Runners lined up along the start of the Bi-Lo Myrtle Beach Marathon and Dasani half marathon at 6:30 a.m. Saturday, waiting for the signal to begin the race.
Bubbles, who served as the official guest race stater, lifted her trunk, and a trumpet noise set the runners off on their 13.1- or 26.2-mile journeys through Myrtle Beach.
It is the first year that Myrtle Beach Marathon President Shaun Walsh worked with The Institute of Greatly Endangered and Rare Species wildlife education organization to bring exotic animals to the weekend’s events. This is the 16th year the marathon’s been held.
Boston resident Ellen Gellineau said having the animals at the race was a pleasant enhancement to the race, something she’s never seen at a marathon or half marathon event before.
“It was very unique, really interesting way to start the race. A bit of a spectacle,” said Gellineau, who celebrated her 50th birthday – which was Friday – by completing her first marathon.
Walsh got literal with the marathon’s “Run Wild” theme, also bringing an orangutan, a gibbon, baby tigers and an Eurasian eagle owl to the runner’s expo and marathon start line. But it was Bubbles the elephant who stole the show.
“It was definitely my favorite part of the run,” said Lora Brower of New Jersey, who participated in the half marathon. “Honestly, if it wasn’t right at the start I would have stopped to pet it.”
Brower came to Myrtle Beach with Laura Giorlando, who was participating in her 18th half marathon. She said she’s never seen animals at a race before.
“I noticed online it said Bubbles would be here, but it said ‘animals subject to change,’ ” Giorlando said. “We were hoping to see Bubbles.”
Walsh said he got the idea to bring animals to his events when he saw a tiger in a cage at another marathon. He started working with TIGERS to have the animals at the marathon.
“It’s fantastic exposure for the animals to promote conservation awareness and education,” Walsh said. “And I see the looks on people’s faces and the smiles. Imagine standing at the marathon and having an elephant walk down the middle.”
Walsh said he hopes to be able to bring the animals back for a future marathon.
“We’re definitely going to sit down and talk,” he said. “I’d like to be able to incorporate them again.”