Hired as the executive director of Run Ottawa in the summer of 2019, Ian Fraser has seen two editions of Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend cancelled because of the pandemic. Here, the former competitive triathlete and long-time entrepreneur talk about preparing for the first post-pandemic edition of the largest multi-day running event in Canada.
What has it been like leading Run Ottawa for the past few years without a Race Weekend?
I’ve found the work to be really stimulating, really challenging, and really fulfilling. The public thinks about what we do at Run Ottawa as Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend solely. But we have a full organization to run. I created a strategic plan for the organization and made some
changes operationally that I thought were essential. Initially, I really wanted to get the first Race Weekend under my belt as quickly as possible but when that didn’t happen in 2020 and 2021, I just resigned myself to putting my head down and doing the business of running the organization.
How would you describe how you feel now about finally putting on the event?
Terrified (laughs). I’m super excited. Over the last two-and-a-half years, our team has really defined what we think Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend means to the community, not just the running community, but the city of Ottawa. We’ve been able to build those elements into
our plan for 2022. I’m anxious, in a good way. I think back to my athletic career days, and there was always a sense of nervousness before a race. But it was good nervousness. There’s a positive nervous energy and a negative nervous energy. I’ve really embraced the idea of this positive nervous energy. I’m really looking forward to the end of May.
Will it take a long time to go back to normal, or do you expect people to jump back in as soon as they are allowed to?
By the time we get to the end of May, and under the assumption that there isn’t another variant, I think people are going to be very comfortable experiencing Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend the way they have in previous years. I think people understand that participating in outdoor activities, including running events, is incredibly safe. We’ve seen that’s the case statistically over the past few years. So I think people will be willing to jump back in and say, ‘I’m so happy to be back here again. Let’s do this the way we remember.’
How has running and racing changed during the pandemic?
I think they’ve changed for the better. I would look out my window and I would see people running, in the summer of 2020, who clearly were not runners prior to the pandemic. They were running in jean cut-offs and basketball shoes and that kind of thing. I think it encouraged a lot of people to get out and move. The virtual events were unique for a couple of reasons. What they gave a lot of people was the idea of working toward a goal. There was this accountability that you committed to doing this. For a lot of people that signed up for virtual events, it gave them something to focus on other than working at home and not being able to live a richer social life. Plus, for our virtual events in 2021, we cultivated these little pockets of virtual participants from around the world. Maybe at some point some of them will come to Ottawa and experience what we have in person.
What does it take to put on a great event? What do people not realize about putting on something of this scale?
We hope that people don’t see a lot of those things. You never want to see how the sausage is made. The obvious fact that most people don’t always grasp is that you effectively close down the core of the city for two days. And I like to think of that as not closing down, but opening up. We’re opening these streets to the public, to be able to run on streets that you’ve never been able to run on before, only drive your car on. We also function with roughly 3,200 volunteers. We work with dozens of contractors to pull this off. We have a fully functioning mobile hospital on site, which we hope most people never see. It all comes together like a great orchestra on event day where everything goes off exceedingly smooth and nobody sees these things except if they stop to think about it and imagine what a huge task it is.
What is your biggest fear between now and Race Weekend?
My biggest fear is another variant. It will concern me until the gun goes on the 28th of May.
You’ve been a race director for many events. What will it feel like for you on the day of the event itself, when the runners are on the course?
It’s an incredibly amazing feeling and also a very strange feeling. Once things begin, there’s almost nothing you can do. You have to watch it go by. In all the planning and work that you do leading up to any event you put on, you’re so meticulous in how all the moving parts are going to dance together. And once they start dancing, there’s really nothing you can do to change things. You throw your expectations to the gods and hope that all the work that you’ve done is going to go off smoothly. You feel like once the wheels are in motion, you’re almost useless now. It’s incredible how quickly it goes by.