MARATHON -- Florida Keys runners will have a head start when signing up for the 32nd Annual 7 Mile Bridge Run, schedueld for April 13.
The race, which attracts runners from all over the country, usually sells out minutes after registration opens online. The race is limited to 1,500 runners.
In the effort to provide a small advantage to local runners, race organizers are offering early registration on Thursday, Feb. 7.
"It started as a local event," said Denise Pankow, former race organizer and long-time volunteer. "We welcome runners from all over, but this is a way to help locals get in."
Beginning at 6 a.m., Monroe County residents with a photo ID showing a Keys address will have the opportunity to register at 7MileBridgeRun.com. The organizers plan to establish a limit on the number of runners who will be allowed to register early, but had not determined that number as of press time.
"We have a strong Keys' resident turnout -- my guess would be around 600 -- and would like to give them preferential treatment with the online registration process," said Ginger Sayer, one of this year's race organizers. "Students in Monroe County who have registered through the schools run at no cost to them, and we usually have 100 to 200 of them."
Online registration for all other runners begins at 6 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 12, at the same website. The cost to enter is $60 per runner.
Runners will pick up race packets either at the Holiday Inn Express in Marathon from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday, April 12, or beginning at 6 a.m. on race day at the Caboose at Knight's Key. Runners will be required to produce a photo ID matching the address given at registration time to get their number. If the address on the photo ID does not match the information given at the time of registration, the runner will be disqualified and no refund will be given. Runners without numbers will not be allowed to participate.
For the safety of the runners, the bridge will be closed to traffic from 6:45 a.m. to 9 a.m. Runners have 90 minutes to cross the bridge. Those unable to do so will be picked up by buses. All racers will be shuttled back to the starting line at Knight's Key.
Proceeds from the race benefit Middle Keys students with an emphasis on athletics.
"It might buy a set of tires for the [high school] band's trailer, so they can participate in a marching competition," Pankow explained, "or it might buy sand for a playbox. Kids start by building sand castles, but maybe someday they'll build the next universe."
Medals will be awarded for first-, second- and third-place for 15 different age brackets, ranging from under 12 to over 80. Separate medals will be awarded to male and female runners for each place in each age bracket.
First-, second- and third-place medals will also be awarded to male and female wheelchair racers. Lastly, medals will be awarded to males and females, regardless of age bracket, according to the top three finishing times.
Last year, the run was canceled at the last minute for the first time in its history due to nearby lightning strikes, strong winds and heavy rains.