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Running a Marathon Business

You think finishing a marathon is hard? Try starting one.


Forgetting to order portable toilets. Not thinking about railroad tracks and the train that might come in the middle of the race. Running out of water. Those are just a few of the things that can go wrong when organizing a race.

The recent death of a runner at the Chicago marathon and the hundreds that were hospitalized because of the heat are an anomaly. Usually, when mistakes are made in organizing a marathon, it's more a comedy of errors than a Shakespearian tragedy.

Either way, it's bad for business. Of course, it's easy for the public to forget that behind the scenes of a marathon there's very often an entrepreneur.

Sure, some marathons are owned by committees, communities and conglomerates. But when it comes to many of the thousands of marathons, ultramarathons and triathlons in the world, entrepreneurs are running the events, instead of running in them.

Joe Coito, who makes his living organizing the Santa Barbara Triathlon, probably speaks for most of his peers when he says, "I'm a businessman. The goal is to make money."

Victoria Seahorn, 52, has made her marathon something of a labor of love, but she, too, is well aware that she's spearheading a business. In early 2005, after a close friend died of breast cancer, she decided to organize a marathon in Atlanta to commemorate fellow runner Lindsey Gabe. She knew almost exactly what she was getting into.

"I realized it would take some time to do it right," says Seahorn, who spent two years planning her first race, which finally happened last March. She lined up her title sponsor, the insurance company ING, and other advertisers and held numerous meetings with officials of two different jurisdictions, since her route winds through two counties. She also spent hours with USA Track & Field, the governing body of all track and field and race events, making certain that the route was exactly 26.2 miles.

Not all entrepreneurs are so careful. Two years ago, Chicago's Lakeshore Marathon had numerous problems, including missing mile markers and unstaffed aid stations. But what really blew everyone's stacks was when it came out after the event that the route had been one mile longer than the traditional 26.2 miles.

Seahorn, however, created a company that would organize marathons as error-free as possible. Her two-year-old company, Georgia Marathon LLC, has a board of advisors, six full-time employees and hundreds of volunteers. Her company also presumably has very healthy revenue: Nearly 17,000 runners paid $80 to register for the marathon earlier this spring. And that doesn't count the $60 registration fees for the half marathon and a wheelchair half marathon.

Marathon entrepreneurs like Seahorn need every dollar they can get, because the longer the race, and the more people who attend, the more money that has to be spent to maintain the quality. For a recent triathlon, Coito says he spent $4,900 on a parking lot for the transition area, $5,450 to hire California Highway Patrol Officers to help with things like crowd control, $10,800 on T-shirts, $359 on disposable plastic safety vests and $496 on water cups. "The list goes on," he adds.

Stumbles Along the Course

Sometimes, no amount of planning or experience can keep potential trouble away. Coito experienced that firsthand when organizing one particular triathlon. First, a 10-week fire kept approaching Santa Barbara and threatening the course. Then a sailboat sank 200 yards from the swimming course, endangering--because of the oil and gas in the tank--one-third of his triathlon's reason for being. And the morning before the racers were due to arrive, an unidentified dead body washed ashore. "I kept wondering what else would go wrong," recalls Coito.

Nothing did, but he had reason to be concerned. Jon Hughes has seen almost everything imaginable in his 30 years of working in the running event management industry. Hughes, 49, is a co-owner of Track Shack, a running retail chain, and Event Management and Marketing International, a running event management company that handles about 40 events a year, including the Walt Disney World and Disneyland marathons.

It was in San Francisco that a race organizer forgot to order porta-potties and instead purchased as much toilet paper as he could find and pointed the runners to the woods. Hughes recalls another marathon entrepreneur who, hoping to save money, conducted a half marathon on the same route being used for a Christmas parade.

"It seemed like a good idea at the time. The roads were already closed, and they would do this six-and-a-half-mile loop and turn around and come back," says Hughes. "But someone didn't coordinate it properly, and the parade started while the marathon runners were coming back, and everyone had to run through the parade."

During one of Seahorn's marathons, she learned three months after the fact that a parked semi-truck had blocked the course while the marathon was in progress. But her well-meaning employees and volunteers didn't tell her, because they knew she had enough to worry about. They managed to distract her and get it moved shortly before the runners came hustling down the road.

As Hughes advises, "Surround yourself with good people." Coito echoes that sentiment, stressing the importance of educating the volunteers, citing how you can plan out exactly what the average runner will drink, but that all goes down the drain, or sewer, when well-meaning folks start pouring cups of water on exhausted runners.

Geoff Williams has been contributing to Entrepreneur for 10 years. He is also the author of the recently released and well-reviewed,C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale, 2007).

Written By

Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.