BENNINGTON -- Hundreds of runners will gather at Bennington College on Sunday, May 18, waiting for the signal to begin their 26.2-mile journey through Bennington County as part of The Shires Marathon.

Shires is one of four marathons in the state -- and the only one in the southern part of the state, according to runningintheusa.com.

Race director Stephen Murphy believes The Shires Marathon appeals to people for a couple of reasons.

"The most common response we get ... is the scenery. It is a beautiful course ... it's just terrain that you don't get to run a marathon on because so many of them are held in cities," he said. "The second thing that people like is the character of our area -- how calm, gentle, compassionate [and] caring people are."

Runners will notice changes to the race, now in its fourth year, most notably to the course.

"Last year, the course ran from the Bennington Center for the Arts up to the Hildene Meadows," Murphy said. "Due to feedback and a couple of brain-storming sessions, we thought it would be a great idea to end the race at Riley Rink. It would be unique in that the marathon would be able to offer showers, as well as a building to protect the runners from the elements should the weather turn against them after the race."

While the starting and finishing lines have changed this year, Murphy said about half of the marathon course from earlier years will remain the same, but some changes needed to be made to keep it the appropriate distance. In Arlington, rather than traveling Route 7A through downtown, runners will go over Chiselville Bridge, up and down Sunderland Hill Road, and right onto Richville Road. They will follow that course into Manchester to Depot Street, then take a left up through the roundabouts.

From there, they will continue down 7A to Riley Rink.

The original race director of the marathon and one of the organizers, Dave Durfee, said he believed the changes to this year's course are improvements.

"I think the course changes are a good thing," he said. "We'd also gotten some feedback from runners who like the course overall, thought it was a great course, but running that stretch of 7A in Arlington, where the shoulder's a little narrow and you're basically running on hot pavement ... [with] traffic going by a little faster than you'd like it, was not the best section of the course. So, I think that piece of the race over to Sunderland Hill Road, coming up through East Arlington, is also a really good thing."

About 200 volunteers will help with the marathon, Murphy said.

This year, instead of asking for volunteers from the general public, Murphy said, the race has gotten sponsorships they will donate to nonprofit groups. Members of those nonprofit groups will hand out water and help with parking, registration and other things.

More than a week ago, Murphy said, 320 people had already registered for the race and three to four more were registering each day.

Registration this year kept pace with last year from week to week -- except in third week of April last year following the Boston Marathon bombing. Following the bombing, Murphy's predecessor, Rob Pini, extended an offer to runners who did not finish the Boston Marathon that they could run in The Shires Marathon -- a Boston Marathon qualifier -- free.

"We got inundated with registrants, which was a great thing for Rob Pini to do," Murphy said. "It really was a good gesture, and it was smart. I think it got our name out there."

Although they had about 450 registrations last year, Murphy said they had about 370 runners. This year, they are expecting 350 to 400 registrations and more than 300 runners, Murphy said.

This year's Shires Marathon will also bring A Taste of Vermont to Riley Rink for runners crossing the finish line to experience -- something he believes will add to the allure of the event and give people a better idea of what the area has to offer.

He hopes to see 25 to 40 tables at the rink on Sunday, along with a carnival from Amyland Amusements and a trampoline for families who are bringing their children to the event.

"Many people come up here and say ‘I love the small little shops and the unique merchants that you have here,'" said Murphy. "So, what I thought is ‘Let's make it easy for them. They're going to be captive. They're going to be here recuperating. They're going to be here waiting for their loved ones to finish. Why don't we bring all that stuff to them?' "

If you go ...

What: The Shires of Vermont Marathon

When: Saturday, May 18, from 8 a.m. until 2:30 p.m.

Deadline for registration: Thursday, May 15, shiresofvermontmarathon.com.

What: Pancake dinner

When: saturday, May 17, from 5:30-7 p.m.

Where: the Federated Church in Arlington.