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Marathon means big business in Oak Harbor

And there was no room at the inn. Any of them.

Thousands of aerobically-minded, carbohydrate-craving runners will converge on Whidbey Island today, anxious to get their blood pumping as they prepare for tomorrow’s Whidbey Island Marathon.

“We’ve been booked for some time,” said Randy Bradford, manager of the Coachman Inn, the race’s host hotel. “I’d be surprised if there’s a hotel room on the island.”

Bradford has watched the marathon grow almost exponentially each year.

“It started big, but nothing immense,” he said. “Nothing like it is now. Unless we build more rooms on the island or find people to rent rooms, I don’t know how we can get any bigger.”

At the Coupeville Inn, guests reserve their rooms for the following year as they check out.

“Even when they check in they make reservations for next year. We’re usually booked a year in advance,” said inn employee Erin Torres. With a two-night minimum stay, guests have ample time to experience Whidbey Island. “Some of them come in on Friday and some on Saturday. It depends on what they want to do.”

Pasta will be a precious commodity today, as the runners seek out energy-producing carbohydrates. Frasers Gourmet Hideaway is catering to the marathon runners, offering a pasta special in addition to the seafood capellini and vegetarian lasagna already on the menu.

“We’re ready for them,” said owner Josee Fraser.

From humble beginnings sprang the marathon, now in its sixth year. Founder John Kaiser started the race in 2002 with $20,000 of his own money, all of it taken from his 401K retirement plan after resigning from his job of 18 years.

“I invested all of it in the marathon,” he said with a grimace turned grin. “That’s what I call enthusiasm run wild. I’m still waiting to get reimbursed.”

A retired Navy officer now residing in Everett, Kaiser did not even start running until 1999. The idea for the marathon was hatched when he mentioned the possibility to a sporting goods store proprietor. He knew Whidbey and he knew the terrain.

“I got all kinds of encouragement,” he said. “It just felt right.”

It also feels right to runners, both locally and from distant points.

Between 2,300 and 2,400 participants are expected to run in tomorrow’s event, with 80 percent of the runners in the shorter but still formidable 13.1-mile half marathon.

Matt Bolte, an Oak Harbor High School student, will be among the 80 percent. The 15-year-old track athlete was coerced into running by a friend.

“I’ve never run more than 10 miles at a time,” Bolte said. “We’re just in it to see if we can finish. Thirteen miles is a long way, but I think we can probably do it. I’m excited for it.”

The young runner has been eating healthy all week in anticipation of the race. Tonight, like marathoners all over the island, he will feast on pasta.

“We’re going to have a big spaghetti dinner,” he said.

The race has grown by an average of 500 to 800 people each year. The numbers leveled off this year, but it should still be the largest Whidbey Island Marathon ever.

“As far as Washington, I think there’s only three full marathons that are larger than Whidbey,” Kaiser said. “At worst we’re the fourth largest in the state.”

The marathon draws people from all over the United States. Even with the Boston Marathon held the following day, runners from more than 40 states make the trek to Whidbey.

“Because of the hills on Whidbey Island, I’ve always wanted to refer to us as the ‘Little Boston of the West.’ But we’d probably get sued for using that term,” Kaiser said.

Participants are not only from the U.S. The race generally sees about 100 Canadians traveling south of the border. Kaiser even received an e-mail from a New Zealander expressing interest in running the marathon.

“We had a fellow from Japan a couple years ago too,” he said. “Marathons themselves are destination events. And we’re becoming more known.”

State tourism figures peg tourist spending at a minimum of $100 a day, according to Sharon Hart, Economic Development Council executive director. With 2,300 entrants, the island would see $230,000 per day. A basic multiplier of one additional family member or support person doubles the daily economic impact.

“These multipliers are usually used by the state at a multiplier of two, so it is very easy to see how having several spending opportunities build on businesses capturing that money,” Hart said.

The EDC director said the importance of the exposure granted by events like the marathon, as well as the extra revenue, cannot be overstated.

“Important events, such as the Whidbey Island Marathon, not only support our important tourism industry sector in our local economy, but these events also expose visitors to our wonderful Island locations,” Hart said. “This, in turn, motivates people to choose our county when deciding to invest in a possible business location or future home.”

Kris Becker, a Whidbey resident and retired Navy pilot who flew P-3 Orions, will be running in his first full marathon tomorrow. He started getting serious about the race in November after running a half marathon in Seattle.

“Once you hit 13.1 miles, you add from there,” he said. “I’m in a tapering phase now.”

Training has been interesting logistically for the America West Airlines pilot.

“I’m in a unique position,” he said Monday on the phone from Tampa, Florida. “Every week I’m running in a different city. I run whenever I can.”

When at home near Dugualla Bay, Becker has the luxury of training on part of the marathon course — Dike Road and the formidable hill on Taylor Road.

“I get good practice from that,” he said.

Husband and wife runners Jim and Kristen Nelson are similarly tapering off their training regimen, which they began in December after Christmas.

“This is our second year running the marathon,” Kristen said. “Anything more than seven miles we do outside. We do the shorter runs on the treadmill. We like to keep it interesting.”

The full-time mother of three children, including 2-year-old Ainsley, and her husband, who flies for VP-69 Reserve Patrol Squadron and full-time for Alaska Airlines, have learned to schedule their training around their children, sometimes even including them.

“Jim pushed Ainsley for 13 miles sometimes in a jogging stroller,” Kristen said. “I give him props for that.”

Once the starting gun sounds, the couple will likely go at their own pace.

“We train together, but he does more speed work,” Kristen said. “He runs quicker than I do.”

“Not much quicker,” Jim said with a smile.

Marathon junkie Chuck Engle is a two-time champion of the event. His presence is palpable when he shows up to run.

“Last year Chuck ran a marathon every week,” Kaiser said. “He ran 52 marathons. He has come every year except the first one. He loves the course here. He takes in the mountains and the beautiful scenery.”

Engle was bested by Ian Fraser last year when Fraser shattered the course record.

“Fraser and Engle are amazing. They’re all amazing, actually,” the race founder said, adding that he is unsure if Engle is running this year.

Kaiser moved into the Coachman Inn Thursday night. The organizer has been on a virtual scavenger hunt all week, tracking down everything from packets of individually-wrapped Tylenol, to Vaseline, to ferry passes, to wooden stakes.

“You can plan for months ahead on certain parts of it,” Kaiser said. “And a few weeks ahead for other parts. But the way it works out, the last week or so is when all the logistics have to be handled.”

Volunteers and service organizations literally help keep the race running. Kaiser estimated that between 180 and 200 volunteers will be doing their part all weekend.

“The citizenry of Oak Harbor and Coupeville, and Island County, these volunteer groups have just come out in droves for us this year,” he said.

Today’s Expo, which will be held from noon to 8 p.m. at the Oak Harbor High School Field House, has grown along with the marathon. Multiple companies and organizations representing a variety of fitness clothing, accessories, events, community organizations and tourism activities will be exhibiting at the event.

For the first time this year, an organic pasta dinner will be offered this evening starting at 5 p.m. in Parker Hall.

Why does Kaiser work himself to the bone every year? He loves it.

“What makes it all worth it is at the finish line when you see all of those smiling faces as they cross it,” he said. “The enthusiasm is amazing.”

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