Working for the Boy Scouts of America in 1985, I inherited leadership of the annual Friends of Scouting 10K. Like most races in that era, the event drew between 200-300 people who paid an entry fee of $20-$30 for the honor of running six miles. Before working for the Scouts, I’d competed in the event and didn’t do all that well. When I joined the Scouts, I raced during the month in which I was about to get married, and didn’t have the concentration or consistent training to win the damned thing. I took second that day, and the Scouting bigwigs weren’t impressed that I’d somehow failed to show the Council Colors.
So the assignment to run the 1986 Friends of Scouting 10K was for me, at best, an equivocally acceptable assignment. Going into the race, I was instructed to collaborate with a great volunteer who actually organized a 10k in Geneva that I’d won two times previously. His name was Chuck, and I should have let him run the whole show, but I was a determined young man eager to prove that I could do things even better than they’d been done before, so I launched into the act of race direction a little too aggressively for my own good.
Part of that non-experience came from working at events organized by my former coach and erstwhile business partner, Trent Richards. A few of his former athletes worked for pocket money and free goodies at some of Trent’s races. So we knew a bit about what it took to put on a running event. But not really. Trent ran most everything by the seat of his pants, and thus what I knew about race direction was at best secondhand, and far from detailed.
I knew that I wanted to change the event from what it had been for several years, a humdrum run usually held in mid-summer heat, but occasionally conducted in fall as well. But Chuck wasn’t available on some of the dates that we discussed, and as race plans began to develop, he kind of backed away. Perhaps I was too forceful in my objectives. I was known to be that way in my 20s, so I likely caused the key volunteer to dump his involvement.
That left me holding the bag, so to speak. My first goal was to get approval from the City of St. Charles to host the race in its downtown on a Saturday morning. The plan was to start the course on the east side of the Fox River, cross over the Fox River walking bridge, do a loop or two around Mt. St. Mary Park, and finish back on the west side.
I showed up to the City Council meeting only to be greeted by Mayor Fred Norris, who I’d met many times through my high school and college years. He was a kind and genuous man. But he turned to me and said, “You’re not going to get this race site approved, you know.”
That stoked the competitor in me. I got up in front of City Council and gave the best damned speech I could while wearing my adult Boy Scout uniform. The Council approved the concept of my race because I pulled at heartstrings with appeals for fundraising goals, and following the meeting Fred came up to me and said, “I knew you could do it!”
I was so shocked at his behavior I said nothing. But his “yay and nay” approach was typical, I would learn, of some many conservative political types that I’d meet over the years.
Wanting to create something different for runners, I pre-ordered polo shirts as age-group prizes. I also reached out to a company called Flagsource to ask for a donation of two American flags as top awards for the race winners. So the finish awards were a blend of red, white, and blue. Pure Americana.
On race morning I arrived to set up the finish line with a group of volunteers and noticed that a massive art show was set up on the northern part of the course across the river. I walked across the bridge and realized we now had a massive problem. The city had miscalculated where the art show would reach and booths were set up along the path where the race was scheduled to proceed.
I wandered the path looking for the art show organizer. When I found her and explained the situation about to occur, she immediately went into a manic rant. She was a woman possessed of a prodigious figure and a ruddy complexion that turned even redder when she started screaming at me.
She was inconsolable, so I decided the best approach was to go on the offensive. “Well, I told her,”I’ve asked nicely, and we’re both in a jam. So I’d advise you to have people move everything off the path and we’ll come through their quick and fast, and everything will be over in a hurry.”
That’s exactly what happened. Sure, it was chaotic. But I think some of the runners even saw the additional complexity as a challenge. A friend won the race and collected one of the flags, if I recall. The rest of the awards were well-received, and the race did make some money after all.
But I swore never to take on the responsibility of race direction again. And true to that promise, I’ve not done that. I realized that day and in all the days leading up to that event that I was much happier as a runner than as a race director. That said, I’ve volunteered and worked many events since then, including water and food booths at Ironman races, and putting together fun runs in collaboration with non-profits. It is gratifying to help out when you can, and I highly encourage everyone to give back to the sports they love. I make it a habit to thank race directors and the volunteers, and especially the police and EMT personnel on hand to provide support and safety. I’ve seen the benefit of having those folks available when athletes get into trouble.