Road-race planners now work more creatively -- and tirelessly -- to fill a fast-growing demand.
June used to be one month out of a handful of months that was scantily bracketed by the dozen or so major running events over the course of a year in the Twin Cities. The same serious runners -- many of them men -- popped up at most races, but few others wandered into the fray.
All that has changed. In the past decade, interest in running has grown tremendously, sending competitors out in droves yearlong to participate in wildly popular races. And with the hype has come a major transformation in the way businesses are attacking the industry, with Sunday's Minneapolis Marathon -- produced by Team Ortho -- among the prime examples.
Capitalizing on running's new popularity and effectiveness as a fundraiser, organizations have tossed aside the small-scale, single-race business model in favor of large, wide-ranging configurations. Business and consumer interest are working in tandem. As a result, the running scene has exploded with races, making the metro area the most saturated in the country in terms of events per capita.
"Running has gotten so incredibly popular," said Marilyn Franzen, one of two partners at Podium Sports Marketing, another major race organizer. "There has just been a massive increase in the number of runners and the interest now. ... I think just because there's so many more people running, [running organizations] are going, 'What the heck? Why are we just doing this one event?' "
Different paths, same result
Many businesses that originally produced a single event in a part-time setting sort of fell into the new standard of doing more. Others, buoyed by the industry's growth, tried to build a multifaceted operation from the start.
Team Ortho began with the goal of creating a forum to keep people active year-round, although the company didn't realize in the beginning exactly what that meant. Team Ortho's original plan was to support triathletes in their training, said founder John Larson, who instigated the startup as a way to try to keep people healthy after discovering pressing information about American health in his former job as a fundraiser at Minneapolis Medical Research Foundation.
When Larson discovered triathletes don't train year-round, he decided the best mission for his new company would be to produce multiple races throughout the calendar.
"It's been kind of a blur," said Larson of Team Ortho, which has gradually added events since it began in 2004 and will have more than doubled its participants by the end of this year.
Others, like TC in Motion and Podium Sports Marketing, started modestly and grew, almost accidentally -- and to the surprise of their directors.
"It's been an evolution and a process," said TC in Motion director Virginia Brophy, who said the vision of the company -- which originally ran only the Twin Cities Marathon -- never was to grow as large as it is. TC in Motion produces 26 races across eight year-round dates.
Those in the industry say a swell in interest -- particularly among women, who have grown from about 35 to 40 percent of the race population to between 60 and 65 percent, according to Charlie Wasley of Lifetime Fitness -- has led to a new aggressiveness in the industry locally. Likewise, many company organizers share the burgeoning passion and want to take their businesses to another level in promoting wellness and activity.
"You get to the point where you either need to have a full-time job and maybe have one event on the side that you work on all year ... or you just make it a career," Franzen said.
What's more, organizations have caught onto the fact that a race can be very effective as a tool for funding a cause or as a means to start community initiatives, as many running companies do.
"People didn't really know races could be a fundraising tool [in the past]," said Mary Anderson, founder of Anderson Race Management, an organization that has capitalized on the industry's growth by promoting and producing other businesses' events. "They just thought, 'Oh, that's a bunch of crazy people out running for some reason.' Because back then, they were just for fun."
Making it special
The growth has helped sustain a handful of organizations in the Twin Cities, but the business trend doesn't come without corresponding challenges. At some point, local companies find themselves competing for a limited number of runners.
"There are multiple races every weekend," Wasley said. "You're trying to differentiate yourself as far as what the experience is going to be."
That means a lot of work beyond the normal race preparation -- which includes promotion; securing police permits; organizing food, water and giveaways; designing and printing T-shirts; and working with suppliers of barricades, tents, tables and bathrooms.
"You can't just have a regular 5K nowadays," Anderson said.
Instead, organizations add new approaches, bigger bells and whistles, better trinkets and prizes.
Team Ortho started the "Rock 'n' Roll marathon" -- an event that has an elaborate post-race party and bands staged throughout the course. TC in Motion does three holiday-themed runs. Podium Sports Marketing has a costume-and-beer "run party." The "mud run" craze, like Team Ortho's "Go Commando," is sweeping the country.
"I think we've been pushed by the market now to be creative," said Wasley, who helped instigate Lifetime's Torchlight Run -- which starts at night and includes a raucous after-party -- as an example. "More events are starting to bring in more experiential things."
And most of the time, they need to be tied to a good cause as well.
"People want something that they can touch it, smell it, feel it," Anderson said. "You've got to be careful what your mission is, what your goal is, and make sure it's something people can get behind."
While many Twin Cities organizations are expanding and becoming year-round entities, there is a holdout. Paulette Odenthal, director of Get in Gear, the only major local organization that has not adopted multiple race days throughout the year, said a dedication to one day of events -- and a concern about a saturated market -- drives her decision to refrain from growing.
"I think, in some ways, it takes away from the premier day," she said. "There is a lot of competition in this area, and some might argue too much. It prevents events from getting too large. There are not too many that are getting in the thousands anymore ... and Get in Gear is one of the handful."
The Get in Gear website already is counting down to the next annual race day: April 27, 2013.
Still, Odenthal is in the minority, and many realize they no longer could support their organization if they cut back -- even if they would want to, which typically isn't the case. Market explosion or not, event organizers feel lucky to do what they love.
"Anyway, I can't stop it now," said Franzen with a laugh. "It's a train, it's on a track, and it's going full speed."
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