Native Miamian Jose Sotolongo has run dozens of marathons around the world. But the marathon moment that will stay with him forever occurred just past Mile 9 of the inaugural Miami Tropical Marathon in 2003.
There, while traversing the majestic Venetian Causeway, he witnessed dolphins leaping in and out of the Biscayne Bay as if performing on cue.
“I’ll never forget that,” said Sotolongo, director of the Miami-Dade Sports Commission. “The sun coming up, the sky a rosy pink. I said ‘This is perfect. Why would anybody want to live anywhere else?’ I’ve run 60 full marathons, and this course is probably the best because of its sheer beauty.”
The event, now known as the Miami Marathon and Half Marathon, begins its 14th running at 6 a.m. Sunday outside of AmericanAirlines Arena on Biscayne Boulevard.
Owned and produced by Life Time Fitness Inc., organizers expect a combined field of at least 23,000 from all 50 states and more than 80 countries. Three-time runner-up and 2009 winner Benazzouz Slimani (2:22:45), a Moroccan who lives in Italy, will compete in the marathon. Two-time winner Luis Carlos Rivero Gonzalez (2:20:47 last year) of Guatemala will switch to the half-marathon.
This year, like in the past, the full 26.2-mile course will encompass the diversity of downtown Miami, the glitz and glamour of South Beach and the tropical lushness of Coconut Grove — minus the Venetian Causeway because of the extensive construction project that forced organizers to make adjustments.
To compensate, marathoners and half marathoners who start together in the predawn darkness will run up and down the two MacArthur Causeway bridges twice. First there’s the usual east-bound direction that begins a mile into the race and goes up the larger bridge just west of Watson Island before flattening and again rising around Mile 4 at Alton Road and the Miami Beach Marina.
Then there’s the return jaunt over the MacArthur (instead of via the Venetian) from miles seven to 10.
“We had no choice,” said marathon chief running officer Frankie Ruiz, 37, who helped create the marathon in 2003 and now oversees it with race director Javier Sanchez, 36.
“We’ve got to change as Miami changes and adapt as Miami remodels and reinvents itself. But the integrity of the course remains. We’re still on Ocean Drive, still on South Pointe Drive, still on Alton, still go through the Art Deco District, still have touristy views. But now you’ll see Miami from a direction you haven’t seen in 14 years, and you’ll be a little closer to the skyline.”
Drivers won’t be as happy. Residents of Palm, Star and Hibiscus Islands will have access to and from the east end of the MacArthur Causeway via a single lane from 6 to 10:15 a.m. Sunday. All other traffic will be diverted to the Julia Tuttle Causeway.
Other than the causeway swap, there are few changes for participants. Runners will be on Collins Avenue for about two blocks, and about a mile southbound instead of northbound on Washington Avenue.
Race organizers have been publicizing the course change for months. Recently, they had a free workout for hundreds of runners who showed up to run the MacArthur Causeway multiple times and get “heightened awareness” of the bridge, Ruiz said.
“Change is always good. It keeps things fresh and challenges our fitness levels,” said Marcela Todd of Davie, Motorola’s wellness director who has run in every Miami Marathon or half-marathon and this year will serve as a pacer for the less competitive runners who hope to finish in 5½ hours. “On the way out you’ll pass the cruise ships in the dark and on the way back it will be bright and beautiful.
“I would advise people to pace themselves and not go out too fast at the beginning so they’ll have energy when they get to the bridge the second time.”
Runners will benefit Sunday by a change in the start time, 15 minutes earlier than in the past.
“This will allow the marathoners to finish a bit sooner and enjoy 15 more minutes of early-morning temperatures,” Sanchez said. And those temperatures, as it looks now, could be perfect for running. The forecast calls for a race that starts under clear, 50-degree skies and rises to the upper 50s by 10 a.m.
Another significant change on Sunday will be a new location for the annual Miami Marathon Health and Fitness Expo, from noon to 7 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday.
The expo, which is free, was moved to the Mana Event Hall in the Wynwood neighborhood of downtown Miami because the Miami Beach Convention Center is being renovated.
The expo will house more than 100 booths and interactive areas, and include several running-related seminars.
Sanchez said there is parking space designated for visitors, but that “public transportation is highly recommended.” During the expo, free shuttles will run to and from Bayside, as well as to and from the convention center for those in Miami Beach. Shuttles will also run in the Midtown neighborhood at 32nd Street and North Miami Avenue.
Sanchez said the race field is trending toward 25 percent international, with close to 1,000 runners from Colombia, followed by Mexico, “with Costa Rica, Guatemala and Canada up there,” he said. “I love the international feel. We think of this as the gateway marathon for all of Latin America.”
To register online through 5 p.m. Tuesday, visit themiamarathon.com. Cost is $150 for the marathon and $125 for the half marathon. Prices increase to $170 for the marathon and $150 for walk-up registration at the expo.