SAVANNAH — The Rock 'n' Roll Marathon is coming back to Savannah to turn up the tourist volume during what would otherwise be a quiet fall weekend.
Organizers say more than 18,500 runners have signed up for the 26.2-mile road race and the more forgiving half-marathon Saturday. It's the third straight year Savannah has been added to the marathon's tour of 23 U.S. cities, and the race had become one of the most popular tourism events in the area after Savannah's annual St. Patrick's Day parade and street party.
"The huge boost is that it's November, which at one time was one of the big holes in our calendar for tourists," said Joe Marinelli, president of Visit Savannah, the city's tourism bureau.
Marinelli said many hotels in Savannah's downtown historic district were sold out for the marathon weekend, with others reporting high occupancy rates across the city. Restaurants were stocked and staffed for a busy weekend, while downtown merchants planned to keep their doors open late Friday to take advantage of customers lured by a live music event.
Savannah-Chatham County police also planned to work long hours. Chief Julie Tolbert has said only the city's St. Patrick's Day celebration, which draws hundreds of thousands of revelers, requires more officers on the street.
Police spokesman Julian Miller said Friday that extra security measures were being taken in wake of the Boston Marathon bombing April 15 that killed three people and wounded more than 260.
"We're encouraging all visitors and spectators to look out for suspicious behavior and report anything unusual to officers," said Miller, who would not discuss security plans in detail. "We're going to have a ton of officers out there."
The Rock 'n' Roll Marathon, which started in California in 1998, spices up the traditional road race formula by throwing in live rock bands and cheerleaders on stages scattered throughout the course.
Runners start their tour of Savannah in the city's downtown historic district on a course that takes them down streets and through residential neighborhoods that typically don't get much tourist traffic. It can make getting around a bit of a chore for locals, with more than 60 street closings scheduled between 3 a.m. and 6 p.m. Saturday.
Marathon organizer the Competitor Group insists that the hassle pays off for the local economy. They estimate runners and their guests attending last year's race spent $13.6 million during their stay in Savannah.
And Marinelli said more than 80 percent of marathon runners are traveling to Savannah from out of town, and he's confident many will return for a more leisurely visit.
"What makes this event so strong for us is that it brings the right kind of people to town who may not necessarily go shopping this time, but are going to be impressed with the city and its beauty and are going to want to come back again," he said.
That's a big reason that last year Savannah signed another three-year deal with race organizers to keep bringing the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon back through 2016.