mill Race Marathon shirts while competing in Indianapolis.

“We didn’t know how many folks would actually end up doing that, but we had a lot of people stop by with shirts,” Tucker said. “They were really excited to tell us, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to run it again.’”

The marketing team had a booth set up at the 500 Festival mini marathon, where information about the September races was distributed, Tucker said. The booth also included a WiFi- enabled laptop that allowed runners to register for the Mill Race Marathon on the spot.

Marathon organizers set up a booth at last year’s 500 Festival mini marathon, but did not offer the option of registering for the Columbus races on-site, which meant that many runners went home and forgot to sign up for the Mill Race Marathon, Tucker said.

But this year, including a registration option at the mini marathon led to a group of about 20 runners signing up for the September races before they ever left downtown Indianapolis, she said.

In addition to the Indianapolis race, Tucker said the Mill Race Marathon also had a booth at the Carmel Marathon, and sent postcards with information about the Columbus race to the Geist half-marathon, both in April.

Although the Indianapolis, Carmel and Geist events each were hosted months before the Mill Race Marathon, Tucker said runners tend to schedule their races early, so the marketing team intentionally tried to reach potential runners far in advance of the September race weekend.

About 3 percent of this year’s registrants have said they heard about the marathon through advertisements at other races.

Word of mouth

But more than any other marketing tactic that the committee could try on its own, Tucker said positive word of mouth has been the largest driving force behind the sharp increase in this year’s runner registrations.

Running is largely a group sport, and runners like to share their race experiences with their running friends, Tucker said.

That was the case with Wang, who said her friends’ love of running helped inspire her to sign up for the half-marathon.

If Mill Race Marathon competitors enjoy their experience in Columbus, then they are more likely to return to the city’s marathon year after year and to encourage their friends to join them as well, further driving up registration numbers, she said.

“It’s not our first year anymore. We’ve got the kinks worked out, and we’re starting to gain a reputation for being a great race,” the marketing coordinator said.

About 70 percent of runners who have registered for the 2016 event said they chose to run this year because they had participated in the past or had heard about the race from someone else.

Monica Harvey, a Franklin resident who plans to run in the Mill Race Marathon 5K, said she is among the runners who heard about the Columbus marathon through a network of runners.

Harvey said she and a friend have been running in various races across Indiana this year and caught wind of the Columbus race during a similar event hosted in Madison in May.

Columbus is a good halfway point between Franklin and Madison, where her friend lives, so competing in the 5K in September will allow the duo to continue their opportunities to run together, Harvey said.

Tucker said she is optimistic that the new marketing techniques will allow the Mill Race Marathon to reach its goal of 5,000 finishers.

“At the end of the day, people just have to sign up,” she said.

Race details

Times

Kids Fun Run: 6 p.m. Sept. 23

5K: 8 a.m. Sept. 24

Half marathon: 7:30 a.m. Sept. 24

Marathon: 7:30 a.m. Sept. 24

Prices

Through Thursday: 5K – $20; half marathon – $50; marathon – $65

Friday – Aug. 31: 5K – $25; half marathon – $60; marathon – $75

Sept. 1 – Sept. 22: 5K – $30; half marathon – $70; marathon – $85

Race weekend: 5K – $35; half marathon – $80; marathon – $95

Merchandise

T-shirts: Kids Fun Run – shirt designed by Schmitt Elementary third grader; 5K – short-sleeved black T-shirt; half marathon – long-sleeved purple T-shirt; marathon – long-sleeved black T-shirt

Ribbons: New design with the Indiana Bicentennial seal

How to register

To register for the Mill Race Marathon Kids Fun Run, 5K, half marathon or marathon, visit millracemarathon.com and select the “Register” tab.

Previous participation levels

Marathon

June 24, 2015: 105 runners

June 22, 2016: 130 runners (+23.8 percent)

Half marathon

June 24, 2015: 413 runners

June 22, 2016: 492 runners (+19.1 percent)

5K

June 24, 2015: 145 runners

June 25, 2016: 176 runners (21.4 percent)

Kids Fun Run

June 24, 2015: 33 runners

June 22, 2016: 87 runners (+163.6 percent)

Total registration

June 24, 2015: 696 runners

June 22, 2016: 885 runners (+27.2 percent)

Pull Quote

“It’s not our first year anymore. We’ve got the kinks worked out, and we’re starting to gain a reputation for being a great race.”

— Erica Tucker, Mill Race Marathon marketing and promotions coordinator

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Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.