Behind the Scenes—What it takes to put on a marathon and the impact of COVID-19
By Tara Perre
Editor’s Note: The story of the 30th anniversary of the Community First Fox Cities Marathon was Silent Sports Magazine’s June 2020 cover story, written by its Race Director, Tara Perre (her first year at the helm). Despite all her race-related tasks and responsibilities, Tara kept me timely informed on the process and final decision to postpone the marathon until 2021, for the sake of all participants. She also offered to pull the cover and her story for the June issue. Out of respect for dedicated race directors and their COVID-19-cancelled races, the decision was made here to keep the cover and story for June as is. That story was a celebration of why the Fox Cities Marathon has lasted for 30 years, and will continue into the future under Tara’s leadership. It was therefore relevant despite 2020’s cancellation. From Greg Marr to now, Silent Sports Magazine has known that the race community has played an important part in this magazine’s publishing since 1984. Now is not the time to turn away from stories on races despite COVID-19’s impact. Therefore, Silent Sports invited Tara back for this July issue to tell us from a race director’s perspective about all that goes into putting together a major, thousands-attended marathon. What follows is heartfelt and important, showing some of the finest qualities of our silent sports world.
There’s nothing quite like race weekend
As with runners, race organizers approach the start line with stomach-butterflies, fears, and high expectations. We are ready to see our hard work realized as we celebrate every mile, first, PR, milestone, and finish. We are grateful for each volunteer who shows up to help, all spectators ready to cheer, the police officers positioned to direct traffic, and sponsors and partners who helped get us to this day.
When Silent Sports Magazine asked me to share the perspective of a race director, I was honored. I hope what follows sheds light on our work and dedication to the running community.
On a Mission
For us at the Community First Fox Cities Marathon, presented by Miron Construction, it all starts with our mission to inspire health, wellness, and community—one step at a time.
We view our seven run/walk events, plus an expo, as a platform for people of all ages and abilities to achieve their goals. Our events are healthy activities that promote physical and mental well-being. And it’s all done by uniting the many cities, villages, and townships that make up the Fox Cities in Northeast Wisconsin. This community gathering has given back more than $1 million in its 30-year history thanks to everyone involved.
With all that in mind, we start with budgeting and planning. Our plan is comprehensive and includes recruiting sponsors, in-kind donors, and roughly 2,300 volunteers. We work with local municipalities, emergency medical providers, police, State Patrol, Department of Transportation, and the railroads. Also, we secure vendor partners for course operations, training runs, marketing, public relations, social media, communication, participant. and volunteer swag like t-shirts, medals, and goodie bags, as well as our health and wellness expo and the venues we use to host our events.
We execute this plan with guidance from our volunteer board of directors. They are an amazing group of people passionate about running and giving back to our community. Also important are the Pace Setters of the Fox Cities and Moms Run this Town/She Runs This Town, two active running groups in the Fox Cities, providing feedback, ideas, and volunteers.
It’s Go Time!
As race weekend approaches, final checklists are consulted, partners and volunteers are confirmed, and everything is staged. On race weekend, many hands make the work light as partners and volunteers help with set-up. Those same hands work the start line, providing direction and answering questions, and also help along our courses, offering encouragement, direction, water, Gatorade, food, and medical aid. At the finish line, they offer congratulations, medals, food, and music to celebrate all of the amazing accomplishments achieved.
The high of helping thousands of people achieve their goals gives us energy as the tear-down and clean-up begins. Of course, our volunteers are there to help. Within hours, you’d never know an amazing event just took place.
We’re Not Done Yet
After a momentary sigh of relief, we move onto volunteer recognition with our annual party, which includes awards for Best Cheer Team, Best Water Station, and the Bret Younger Volunteer of the Year (given in honor of Bret, husband and father, high school and collegiate track runner, Executive Director of the Appleton YMCA and Fox Cities Marathon Director, who lost his life in a car accident in 2003, at age 41).
We also crown the top teams from the School Challenge and Business Challenge. Visiting the schools and businesses to present their awards is another highlight of the year. During this time, we also report back to our sponsors and in-kind donors to ensure them that we have kept our promises to use their donations wisely to host our events.
Finally, our races wrap up with our tradition of giving back to the community. After all expenses are paid, our board helps select organizations in our area who benefit from our race proceeds. In 2020, the Fox Cities Marathon disbursed more than $58,000 in proceeds from the 2019 event, marking more than $1 million in contributions to local organizations. It’s truly an honor and privilege to bring our weekend of events to the Fox Cities.
As races across the country have cancelled, postponed, rescheduled, or went virtual because of the uncertainty of COVID-19, the Community First Fox Cities Marathon, presented by Miron Construction, decided in early May to postpone its celebration of the 30th running.
Amanda Secor is the Chief of Staff for Community First Credit Union, the title sponsor and managing entity of the Fox Cities Marathon. She gave the following perspective on the decision: “As an event that contributes to and celebrates the health and wellness of our participants and our community, we made the difficult and disappointing decision to forego this year’s event and begin to look forward to 2021 for the safety of everyone involved. We felt it was important to take action early to remove uncertainty and give participants and sponsors the best set of options possible.”
Participants were able to choose to defer their registration to 2021 or request a refund. Registration for the 2021 event is open.
“Runners put their heart and soul into training for every event,” said Dr. Mark Westfall, medical director for the marathon. “I would hate to ask them to train for an event that no one knows if it would be safe to hold or not.”
The weekend of events will be back. Save the date for the 30th running of the Community First Fox Cities Marathon on September 17-19, 2021.
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Sidebar: Ask the Race Director
By Tara Perre
Editor’s Note: Since she’s a relatively new race director, Tara Perre also asked two former race directors to weigh in with their perspectives.
Gloria West is the original race director and co-founder of the Community First Fox Cities Marathon. A former competitive runner, she is still active today on our board and the Pace Setters. Jesse Drake was with the marathon for 14 years. Jesse ran in college and remains an avid runner. He is a financial planner and also helps with Neenah High School’s track and field. Here’s what they shared:
Why did you become a race director?
Gloria: “To give others the joy of running together as a community.”
Jesse: “It was a great opportunity to combine a passion/interest along with a job.”
What did you love?
Gloria: “Being a marathoner myself, I loved the expressions on runners’ faces as they crossed the finish line and exuded so much feeling and passion for what they just accomplished; especially first-time marathoners.”
Jesse: “Race Day! Although it can be stressful, there is nothing like the feeling of standing at the finish line and watching participants cross having run a PR, meeting a lifelong goal, or running in honor of someone else. It’s a great feeling to see that you had a small part in helping people get to the finish line on race day.”
What is the hardest part?
Gloria: “Dealing with so many unknowns i.e., weather, volunteers showing up, not knowing traffic patterns, and the final numbers of runners.”
Jesse: “Keeping the race-day feeling throughout the entire year. Race day was always such a high, it was hard to duplicate that feeling on a cold day in February. With that said, you have to know that your success on race day is made or not made on those cold February days.”
What one thing do you wish people on the outside understood?
Gloria: “The complexities of putting on a race.”
Jesse: “The difficulty in making decisions that are much harder than they would seem on the surface. Participants, I think, many times, are understandably focused on their own concerns and, as a race director, you need to make decisions that positively affect the fastest runner to the slowest walker, and that’s pretty hard to do. It’s also a lot of juggling and balancing of the different groups needed for an event like ours to be successful. Another thing people sometimes don’t realize is how far in advance certain decisions have to be made (i.e. shirt and medal quantities, finalized race course, venues, etc.).”
Gloria: “The year when Rev. Martin in Neenah brought his congregation outside to sing to the runners.”
Jesse: “Race day. All the good feelings of an event that went well, the anniversary years, but also the years of trying and challenge. For example, the lightning year of 2005, and then in 2015 when we implemented a new course.”