Race Director, Tom Clifford reflects on 10 years of Marathon Madness

July 2009: I was 24 years old sitting at Lighthouse Beer and Wine in Wrightsville Beach, NC and said: “We need a full marathon in Wilmington”.  There is something about 26.2 miles that brings the best out of people and a community.

I love running and what it does for the human soul.  Most people reading this understand how running has changed their life for the better, but if you are a non-runner, running is a life changing sport and it brings greatness to a person and a community. Along with my faith in God which I continue to work on daily, I can tell you that running has kept me grounded and helped me be the person I am today.  That is why I knew a high caliber event would succeed in our destination city of Wilmington, Wrightsville Beach and the Cape Fear Region.

I am proud to have directed and managed this amazing race for 10 years. There have been so many times of joy, celebration, and accomplishment; but also frustration, disappointment and hard lessons that have pushed me in a direction of growth.

I can’t forget in 2009, standing in front of the Board of Alderman in Wrightsville Beach, presenting my course.  The board didn’t quite see eye to eye with my vision at the time, nor did Airlie Gardens (which was the original proposed finish line). One day when I was trying to USATF certify the course, the cops were called on me for apparently “trespassing”…. I won’t forget that day.

Long story short, the first year the race only had 1 mile of 26.2 on Wrightsville Beach, and finished in Mayfaire Town Center Mall after loops in landfall and local neighborhoods.  Based on our approvals, we had to dig deep to find 26.2 miles, we stared at maps for hours to find the best route with what we had approved to run on, and managed to get 26.2.


I have been asked this question over the years since a lot of the race is in Wilmington.  There are two reasons:

#1. Wilmington is split between downtown and the beaches.  This race is run on the Wrightsville Beach side of town (eastern New Hanover County).   Also it started in Wrightsville Beach, so it was a place on the map where we figured people would look to find the location.

#2. Beach means flat.  We wanted people to associate this race with flat and fast, which is it.


In year #1, A pharma-testing company named Quintiles came on as the title sponsor, and since then it had been known as the Quintiles Wrightsville Beach Marathon.  The days that Quintiles sponsored the event were great!  Steve Brechbiel (Director of Communications at Quintiles) and Tom Pike (CEO of Quintiles) made the race finish area in Mayfaire amazing. It is kind of nostalgic thinking about what the race was like between 2010 and 2017… it has grown and changed so much.  Quintiles was bought out by a new company called IMS and that was the end of that era.  NEW HANOVER REGIONAL MEDICAL CENTER was our presenting sponsor at the time and stepped up to title sponsor in 2017-2018.  NHRMC has been an incredible sponsor and they have an enormous impact in Southeast North Carolina.  Their CEO and hospital executives run the race every year and set a great example for our community.


MARATHON MADNESS came about when we decided we would designate aid stations as college basketball themed.  With the race being in March during all the NCAA games, this idea caught on quickly.  Our college themed stations took off and marathon madness in March has been a lot of fun for us and for the runners.  Each runner gets to put their college alumni on their bib for good memories and to support their college.


Out of 10 years directing this race, we’ve had to change the course 8 times! There have been so many logistical challenges with trying to create a course runners would enjoy and be successful on, all while starting and finishing at the same place and precisely measuring 13.1 and 26.2. We have had these challenges due to construction, traffic control, and finish line location.  I am sure other race directors can relate, but 8 changes in 10 years for a 26.2 mile route is a lot to manage.  We work closely with our city and DOT to try to stay ahead of new projects, but sometimes it is inevitable, things happen that are out of our control.  Wilmington is rapidly growing, so these challenges come with adaptation to new growth, which at the end of the day, will be better for our area.


Top crazy memories of the race weekend….

  1. 2010-2017 Assistant director Jason Adams and I going to bed at 11:30pm and the alarm going off at 1:30am to set up the course
  2. 2013: all of our cones and signs got stolen at 4am from St. Patricks day drunks returning home
  3. 2014: When we had a huge tent for an expo, one year it flooded and we were siphoning water out of the tent before the race expo
  4. 2010: We spray painted the logo every 400 meters of the course because we thought people would see it.  HA!
  5. Getting to meet Frank Shorter, Dave McGillivary, Bart Yasso, and Bill Rogers who spoke at the Pasta Dinner the night before the event when the event was held on a Sunday
  6. 2019:  having our Cross City Trail (the course) torn up just a few weeks before the race and having to make a deviation and new maps in just the last few weeks.
  7. 2014: My sisters house got hit by a Tornado in Michigan the night before the marathon
  8. The first year we put the drawbridge rubber down, we didn’t realize how heavy it was and could barely roll it off the truck.
  9. 2018: When 4 buses broke down the morning of the race to shuttle people from UNCW to the Start.
  10. 2012: When the drawbridge was under construction, a helicopter landed at the start and blew all of the trash and recycling into the starting corral and knocked over the start line.  I was laughing and stunned at the same time.  haha
  11. 2018: Who could forget when the medals didn’t get shipped.  Yep, mailing 2,500 packages was a fun post race debrief let me tell you:(  I learned that not all packages get shipped perfectly either through USPS.


I have learned that I do truly love to put on events. Not only do I enjoy it, but I get excited to create something people enjoy.  I’ve learned that certain things happen that are out of my control and that I have to adapt to constant changes and challenges that come my way.  John Maxwell says that leadership isn’t always making the most popular decisions; it is making the decisions that are best for the organization as a whole.  That is what putting on events truly is.  Event directors aren’t always making decisions based on individual needs.  We try, but we need to do what is best for everyone, and that can be hard sometimes.

I want to thank 850 volunteers each year, our staff of 30, the City of Wilmington, Wrightsville Beach, Landfall, NCDOT, UNCW and so many more for continuing to support the marathon madness.  It has been a fun 10 years and I very much look forward to the future! See you all next year, you might be in for a new surprise!