Salem’s on the map in running circles

Salem-based Wicked Running Club members (from left) Doug Bollen, Beth O’Grady, and Billy Hutchinson cut through Marblehead on a recent Saturday morning training jaunt. Salem-based Wicked Running Club members (from left) Doug Bollen, Beth O’Grady, and Billy Hutchinson cut through Marblehead on a recent Saturday morning training jaunt. (Lisa Poole for The Boston Globe)
By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Globe Correspondent / March 17, 2011

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SALEM — Darla Johnson of Beverly has had cervical cancer in recent years, but that didn’t slow her down. She’s had a race to run — in fact, six of them.

Johnson, 48, ranks among some 400 motivated runners who’ve picked up their pace to train year-round for the four-year-old Salem Race Series. The six individual races have attracted more entrants every year — about 4,800 in 2010 — though only about 150 earn the status-symbol jacket that says they completed all six in one year.

For dedicated runners such as Johnson, who has two of the jackets in her closet, having a series of races on the calendar brings intensity and variety to their day-to-day regimens. Lately she’s been running hills to gear up for this Sunday’s 5K Cross-Country Run at Olde Salem Greens, which follows a tough route through a golf course. After radiation treatments, Johnson is in remission and motivated by racing goals that keep her feeling strong.

“I feel like I’m able to do any race,’’ said Johnson, who also has diabetes. “I’ve been able to steadily improve since I had my illness in 2009. My running times have decreased,’’ she said, and competing in the race series “allows me to challenge myself as well as to be part of a community.’’

With a total of 13 annual races scheduled through the year, Salem is earning a reputation as a running hub. They’re as short as the Derby Street Mile and as long as the Wicked Half Marathon (13.1 miles). As participation steadily climbs, new races have taken root. The latest addition, the North Shore Cancer Run, got its start last June.

The growing popularity of road races extends across the region. The YMCA of the North Shore, for instance, attracts close to 7,000 participants in 14 races held in communities from Marblehead to Haverhill.

Still, it’s a rare small city that can sustain multiple races, as Salem has, in a way that covers race-related expenses and still has money left over, according to consultant David Patt, president of Chicago-based “It’s a tough thing to make money on a race,’’ he said. “If you have too many races in a community, then you’re all competing for the same sponsors. On the other hand, if there are a lot of good sponsor opportunities, then having a lot of races may attract sponsors.’’

In Salem, races have routinely recouped costs and then some. The annual Wild Turkey Run on Thanksgiving Day, for instance, last year generated $11,000 for the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Salem and an equal amount for the city’s Park, Recreation and Community Services Department. The business model lets sponsorships cover operating costs, such as permits and T-shirts for participants, and then steers the entry fees toward charitable causes, according to the Salem Race Series director, Doug Bollen.

Many of Salem’s races predate the launch of the series in 2008, but packaging the six events has dramatically increased participation, Bollen said. This weekend’s cross-country 5K, for instance, typically attracted about 50 runners before it became part of the series; about 400 runners are expected at the starting line Sunday.

“Every race has just skyrocketed’’ in enrollment numbers since the series began, said Bollen, a runner who’s also director of the city’s park and recreation agency. “And every race I usually get a few excuses why ‘I couldn’t run. Is there any way I can make it up?’ I tell them my old story: ‘Do you really want to wear the jacket if you didn’t run all the races? . . . No excuses, no exceptions.’ ’’

Several factors have helped Salem build a running culture. With historic architecture and a seaside location, Salem offers an appealing setting to train and compete, runners say. Plus, runners have an organizational apparatus in the 250-member Wicked Running Club, which convenes weekly for Saturday morning runs and directs events, such as the Wicked Frosty Four in January.

Without support from nonrunners, however, racing in Salem would face an uphill climb. Patt said runners love when fans turn out to cheer, but such displays are usually limited to big-city marathons.

Salem’s courses are by no means lined with fans, but some neighborhoods have made race days into festive occasions, much to the delight of those sweating toward the finish line.

“One of my favorite areas to run in is the Juniper Hill area,’’ Johnson said. “At the Wild Turkey Run on Thanksgiving Day, they have Bloody Marys out, and they’ve got cow bells, and they’re cheering everybody on. They’re very positive. It’s almost like the Boston Marathon kind of feeling, where everybody’s spirited and glad to see ya.’’

The races also have a positive, albeit limited, impact on local businesses, according to the Salem Chamber of Commerce’s executive director, Rinus Oosthoek. He said downtown restaurants enjoy a boost as runners and their families grab a bite before leaving town. Hotels can benefit, too, since the largest races attract some participants from out of state.

The biggest impact, Oosthoek said, might come in the form of visibility. When Salem hosts a race, people in the surrounding area bring the city to mind and think of it as a place where fun things are happening. That’s important, he said, since Salem derives much of its economy from visitors supporting retail businesses.

Benefits notwithstanding, hosting races has its trade-offs. Most Americans don’t jog or run competitively, so that means racing communities need to take care not to upset residents by slowing traffic or closing streets too often.

Few people complain in Salem, according to Bollen and Oosthoek, in part because the city is used to accommodating visitors from out of town.

Bollen said he gets calls every two or three weeks from someone who’d like to host another race in Salem. He urges caution, based on the existing lineup and concern that established races could see less participation if the calendar becomes overloaded. What’s more, he said, organizing a successful race is harder than it looks, and he doesn’t want to see new races fail.

Local runners say they’re just glad to have specific goals in mind as they get ready to compete in multiple events this year. Tim Short of Middleton has been training in Salem for this weekend’s 5K, with the course’s hills and uneven terrain making it a “hellish race,’’ but one he’s eager to tackle.

“It’s a tough one,’’ Short said. “But it’s well worth the effort.’’

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