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'Path marathon' still has room for more

Fox Valley Marathon Races organizers Dave Sheble (left) and Craig Bixler (right) among some of the boxes of items for this weekend's Fox Valley Marathon Races that are temporarily housed in Bixler's St. Charles garage. This year's event takes place Sunday with a kids run on Saturday.
Fox Valley Marathon Races organizers Dave Sheble (left) and Craig Bixler (right) among some of the boxes of items for this weekend's Fox Valley Marathon Races that are temporarily housed in Bixler's St. Charles garage. This year's event takes place Sunday with a kids run on Saturday.

ST. CHARLES – Craig Bixler and Dave Sheble's respective garages accommodate three cars apiece under normal circumstances.

As the co-organizers of Sunday's Advocate Dreyer Fox Valley Marathon step over boxes filled with race bibs, T-shirts and soda cans, it's imminently apparent this isn't ordinary time. Unless, of course, you ask their spouses.

"But then all that stuff, in one fell swoop, gets pushed out," Sheble said. "A bunch goes here, a bunch goes there."

Come next September, Bixler and Sheble could be assembling obstacle courses that rival TV's "Wipeout." They'll be gearing up for the marathon's fifth running then, and if all goes according to plan, that means a total field of about 4,500 runners over three races – 900 more than are expected this weekend.

The growth arc will stop there, though. While the men love their event and fondly recall its humble beginnings, they simply want to restrict the clutter to their own homes.

Just less than 1,100 runners competed in the inaugural marathon, half marathon and 20-mile run in 2010. From marathon champion Mike Iacofano to the final wave of athletes finishing their excursions in downtown St. Charles, praise for the scenic course winding through the Fox River Trail prevailed.

That's what Bixler and Sheble will always remember.

"There's limited space on the paths, and it's a unique event because it's on the paths, so we don't want to grow it so that we've got to move out to streets, because then we take away what's special about it," Bixler said. "There's street marathons everywhere, and our paths are special.

"There's some path marathons that just head out into the middle of nowhere, but we're going right through the towns. It's wonderful, and the runners really love it. So if it's not broke, don't fix it."

This isn't to suggest Bixler and Sheble are merely filling their garages and crossing their arms. They have grown intimate with 20-hour days in recent weeks, blending usual tasks with a few new endeavors.

After using a serviceable start/finish line crafted from scaffolding in the last three years, the men are ready to unveil a more polished display highlighting the marathon's updated, sleek logo.

A heightened "green initiative" that places more emphasis on recycling in the race village and at points along the course is in effect. Runners also will receive fliers from local businesses electronically rather than as inserts with the pre-race packets containing bib numbers and timing chips.

Runners from 40 states and four countries comprise the 2013 field. About 20 percent of the marathon participants and 34 percent of the half-marathon participants are first-timers, Sheble said. The total field has expanded by roughly 800 runners annually since 2010, as word of the accessible, aesthetic Boston Marathon qualifier keeps spreading.

"When we started, we didn't know if we'd have 100 runners. Who's crazy enough to run a marathon?" Bixler said. "And after year one, we thought, 'We're on to something here.' So by the end of year one, we said, 'OK, this is where we'd like to go."

Bixler and Sheble also are part of the organizing committee for the inaugural Naperville Marathon and half-marathon on Nov. 10, and channeled their experiences from getting the Fox Valley event off the ground.

Bixler lauds Sheble's acumen with pitching the marathon to police – and later city officials – from the riverfront communities that host the Fox Valley event: St. Charles, Geneva, Batavia, North Aurora and Aurora.

At the start, city officials still were grasping what was being asked of them. Four years later, Bixler and Sheble aspire to make the marathon complement Tri-Cities street festival season. Sure, runners, not bands, serve as the live entertainment, but isn't this one more chance to showcase these cities under a lively atmosphere before the seasons change?

"It was kind of a case of let's pay our dues and let's get in a couple years with a smaller size and let the cities see the benefit of it, and then ask them for more city services," Bixler said.

Bixler recently chose to pursue race directing full-time, leaving his longtime position as a software engineer. Along with the Naperville marathon, he has his hand in a few other "semi-local" races in the works.

In the long run, that might mean three varieties of Crush soda in the garage instead of one, but the long run is just what these guys are in for.

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