Thursday, June 28, 2012

So, you want to organize outdoor events?

Sometimes I can't help but laugh at how people come into my life.  As I've stated in previous posts, I'm always amazed by how small the world is.  Around six years ago, while staying in Door County, Wisconsin, my husband and I met Brian Fitzgerald.  I remember walking into his pottery store, Ephraim Clayworks, and being in awe by his work--I've always been a sucker for pottery.  Within a few minutes of chatting, we figured out that we had several connections.  He grew up in the Twin Cities area (where I'm from), I work in the city where his wife grew up, we know several of the same outdoor enthusiasts and he went to college at Eau Claire, with my husband, at the same time and even majored in art--which my husband did as well--but they never met.  With that many connections, I just knew we'd become friends.

Our bikes parked outside of Ephraim Clayworks
Each year, my husband and I would stop into Brian's shop and chat while we were on vacation and we finally started pulling him away for hikes or bike rides.  With Brian's schedule, that was no easy task.  You see, not only does he run his pottery store, he also started Peninsula Pacers and puts on several silent sports events throughout Door County including the Door County Half Marathon (which he started from scratch), the Ridges Ride for Nature, he directs the bike/run course for the Door County Triathlon, and runs the course operations for the MS Challenge Walk.  On top of all that, he and his wife play an enormous role in their kid's lives.

I've dabbled in putting on cycling events here in Madison, but what Brian does absolutely boggles my mind.  I half heartedly chuckle when he talks about having several different phone conversations and e-mails going all at once, but in my head, I'm thinking why would anyone want to do that on a regular basis?  It's simple really.  He loves his job. Sure there can be times when everything seems to be going wrong, and sleep is a distant memory, however, he's so meticulous in his planning that those times come few and far between.  I've participated in several of his events and couldn't think of one thing I would change.

My husband and Brian after our ride this June
On our bike ride with Brian this June, we talked about the Green Bay marathon and that it had to shut down early because of heat.  Quickly following that race, the Madison marathon was also cancelled.  I knew this was a difficult decision for the race directors but I also felt it was the right thing to do for people's safety.  It's a situation like this that can cause the most strife for race/event organizers.  Brian also agreed that it was the right thing to do and he expressed his empathy for the organizers.  No matter how well you've planned for an event, mother nature always has the final say.  Outdoor events are organic and it takes a very pliable and patient person to put them on.  I may be good at the details side of events but my nerves aren't nearly as steady as Brian's and that's why I think he has not only excelled in this area but can also find pleasure in it as well.

I was going to ask Brian several questions for this blog post during our ride.  Common sense came back to me, however, and I knew that I wouldn't remember a thing after being worked over by him on the backroads of Door County.  Instead, I sent him some questions and it's been a blast getting to know him even better while going over his answers.

1)      Your main profession has been making pottery—how did you get started with organizing events?

Five years ago I was asked to be part of starting a Half Marathon by some local business people who thought we had all the makings for a successfully event right here in Door County.  The 1st week in May was picked for the date, so as to hopefully make a positive economic impact at a slow time. Around 4 months into the planning we hit a few obstacles and a few things became clear, the most important being how do we structure "who" is going to risk putting the event on.  Out of this, the Peninsula Pacers LLC was formed and the 1st annual Door County Half Marathon took place with just under 500 runners and is now a capped event at 2,000 runners this past year.  Because of the success of this 1st venture our organization has become part of other events in the area,and is growing as well.  I've had my pottery business for 19 years and it is my labor of love, however this new venture has pushed me into something very different in terms of career, yet is also very rewarding.

2)      If you could work on any cycling event in the world, what would it be and why?

The Leadville 100 appeals to me, I have a cousin from Minnesota that has done it the past few years and is now hooked.  I like the fact that it's a competitive mountain bike race, however the ultimate challenge for most is finishing  under the time limit and getting that belt buckle. It also strikes me that this event still has a tremendous amount of community support adding to the excitement.

3)      Thinking back, is there a specific ride that is near and dear to your heart (solo, in a group or an event)?

My first long bike trip as a teenager, my dad and I stayed in Duluth and biked up the North Shore.....I'm sure that this one experience is partly responsible for my interest in biking and my love of Duluth!

4)      What is the biggest disaster you’ve had to fix as an event organizer?

The first year of the Half Marathon we offered shuttles from local sponsoring hotels to the start, we had 1 person take us up on it.  The following year I still wanted to offer it, convinced that in the future it would catch on, we planned for 100 people, (best case scenario) however by 10:00 pm when all the hotels reported in we had over 300.  So being caught off guard, we then spent the next 3 hours developing a pick up plan that allowed us to get them all there in plenty of time, it worked.

5)      How do you stay “sane” in a career that requires such intense hours (especially the week prior to an event)?

What I try to do with most of my planning, is first think through all the potential bad case scenarios, and have a plan.  Of equal importance, surround yourself with good people, successful events take teamwork.  As far as the week of, my approach now is, if I have done my job properly it should be easier then the previous two.  I now try to make sure that I'm personally not plugged into too many things during this time as well as event day, this allows me to be available for consult or trouble shooting.
7)      What would you like to see for Door County in the future as far as “silent sports” are concerned?

It has been very exciting to watch the interest in kayaking, biking, running, and cross-country skiing grow so much here.  I really feel this has helped bring folks as visitors, seasonal property owners and year round I hope we can keep moving in this direction.*

With people like Brian organizing these silent sport events, the atmosphere of rural areas can only get better.  My hope is that other small towns in Wisconsin see the economic, environmental and community benefit of holding such events and take it upon themselves to hold ones as well.  Everywhere I go, people are begging to have an excuse to get outside with friends and family or have something to train for.   If you are interested in starting an event, contact a seasoned race organizer for some tips or stop into Ephraim Clayworks next time you're up in Door County and have a chat with Brian!

Did I mention that Brian plays broomball, hockey, and is a first wave Birkie skier?

*Brian also showed interest in starting winter bike races in Door County for the upcoming year!

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