Pandemic, changing dates affecting mid-tier marathons like Fargo

Event expecting around 8,400 participants, about half of the last few years

Cups are filled at a water station for the Fargo Half-Marathon last fall on Eighth Street South, Fargo.
Michael Vosburg/Forum Photo Editor
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FARGO — Two years of meandering around pandemic issues finally caught up to the Essentia Fargo Marathon. The numbers are down. Way down.

Between 8,300 and 8,400 participants are expected for all events, with the Saturday main stage of the marathon, half-marathon and 10K capping the week. That’s around half of what this week normally draws.

It’s been a whirlwind two years of trying to schedule races nationwide. The Fargo Marathon was postponed three times after 2019 and Saturday’s race represents a return to the usual mid-May date.

With 2021 moved back to last September, that in itself took a glob of participants, especially runners training for 26.2 miles. Big races like the Chicago Marathon, New York Marathon or the Los Angeles Marathon have the ability to still attract large numbers of runners because of their population base.

The mid-sized events like the Fargo Marathon, not so much.


“We had to switch last year to September, but it screwed us up for this year,” said marathon executive director Mark Knutson. “Races of the mid-tier size are not filling up as fast as they were. We all thought 2022 would be the year of the comeback.”

There are other reasons, too, like scheduling. Veteran marathoner and pacer Tom Perri said the risk to enter a marathon only to see it postponed was too great the last two years for the average runner. He missed Fargo last fall because of the changing date, only the third time that happened since the race’s inception in 2005.

“I think the average runner is a little leery of paying for a race and planning for a race and think it still could get canceled,” Perri said. “So there’s a little trepidation for the average runner to sign up for a race with the possibility of it being virtual. And that might last a year or two before it gets back to normal.”

Perri is a master at scheduling, usually planning his races a year or two in advance. Fargo will be his 600th career marathon. During the pandemic and trying to attack multiple visits in the “50 States Club,” making it more harrowing was different states having different pandemic rules, like a 14-day quarantine.

“Now to come back to something more normal is going to be incredible to me and I think that’s where the numbers of runners are going to start increasing,” Perri said. “I’m more willing to register for a race and travel for a race if I’m more sure it’s going to happen.”

Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney said there has not been a noticeable increase in cases in his city.

“Right now we are very fortunate,” he said.

Even so, there was not much visible evidence anywhere in the Fargodome on Friday of pandemic behavior. The dome lobby was packed with people picking up their packets and the Expo had customers milling around as usual.


The Fargo Marathon has attracted around 15,000 to 16,000 participants the last few years. The hope is to get back to that level, Knutson said. A regular schedule will help.

“A friend of mine who does the Orange County Marathon (Calif.), he’s normally a week ahead of us, had to move it to November last year and then this May,” he said. “He had the same issue, about a 50% decline. It may be until 2023 before it gets back to full force.”

Related Topics: FARGO MARATHON
Jeff would like to dispel the notion he was around when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, but he is on his third decade of reporting with Forum Communications. The son of a reporter and an English teacher, and the brother of a reporter, Jeff has worked at the Jamestown Sun, Bismarck Tribune and since 1990 The Forum, where he's covered North Dakota State athletics since 1995.
Jeff has covered all nine of NDSU's Division I FCS national football titles and has written three books: "Horns Up," "North Dakota Tough" and "Covid Kids." He is the radio host of "The Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack" April through August.
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