A Pro’s Perspective: From Running Marathons to Running a Marathon

After a 13 year stint as a professional runner, my day to retire from competition came upon me in the City of Brotherly Love during what was then known as the Philadelphia Distance Classic.  I always wondered how it was going to end and in this case a strained calf muscle put my running career over the edge and into the world of the unknown. At the age of 35 it was time to face the music and find my next finish line to cross.

Enter the inaugural National Marathon, a unique proposition of an event but one ripe with challenges. They needed a race director and I needed some direction. With no event planning experience but plenty of years racing (my pro career included 9 marathons), I embarked on a life changing experience that I’ve dubbed my 3 year “boot camp” in event organizing.   Here are some of the takeaways.

1)      Delegation not frustration. Just when I thought my athletic days were all about me, I realized years later that others helped me reach my goals. Coaches, loved ones, and friends all played a part in my long career. The same holds true in the event world.  At some point even the most detailed, type- A event leader has to rely on others to get the job done. Imagine my situation. The National Marathon traveled through 6 city Wards, crossed 4 jurisdictions, and affected streets/avenues that you may recognize like Constitution and Pennsylvania.  With the help of an advisory board, interns, and executive staff, our team dug deep and it paid off. The race is now in its 7th year and has grown from 2200 registrants to over 16,000.

2)      Dare to be different.  Due to strict city- imposed time constraints the National Marathon decided to add a qualifying component to the event. This would help control the finish time of the marathon but it would also hurt revenue. We stuck to this formula and continued to prove to the city that we could finish in the allotted time. In fact, because of the time requirements, the National Marathon had the 2nd fastest median finish time in the country behind the Boston Marathon – a fact that became a marketable asset for the race.

3)       What’s in a name?  Let’s face it; every race course has its challenging spots and the National Marathon was no different. Instead of downplaying the challenge we embraced it. In fact we branded what became the “Calvert Climb” so that participants could feel familiar with that part of the course. We didn’t stop there. Our team always looked for hidden assets. “Bison Bend” became a feature of our route that encompassed Howard University and played off the school’s mascot.

4)      Prevention is better than cure. Our team was outstanding at finding the power players in the city and meeting them well in advance of race day. For example, Washington has a powerful and omnipresent religious community. Holding our event on a Saturday to avoid church congregations was just the beginning. We identified leaders in the community and sat down with them months before the race. Neighborhoods and constituent leaders want to be heard and they want to feel like they are part of the process.

5)      Remember, it’s still a competition. One thing I brought to the National Marathon was an athlete’s perspective. Our event put a priority on small details that could enhance someone’s performance. For instance, we measured half mile marks during the first 3 miles of the race. Each half mile had its own marker which ensured that participants could lock into their goal pace early. We also instituted “back bibs” on the half-marathon participants so that the marathoners would not mistakenly get caught up in their pace.

In the end, I realized that despite a lack of event leadership experience I brought an athlete’s focus, tenacity, and common sense approach to organizing a major city marathon. I also realized that it’s easier to run a marathon then to organize one!


Keith Dowling is SignMeUp’s Regional Sales Manager. Prior to SignMeUp, Keith spent 3 years with Reebok International which followed 3 years as director of the National Marathon. His professional running career spanned 13 years and included 5 national team selections, 3 Olympic Trials, and culminated with a 2:13 personal best for the 2002 Boston Marathon.  To speak with Keith about his experiences as a runner, race director, or online event registration guru, click the button below.

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