SOCIETY: Amazing Race (Weekend)

How to grow a race from 146 to 39,000 in 35 years. (And what’s
next on the ambitious agenda
for Ottawa Race Weekend) By Roger Collier

Run for it: Race organizers have changed the routes to make them even more scenic. Photo courtesy Ottawa Tourism.

They will come with dreams of world records, of personal bests, of just reaching the finish line. They will come from every corner of the city, from across the country, from around the world. They will come by the tens of thousands, filling hotels and restaurants, spending millions. They will hope for cool temperatures, low humidity, cloudy skies. They will take to the streets of Ottawa, dressed in mesh singlets and short shorts and thick-heeled sneakers, and they will run. Some will run a couple of kilometres, finishing in minutes. Some will run for hours — three hours, four hours, more. All will be welcomed, encouraged, cheered on by friends and strangers alike. Unless, that is, they forgot to register early. In that case, they will be at home, crying in their Sauconys.

On May 25, 1975, Ottawa held its first marathon, and 146 people, only three of them women, gathered outside Carleton University to take part. Humble beginnings, indeed. But that little race soon began to grow and grow. Then it grew some more. A 10-kilometre run was added and a half-marathon and other distances. As for participation, well, that has also increased just a smidge — by 38,864 people, as of last year. That little race held long ago, which drew a crowd similar in size to an average wedding, has morphed into Ottawa Race Weekend, Canada’s premier two-day running event, and now draws a crowd that rivals the population of Cornwall. Last year the event’s organizer, Run Ottawa, had to turn people away. This year the half-marathon, which attracts the greatest number of runners, sold out nearly three months before the May 28-29 race weekend.

So what’s next for Canada’s biggest running festival? Perhaps it’s time for Run Ottawa to coast or even to scale back, maybe accept fewer runners. Make this ever-growing beast easier to manage. Go low-key. This is Ottawa, after all, and we don’t like to show off. But that doesn’t sound like much fun, now does it? Why not make this already good thing even better? Why not make this already big thing even bigger?

The main men: John Halvorsen, Manny Rodrigues, and Jim Robinson have
The main men: John Halvorsen, Manny Rodrigues, and Jim Robinson have turned Ottawa Race Weekend into a huge destination event. Photo courtesy General Studio.

“How big can we get?” asks John Halvorsen, Run Ottawa’s former race director and current president, mulling over the question for a few seconds. “I would like to see us get to 50,000. Can we get to that with the facilities we have now? Probably not. I want to grow slowly. I call it managed growth.” Ah, yes, growing pains — an unfortunate symptom of incredible success. Before we explore that, however, let’s take a look back and see how Halvorsen and others involved in organizing Ottawa Race Weekend have transformed a modest competition into a finely tuned, world-renowned, tourist-drawing mega event.

The first ottawa marathon was organized by a few local running enthusiasts. Eventually a board of directors was created, as well as a race committee, both composed of volunteers. In 1996, Run Ottawa, a non-profit organization, hired Jim Robinson to be its general manager. Robinson, who for nearly three decades had been a fitness, recreation, and sport officer in the Canadian military, set a lofty goal for the event. The 1997 race weekend, the first he was in charge of, attracted 4,800 runners. He aimed to double participation to 10,000 within four years. That was going to take a lot of work. So he got busy. “I was running around like a one-armed paperhanger, because I was the only employee at the time,” says Robinson, who now has three other full-time employees on staff.

Robinson realized that to really generate growth, he would have to get the attention of destination runners — that rare breed who would rather spend their vacations pounding pavement than sipping mai tais. And that meant hitting the road: Montreal, Toronto, Niagara Falls, Detroit, Chicago, New York, Miami, Philadelphia — any city with a major running event. Run Ottawa members would set up a booth at a race’s expo, hang a pretty backdrop, play a video showing off Canada’s capital city, and encourage passersby to give Ottawa Race Weekend a try. Many did. And they liked what they saw, told others, spread the word.

The run along the canal is a highlight for many visitors to the capital. Photo courtesy Ottawa Tourism.

The city itself turned out to be the best marketing tool for the race weekend. Organizers designed race routes that passed through Ottawa’s most beautiful areas (sorry, Bells Corners). Participants ran by the Peace Tower, along the Rideau Canal, through Rockcliffe Park. As the event’s reputation grew, runners began showing up from Greenfield, Massachusetts; from Hoboken, New Jersey; from Forte Meade, Maryland; from all over. On, the Ottawa marathon course earns an average of four and a half stars out of five, based on the reviews of more than 160 former participants. Peruse their comments, and you’ll notice a few common phrases: extremely well-organized, enthusiastic crowds, beautiful course.

An important factor in the growth of the race weekend has been the addition, over the years, of new races of various lengths. A marathon, as anybody who has completed one can attest, is a punishing event. Consider what happened to the guy who, legend has it, started the whole thing in 490 B.C. He was a Greek messenger named Pheidippides, and after running many miles to Athens to announce victory in the Battle of Marathon, he didn’t stumble into a recovery tent for a massage and a bagel. He collapsed and died. Though most runners, if they train properly, could safely cover 42.195 kilometres on foot, many would rather not. (That’s why God created Volkswagens.) The shorter races quickly became popular. Word of mouth and Internet chatter increased Ottawa Race Weekend’s appeal as a destination event. Add it up and what do you get? If last year’s turnout is any indication, you get more than 20,000 people from outside the Ottawa area. “People pack up their families and use it as a holiday, make it a family affair,” says Robinson. “Most stay at least two nights. They sell out all the hotels in the downtown. There is a huge economic impact for the city of Ottawa.”

Another effective means of attracting participants from far and near is to field a strong group of elite runners — those twig-legged gazelles who fly into town, lace up, kick butt, collect cheques, and move on. That’s where Manny Rodrigues comes in. Rodrigues, the volunteer coordinator of Run Ottawa’s elite program, knows how much recreational runners enjoy being in the same field as world-class athletes. A rec-league hockey player doesn’t get to share the ice with the Ottawa Senators. A weekend basketball player doesn’t get to share the court with the Toronto Raptors. But anyone with a pair of sneakers and a few bucks to cover registration can line up with some of the world’s best long-distance runners. “It lets the average runner, who is going for a four- or five-hour marathon, compete with the top athletes in the world,” says Rodrigues, a software developer who began volunteering for Run Ottawa in 1998. “It generates more excitement. It gives back to the runners, lets them say they were on the same start line as the top guys.”

Elite athletes (photographed here in 2010) are enticed with lucrative cash prizes for wins and records. Photo courtesy General Studio.

Luring some of world’s best runners has several other benefits too. It drives media exposure, and that, in turn, drives corporate sponsorship. More spectators come out, especially if there’s a chance someone will break a world record. It also increases the race weekend’s international standing, which, by the way, isn’t too shabby. The International Association of Athletics Federations has designated the Ottawa marathon as a Silver Label Road Race (a big deal, say those in the know). The only other Canadian marathon to have earned that distinction takes place in some village a few hours down the 401 from here. Name starts with a T. Has a big tower or something.

So what does it take to get the big boys to compete in Ottawa? Several things. Top runners want a fast course — mostly flat, few turns. They also want worthy competitors, because it’s hard to post a good time if the only thing hot on your heels is empty asphalt. Anything else? Yes, there is one thing — the thing that crackerjack performers in any field expect for gracing you with their presence: money. “The more budget we have to play with,” says Rodrigues, “the better the athletes we can bring in.” That budget, like everything else associated with the race weekend, is much bigger than it used to be. In 1997, it was $184,000. Now it’s somewhere just north of $2 million. Some of that money goes to the elite program, which Rodrigues started in 2001, to cover flights, accommodations, meals, prizes, appearance fees and, on occasion, lucrative bonuses. In 2009, a $100,000 bonus was offered to anyone who could beat the 10-kilometre world record, which at the time was 27:01. A male runner from Ethiopia, Deriba Merga, came close, missing by only 22 seconds. His time was good enough, however, to eclipse the Ottawa course record of 28:12 — a record that had stood for 21 years, a record that had been set by Run Ottawa president John Halvorsen.

If you want to transform a good running event into a world-class running event, it doesn’t hurt to have the assistance of a world-class runner. In Ottawa, that person is John Halvorsen. Born in Norway, Halvorsen moved to Ottawa with his family as a teen and attended Sir Robert Borden High School. In 1984, he won the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations’ cross-country championship. He went on to become a national champion for the University of Ottawa, where he completed an engineering degree and an MBA. Competing for Norway, he ran the 10,000-metre race at the summer Olympics in 1988 and 1992, finishing in the top 20 both times. In short, Halvorsen knows a whole lot about running — and about big-time running competitions.

Halvorsen, who still works in high tech after a successful professional running career, joined Run Ottawa in 1999 as a board member before quickly moving on to become race director. Putting both his running and his business knowledge to work, he helped draft a business plan for the race weekend. “We had to figure out what we wanted to be when we grew up,” says Halvorsen. “There are a number of pillars you need to build a world-class event.” One of those pillars is mass participation — pure volume. This not only raises the profile of a running event, both locally and abroad, but also generates more revenue, which can then be reinvested. In his early years with Run Ottawa, Halvorsen worked closely with Robinson to market the race weekend and generate growth for growth’s sake. A second pillar in building international credibility is attracting world-class runners. In 1999, prizes were spread across too many races, says Halvorsen, so a change was made to focus on being competitive in only two events: the 10-kilometre race and the marathon, each of which now fields around 80 elite runners. The third pillar is community. “We are not a fund-raising organization, but we see ourselves as catalysts,” says Halvorsen. “Charitable organizations can use our event to raise money.”

The efforts of Halvorsen, Rodrigues, and Robinson — and, let’s not forget, the nearly 2,000 volunteers who make Ottawa Race Weekend possible — have paid off. Every year there are more runners. Every year the elite field gets stronger. The race weekend’s trade show, attended by companies such as Adidas and Timex, keeps growing and moving to bigger facilities, from the Carleton University Fieldhouse to Lansdowne Park’s Aberdeen Pavilion to, this year, the new Ottawa Convention Centre.

Still, despite the successes, challenges remain. National media coverage is lacking, which isn’t surprising in a hockey-mad country. But without it, the organizers struggle to secure new corporate sponsors in cities outside Ottawa. The elite field, though good, could be better. Toronto holds the record for the fastest marathon ever run in Canada, and Halvorsen would like to change that. Increasing participation will also be challenging, since Confederation Park, where races currently begin and end, already gets very congested. Moving to the area around the Canadian War Museum would accommodate more people, and organizers are considering that option. In other words, there is still room for this no longer little event to grow. Considering the track record of the people behind it, odds are it will do just that.