Soaring Wings: Organizers announce plans for Conway marathon

by Sonja J. Keith

Organizers are making plans to go the extra mile — actually 13.1 miles — to offer a full marathon next year as part of an annual event that benefits Soaring Wings Ranch.

“We have been talking to the city and are super excited,” said Andrew Watson, founder and executive director of Soaring Wings. “I think it’s going to be a really big deal.”

For seven years, the Soaring Wings Half Marathon has been held in Conway. The 2014 Braswell & Son Soaring Wings Half Marathon will be Saturday, Oct. 25, at the McGee Center.

Next year, the event will include the half marathon, the 2-man relay and Kids Run for Kids with the addition of a full marathon on Saturday, Oct. 24.

Proceeds support Soaring Wings Ranch, a Christ-centered family and home that provides security, love and hope to children who need a chance, through no fault of their own, for as long as they need. Staff meet each child where they are and challenge them to develop spiritually, intellectually, socially, emotionally and physically.

Soaring Wings is located on 195 acres in the Holland community, north of Conway.

The half marathon represents the single, greatest fundraising event for the Soaring Wings Ranch. “It’s huge for the ranch,” said Marla, Andrew’s wife, who also serves as the race director. “It got the name Soaring Wings out there. The awareness of the ranch has been huge.”

SWR representatives have been meeting with representatives of the City of Conway, including the parks and recreation and police departments, and the Faulkner County Sheriff’s Office to discuss adding a marathon to the annual event. Officials have discussed logistics as well as worked on a course, which will be revealed at packet pickup for this year’s half marathon.

The event will still begin and end at the McGee Community Center in West Conway. The course will include Downtown Conway and be near the University of Central Arkansas and Hendrix College. “We tried to show off some major places in Conway,” Marla said, adding that the route is scenic with some hills. “It’s a great course. They’ll get a good little tour of the city.”

The course will be submitted to local runner Don Potter for USATF certification.

The Conway event will be the 11th marathon in the state and only the third in Central Arkansas. Few are held in the fall.

According to Amanda Castillo, assistant race director, a marathon has been discussed in the Conway running community for the last two or three years, adding that the number of local runners has increased over the years.

“Last year is when it got serious,” added Marla.

With the success of the half marathon, Andrew pointed out that a full marathon is a natural progression for the event.

The success of the half marathon has far exceeded the expectations of organizers, according to Marla. “We have sold out at 2,000 the last three years,” she said. “It’s time to grow our race.”

In planning for the full marathon, organizers have to consider a course doubled in size with more aid stations and security. They also have to anticipate more medical needs. There is also a greater need for volunteers.

“Everything is pretty much doubled,” Marla said. “It’s definitely more intense. You have to be prepared to meet their needs along the way.”

Conway Regional Health System is the Premier Training Sponsor for this year’s Soaring Wings Half Marathon. “It’s been a key to getting new runners,” Marla said of the training.

More than 200 registered this year for the program, which next year will be expanded to include the full marathon, according to Amanda. Where the half marathon training has started 12 weeks in advance of the event, the full marathon training will need to start about 18 weeks prior to race day.

City of Conway Chief of Staff Jack Bell described Conway as being all about fitness, biking and pedestrian access. “I think this is a good next step in that emphasis.”

Andrew said the SWR Half Marathon already attracts a number of participants from out of town, who spend money in Conway for lodging, restaurants, shopping and fuel.

Jack said the half marathon, 5Ks and the Conway Kids Triathlon add to the city’s tourism. “I think this is the next step in that evolution for an active city.”

Conway Police Chief A.J. Gary said the department has a special unit to assist with events like the half marathon. “This is going to be a much bigger event than we’ve had, and it will require additional personnel.”

Lt. Jeff Anderson added that law enforcement was included in the earlier discussions about the marathon, giving officials an opportunity to have input on the safest route for participants as well as motorists.

A.J. said the unit works so many running/walking events that officers are familiar with which streets are best for the course with the least impact on traffic. “They do a great job,” he said. “Conway is a great place to have these. That’s why so many groups want to have them here.”

Jack said the half marathon has been very well done. “We expect the full marathon to be done as well. It’s a great group.”

In conjunction with the marathon, organizers are planning an expo at the Conway Expo Center and Fairgrounds.

Andrew said there are many ways for local businesses and individuals to be involved in the Soaring Wings Co
nway Marathon — from sponsorship opportunities to cheering on the marathon participants along the racecourse.

Marla added that already a number of individuals sit on their driveways early on race day to cheer on Soaring Wings participants.

“That’s what makes this race different and special from other races.”

Volunteers are also needed for this year’s event as well as next year’s. “We need tons of volunteers,” Marla said. “There’s a job for everybody.” (To volunteer, visit