Behind the Scenes: The Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon

If you've been to Louisville when it's Derby time, then you know it's an experience unlike any other. For those of you who haven't, there's a lot more going on than a horse race.

One event that's become a cornerstone of the three-week Kentucky Derby Festival is the Kentucky Derby Marathon and Mini Marathon, which has grown to over 18,000 participants. But success hasn't been easy.

The inaugural edition of the race, held in 1974, signed up only two spots prior to race day—and one of those was the mayor, Harvey Sloane. Gill Clark, the race director at the time, only ordered 150 race numbers. And many of those went unused.

More: Behind the Scenes: The World Famous Mud Run

So how did a small-time, low-budget race turn into 18,000 runners during the week of the world's largest horse race?

The answer, of course, is the horses, and more specifically, the track. Since thousands of people already flock to the area every year, why not give people something else to do, like a race of their own?

"Since 2006, we've been able to offer the opportunity for participants to run the infield (at Churchill Downs)," says current race director Deja Lawson." That experience drives thousands of runners to participate, whether it's the first time or the 42nd time."

And if you're thinking a short trip through a grass field in an empty stadium won't be all that exciting, think again.

"It's a unique experience," says Lawson. "During the race, there are usually horses on the track getting their morning workouts in."

More: Behind the Scenes: The Color Run

This connection with the horse race itself is what has set the marathon apart from others like it. Activities like the Great BallonFest, National Act Concerts, cycling races, a kid's fun run and other events make the entire festival something that everyone can come to experience and enjoy.

While the Kentucky Derby Marathon is definitely a destination race that needs to be on your bucket list, it's also a sought-after event for runners of the more hardcore variety.

"The marathon is a Boston Qualifier," says Lawson. "It's a relatively flat course, but with equal challenges and scenic views within Iroquois Park and Churchill Downs. And the (new) out-and-back course adds support (from fans)."

If you're thinking of making a week of it, you won't be disappointed. Other than the huge expo and entertainment lined up at Louisville's Slugger Field, there are tons of other attractions as well. Besides the Churchill Downs Museum, the Muhammad Ali Center and the Louisville Slugger Bat Museum are other big tourist landmarks.

But do stick around for the horses too, if you get a chance. After all, there's more than one race being run, and both are experiences that you won't soon forget.

More: How to Run Your First Marathon

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About the Author

Marc Lindsay

Marc Lindsay is the Cycling Editor at When he's not at work, you can find him riding his bike. That is seriously all he does.
Marc Lindsay is the Cycling Editor at When he's not at work, you can find him riding his bike. That is seriously all he does.

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