With the annual half-marathon RunTheBluegrass set for April 1, the organizer of the annual half-marathon’s is looking ahead.
In 2009 Eric Patrick Marr moved to Lexington with a only a vague idea for a non-profit incubator that would assist businesses, entrepreneurs, innovators and artists. Today, his LeXenomics organization has invested more than a quarter of a million dollars into those types of ventures while creating a wider positive impact to Lexington’s economy each year.
Most of that economic benefit comes from RunTheBluegrass, an annual half-marathon held in and around Keeneland, owned and managed by LeXenomics. The race has been designated a “standout” and “must-run” by Runner’s World. But the 13.1 miles through horse country is only the tip of the iceberg; the festivities surrounding the race last for four days — and that’s the key to much of the race’s success in drawing runners and spectators from around the country.
Starting from nothing
Despite early career success as an automotive engineer for Toyota in Michigan, Marr felt frustrated and unfulfilled. Job hopping didn’t alleviate the feeling but did upend his career momentum, leaving him returning to Lexington penniless and without employment prospects.
With nothing else, Marr had one thing to cling to: a vision of Lexington’s potential.
“I created LeXenomics because we’ve got to have cool things happen here,” he says.
In 2010, with time as his greatest resource, Marr began running to stay in shape. He ran a local half-marathon and signed up for another for the following year. But two months before it was meant to be held, the race was cancelled.
With his eye for opportunity and potential, Marr saw what the race could be with proper management and marketing. So he asked if LeXenomics could have it.
“As soon as I realized the possibility of us taking over the race … my first thought was, ‘We have to do it. Lexington has to have something like this, especially with our horse farms,’ ” Marr explains. “LeXenomics shouldn’t even exist if we’re not going to do something like this.”
Doing, then learning
In order to keep the race alive, Marr knew he needed support. After meeting with city officials and John’s Run/Walk Shop for assistance, he announced the continuation of RunTheBluegrass only a few weeks after it had been cancelled.
The first year managing the race was a trial by fire since Marr had no previous event management experience and almost 1,000 runners signed up. But with an engineer’s mindset, he spent the next summer studying his race and others, looking specifically for components that drew racers not just once but year after year.
The key, he discovered, was having more than just a 13.1-mile track.
“You can run out your front door for free, so we try to make it more of an experience — really, a three-day weekend experience that you look forward to, you plan. You’re looking forward to what restaurants you’re going to out to with your friends, what hotel you’re going to go to,” Marr says.
As an extension of LeXenomic’s mission of showcasing Lexington, Marr added two components to RunTheBluegrass: branding and experiences built on Lexington’s twin pillars of horses and bourbon.
Designing experiences and building communities
“We’re a smaller town. We’re not going to compete on population with Indy, Cincinnati, Chicago, Atlanta. So we have to compete in a different arena. And that’s where the hospitality and the experience comes in,” says Marr. “We try to add on these extra layers to go with the ace up our sleeve of the pretty course. So that gives people a reason to come back.”
To create the horse and bourbon experiences, Marr partners with Thoroughbred farms, distilleries and other local businesses to host tours and educational offerings.
Buses load at Keeneland and take guests for behind-the-scenes and custom-designed events, and the excursions build in complexity and volume each year. This year, offerings include a tour of Keeneland, trips to Maker’s Mark, visits to Airdrie Stud and Buffalo Trace and a craft beer tasting tour to Mirror Twin Brewing, Blue Stallion and Ethereal. There are parties, too — before, during and after the race. (The Race Day VIP party is for spectators and early finishers.)
Marr introduces a different bourbon partner each year and gets a special license allowing bottle sales at the race Expo. This year, RunTheBluegrass is offering a very limited release of a custom Maker’s Mark bottle with a portrait of Lexington (the horse) designed by renowned Kentucky equine artist Jaime Corum. This partnership went all the way to the top — Rob Samuels himself approved the use of blue wax for these bottles, an almost unheard-of exception to the traditional Maker’s Mark red.
To promote these special events and exclusive products, Marr deftly uses social media.
“Without Facebook and Twitter we wouldn’t be around. That’s what we relied upon. That’s what I still rely upon, 100 percent,” he explains.
Leading the pack
RunTheBluegrass has now sold out with more than 5,000 runners participating two years in a row and has added new races, including a 7-miler and a 3.65-mile race for kids dubbed “The Yearling.”
With about 50 percent of runners and spectators coming from out of the state, the hotels, restaurant visits, organized experiences and just general shopping adds in excess of a million dollars of new money to Lexington’s economy every year. And the profitability of RunTheBluegrass has enabled Marr to fulfill his vision.
LeXenomics has started four programs including the annual Best of the Bluegrass Awards and the DreamFuel grant program, which provides cash for startup businesses, entrepreneurs, innovators and artists. A recent grant winner is Sword, a sports hydration drink developed by two local doctors.
With RunTheBluegrass at capacity, Marr is considering where to go from here.
“Active, engaging tourism is a huge market and there is no end in sight to that,” Marr says. “And I think Lexington is in a very big opportunistic spot for that, because of bourbon and horses, and because it’s not as expensive here as other places.”