Advocate staff photo by ANGELA MAJOR -- Runners in the 5K make their way down North Boulevard on Saturday, Jan. 17, 2015, during the Louisiana Marathon in downtown Baton Rouge.

He had been away for so long, Randy Wilson needed a GPS to find his family’s former home in Denham Springs.

“Everything has changed,” Wilson said Saturday at the Louisiana Marathon Expo at the Baton Rouge River Center.

Wilson now resides in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, but lived in Denham Springs for a short time 20 years ago. His first trip back to Louisiana coincides with his first full marathon, alongside his friend Kenny Lewis.

“Not nervous,” Wilson insisted. “I’m glad it’s the last time I’ll run 20-something miles. Not too many people can say they’ve run a full marathon. I wanted to be one.”

Wilson and Lewis are two of the 1,828 runners hitting the pavement this morning for the 6:55 a.m. full marathon starting gun, capping off a running festival that drew a record 8,500 athletes.

The numbers are lining with Louisiana Marathon co-founders Craig Sweeney, Danny Bourgeois and Pat Fellows’ vision to have 10,000 runners by the race’s fifth year in 2016.

Now in its fourth year, the running festival, coupled with the expo and Finish Festival held steps away from the State Capitol, has made favorable impressions on veteran runners.

Sheri Nicholls, Stacey Beal and Elaine Thrift stood just outside the gates of the expo Saturday, squatting to pose for a group picture, proudly displaying their race bibs for the half marathon.

Nicholls and Thrift trekked to Baton Rouge from Arkansas last year for the festivities, leaving so impressed that they convinced Beal, who now resides in Springfield, Missouri, to tag along and take on the race with them this year.

“I thought it had been going on longer,” Nicholls said. “A great race.”

Nicholls is president of Western Arkansas Runners and has seen first-hand the increase in interest and skill level in the sport. She cited her own running club, where four years ago just 20 members comprised the team.

Now, the club boasts more than 200 members.

It’s that same running boom that brought Elise Anderson to Baton Rouge. The resident of Lincoln, Nebraska, still won’t call herself an athlete but took up a training regimen 10 weeks ago to celebrate her roommate Kyle Winchell’s 30th birthday.

Winchell, who turned 30 on Jan. 10, wanted to run a half marathon to celebrate the occasion. Anderson and her brother Brett hopped in on the fun, and the three are set to run 13.1 miles in a state they previously only knew for its unhealthy stereotypes.

“When I think of Louisiana, I think of food,” Winchell said.

“I get it, though,” Brett Anderson interjected. “People think where we’re from, it’s just all corn fields everywhere, and we still drive our tractors to work every day.”

Winchell’s preconceived notions weren’t entirely unfounded. Racers who finished Saturday’s 5K and Kids Marathon were greeted at the Finish Fest with a food village that served Louisiana staples. Nicholls, Thrift and Beal raved about a seafood dinner at Mike Anderson’s on Friday and looked forward to Saturday’s meal at the Little Village.

And if it weren’t for the cuisine, Wilson and Lewis may not be in the race at all.

“Funny,” Wilson said with a smile. “(Lewis) helped pick this race just because of the food.”