The Black Hills, translated from the native Lakota name Pahá Sápa, spans 1.2 million acres between the corners of southwestern South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming. In its center is the George S. Mickelson Trail, which occupies 109 miles of a former railroad that now gives way to bicyclists and hikers on its gravel path.
Seven members of the South Dakota Army National Guard explored a small portion—26.2 miles to be exact—of the Mickelson Trail in 2002 with a vision of rest stops, marchers, and an event dedicated to the sacrifices made by all past and present veterans.
Their inspiration came from a pensive ride back home from completing a more specific tribute earlier that year: The Bataan Memorial Death March in the desert of White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. The Death March, which is still an annual event today, is a marathon (26.2 miles) march that commemorates the horrors that 76,000 American and Filipino prisoners-of-war suffered at the hands of the Japanese during World War II.
The Death March served as a template for what they imagined on the Mickelson Trail. Getting permission to use the land, however, was one of the many challenges that the group of would-be organizers would face in bringing their idea to fruition.
The first Black Hills Veterans March and Marathon took two years to plan and to receive approval from local stakeholders. Race coordinator Ben Lamp, who was among the original exploration team, recalls the humble start of the inaugural march in September 2004. “It first started with the seven of us [referring to the original founding group], and then the next year, it was 15.”
Like in the case of many startup events, registrations and other important data were cataloged by the organizing team in Excel spreadsheets. Edits to the database that they were building required heavy manual maintenance. And for the march itself, accommodations like rest stops were still being added. Any recorded participant times were sourced from a manual stopwatch at the finish line.
A Vision Transformed
15 years after its first iteration, the Black Hills Veterans March and Marathon has changed drastically due to hard-won growth by its team of dedicated organizers.
The event now draws more than 300 participants from across the continental U.S. to participate in its marathon march (26.2 miles), mini-march (13 miles), and endurance march (110 miles). Over 100 volunteers show up every year to help run it.
“We’ve had some people who’ve done the same rest stops for 10 years—they come back every year. We love it.”
Now when participants cross the finish line, they see a powerful example of varied talents that are donated to support the Veterans March and Marathon’s mission. A handful of these amenities include professional massages, food, entertainment, and medical support.
A participant receives a message from a professional therapist.
“The people who do the food at the finish line have their own barbeque rig that goes to fairs and carnivals, and they do it all for free,” says Ben. “We have the same people come up to do massages—this is probably their seventh to eighth [consecutive] year. They’ll show up around 10 o’clock in the morning and until 6 at night and give massages all day long.”
And that stopwatch timer? It’s been replaced by chip timing.
Working with Sponsors to Give Back
Even with hundreds of participants, registration fees only cover the operational costs of the Veterans March and Marathon. “We make no money on the runners. Everything we make is [from] sponsors and mile-marker signs. All that money goes back to veterans.”
The mile-marker signs, set up every half-mile, are a unique, attractive way to get small sponsorships from both individuals and businesses. For $50, a business can have their name featured on a mile-marker or an individual can donate in memoriam of a loved one.
“It’s just enough,” says Ben. “That’s money that we use to help out veterans.” In addition, the Veterans March and Marathon includes larger corporate sponsorship branding on t-shirts and bibs.
Including varied sponsorship and volunteer opportunities have helped grow the notable impact of the Veterans March and Marathon. Previous beneficiaries of donations raised by the Veterans March include the Black Hills National Cemetery, the VA Hospice Center, and Big Paws Canine Foundation.
The Power of a Team
Putting together a large-scale event isn’t easy, but for Ben, it’s a part of the process. “For me, it’s not work. I like doing this kind of stuff.” Ben has a long history of experience. He was the chair for the 2013 National Conference of the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States (EANGUS) and managed restaurants for 20 years before joining the National Guard full time.
However, Ben credits the Veterans March and Marathon’s success to four key components: a core mission, strong teamwork and delegation, good sponsors, and an eagerness to adapt for growth.
“You can’t do it all yourself. The very first thing you got to do is get a core of people who have the same vision…if you don’t get that core, it’s not going to work out.”
Your team, according to Ben, is the foundation of every event’s outcome. You need a group of five to six people who understand that planning an event is a long-term commitment of one to two years—and who are ready to do it again next year. “It’s too much work to [put on an event] one time,” he says. “There’s something that happens all year long.”
By breaking the process down step by step, from registration to finish line, the Veterans March and Marathon team runs tightly. Each organizer is in charge of a subcommittee related to the event, like registration, volunteers, sponsors, finish line arrangements, and pre-registration. And the organization never truly ends.
“We start planning next year’s event the day after or even before the current year’s event so that we can tell everyone,” says Ben. “If you don’t, you get behind.”
Three to four months before the event date, Ben will email previous volunteers to solicit their time again over the two days it takes to set up, run, and clean up the event space. “For the most part, they’ll come back year after year…They see the need, and they say, ‘I don’t want to walk 26 miles, but I can go out to help.’ [And] they have a great experience when they’re doing it.”
If you want engaged, returning volunteers, “get really good sponsors,” Ben says. So what’s the trick to getting meaningful sponsorships?
Skip the letter. Talk to potential sponsors in person or over the phone.
Gratitude in Networking
Every potential sponsor for the Veterans March either has an in-person conversation or a call with one of the organizers. If you’re just starting out, Ben recommends networking to find out if your social connections know someone who owns a business (LinkedIn is good for this) and reaching out to those who feel strongly about your cause.
Expressing gratitude and prompt follow-up after gaining sponsorship is also important. While the Veterans March and Marathon awards plaques to higher-tier sponsors during the ending award ceremony, everyone who sponsors the event receives a thank-you note in the mail. The organizing team then adds all sponsors to a mailing list that sends updates about how donations were spent.
With honest, straightforward communication, the Veterans March has built strong community relationships with businesses in South Dakota. “We’ve had some of the same sponsors for 10 years,” says Ben.
Growing to Give More
You’ll notice when talking to Ben that experience—whether it’s the participants, volunteers, or sponsors—is a strong value that the Veterans March and Marathon upholds. Which brings us back to the final component of the team’s success: adaptability.
“We did paper [registrations] for about five years,” recalls Ben. But then the Veterans March and Marathon grew to 100 participants, a considerable jump from the seven marchers during its inaugural event. In 2007, the team dropped the spreadsheets for good. “It’s been about ten years since we’ve been using chip timing and online registration,” he says.
A desire to continue the Veterans March’s growth was the driving factor toward going digital. “Our goal is to have 1,500 marchers. If we want[ed] to make this bigger, we [had to] make it look more professional,” Ben says. “I like [SignMeUp’s] registration, the way it looks online. It’s pretty simple. The nice thing about it is that we have support.” He recommends that new event organizers use online registration from the start to avoid the pain of transition.
One of the questions Ben includes on SignMeUp’s registration forms is to ask participants and volunteers, “What can we do to make our event better?” This question has sown various enhancements, including adding more rest stops and portable toilets. The new addition for 2018: changing the color of the coin that participants receive when they complete the march. “Because we’ve been doing this for so long, we keep adding things,” he says.
When your product is selling experiences, high-quality online registration forms go a long way. “People really appreciate a well-run event. And when it doesn’t run well, they’ll tell you,” says Ben. They’ll also be just as vocal when you provide a memorable experience.
“I was in the Dallas airport last year, and there was a guy walking by [who had] one of our t-shirts on that we give out. I walked up and…introduced myself, told him what I do, and he says, ‘I run in road races all over the country, I will tell you that [the Veterans March and Marathon] is one of the best-run events that I’ve ever been at.’”
Walking a Marathon in Another’s Shoes
Apart from the team’s unparalleled efficiency, what makes the Black Hills Veterans March and Marathon so good is how it brings people from different backgrounds, experiences, states, and military service together around a singular idea: to give. To say thank you to the men and women who have put their lives on hold—and often, in danger—so that our nation can have the freedoms inherent to our everyday living.
The success of the Veterans March and Marathon is grounded in the vision of a diverse community gathering to honor, to celebrate, and to remember…and there are few things more American than rallying under a unified cause.
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