Race Team of the Month: The Eugene Marathon

ACTIVE Network
May 12, 2020

The Eugene Marathon is consistently ranked as one of the top marathons in the country, but it’s not just the fast, Boston-friendly course that wins it its positive reputation. It’s also the location.

The race is set in Eugene, Oregon, known around the world as the capital of track and field, and is home to running legends like Bill Dellinger and Steve Prefontaine—not to mention, where the Nike corporation got its humble start.

We spoke to the Eugene Marathon team—Courtney Heily, Executive Race Director; Ian Dobson, Race Director; Becky Radliff, Director of Event Operations; and Jon Marx, Marketing & Content Coordinator—to find out more about how they plan a top-notch race that never disappoints.

One of the things that sets the Eugene Marathon apart is that it’s run in “Track Town USA.” Tell us about how that influences the atmosphere on race day.

BR: Track Town USA is not just Eugene’s nickname. It’s the spirit of the community. When you run on the trails and the roads here, and especially when you round that final turn at Hayward Field and head toward the finish line, there is a sort of magic in knowing that legends of the sport have come before you. It’s something that we try to highlight on our course and in our merchandise and marketing. We know it’s special and sets our race apart from any other in the world.

Additionally, it also influenced why we started the race in the first place. Back in 2005, we couldn’t believe that there wasn’t a marathon in the mecca of track and field. As runners, we knew the mystique that was Eugene, and that was Hayward Field, so by the end of 2005, we had started the business, and in 2007, we held our first race. 

What’s the most rewarding or instructive piece of feedback you’ve received over the years? 

CH: We pride ourselves on keeping a local vibe yet offering all the perks of a big-time marathon. I remember a certain participant saying to me, after a race a few years ago, “I’m from Texas, and I’ll be back.” He went on to say that our race had the right blend of being a community event with all the amenities of a large city marathon. It was so helpful to hear that feedback and also instructive in that it confirmed for us that whatever we do as we grow, we need to keep the local vibe. That has continued to inform our decisions to this day. We want to grow, but we want to stay true to our original roots.

What do you think makes your team especially successful?

BR: The Eugene Marathon is an annual event in its 15th year of operation. That is such a blessing in so many ways. We have established relationships with public stakeholders, sponsors, charity partners, venue operators and vendors in the community. It makes it possible for us to stay local in many of our contracts and purchases, and it also provides us the freedom to give ourselves a challenge to make each year better than the previous one.

After each race, our team sits down and answers two simple yet complex questions: 1. What worked really well and should definitely happen again? 2. What didn’t work very well and can be improved upon? This mindset to constantly improve and innovate makes us excited to put on this event year-after-year, and that enthusiasm is behind all our success. We love doing this, and we love doing it together!

What does a typical day look like for you, say, one month out from race day?

ID: We’re a small team, so in the final month before race day, there’s such a variety of tasks that I don’t think there’s really a “typical” day. We spend a lot of time on our computers and phones communicating with sponsors, vendors and participants. We also have the logistical work of receiving and organizing some of our large shipments that typically arrive in this time frame: product samples, race shirts, medals, etc. We work on this event all year, but the reality is that there’s only so much we can do ahead of time.

In the final month, we’re doing venue walk-throughs with vendors, finalizing our use of spaces, making adjustments to signage and rental orders, etc. And we’re trying to leave plenty of time for troubleshooting. As we all know, it’s inevitable that there will be unexpected changes or challenges so we do our best to leave some bandwidth for the unexpected.

What tools have you used to increase your success with the Eugene Marathon?

CH: We’ve been with ACTIVEWorks Endurance for 14 years of our race, with only one year off with another platform, and over that time, we’ve really grown to appreciate the robust back-end reporting. We love the ability to analyze data, which assists us in marketing for future years. We also recently acquired a second race, so the ability to utilize the Event Series to increase participation and analyze participant demographics. 

Years ago, we also made the transition from physical goodie bags to utilizing the Virtual Event Bag tool. It was a great way to support our sustainability efforts and to cut down on volunteer needs and operating costs. We also appreciate the ability to easily insert additional purchases for partners, charitable contributions or VIP packages within the registration process.

What is one piece of advice you would give to other race directors reading this?

ID: Everyone involved in organizing an event should be able to articulate why the event is important. What’s your compelling story? I think it’s super important for everyone involved—participants, organizers, partners, host communities—to have a strong sense of the “why.” Why are we disrupting our city for an entire weekend? Why should participants choose our event? For the Eugene Marathon, part of our “why” is the connection to the heritage of Track Town USA. That’s super important to our identity, but we can’t just lean on that sense of history. Our “why” has as much to do with shaping the future of our community as it does with connecting to our past.

You canceled your 2020 race because of the COVID-19 outbreak. How did you arrive at that decision? What were the most important factors?

JM: We arrived at that decision after the CDC recommended canceling events of more than 250 people. Before that, we were cautiously optimistic that the event could take place in some way on its original date, but the CDC’s guidelines changed everything. The most important factor that we took into consideration was the health and safety of our participants and community. Once it was clear that we couldn’t hold a safe event, we had to cancel. We had lengthy team discussions on whether we should cancel outright or postpone and decided against postponing just because the short-term future is so uncertain.

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