If you’ve participated in an Austin road race during the last 15 years, then it's likely that you've felt the hand of John Conley or David Grice. This dynamic duo of race directors has been working together since 2001, creating a standard in running events unmatched by any other city in the United States. Today, their influence stretches from coast (Los Angeles Marathon) to coast (Philadelphia Marathon) and to the tropical islands of Hawaii.
While Conley and Grice come from very different backgrounds, they share a commonality: from an early age, they’ve loved running. Conley was born in the late 1950s in Tokyo, Japan; later, his family moved to Hawaii, where Conley spent his childhood. After high school, he became a medic for the US Army, eventually landing on the track team at Augusta State and finding his way to Texas via the medical field. Conley is quite possibly the only race director who can double as a Registered Nurse, giving him a unique perspective on the health benefits of running.
David Grice, about 20 years Conley’s junior, got his start while in high school in Klein, TX. After a cup of tea on the University of Texas Cross Country squad, the 32-year-old got hooked up with RunTex owner Paul Carrozza.
“I needed an internship for school and, at the time, RunTex was working a couple hundred events per year,” recalled Grice. “They were doing everything in house at the time and that’s how I got started in events.”
Conley and Grice have been working together for so long they have a hard time recalling a period when they weren’t.
“Willie Nelson, the second year, was our first time together,” proclaimed Grice as his partner, sitting across the table, thought back to that event. That short-lived 5K was the beginning to two budding careers which, while taking separate paths in the running world, would work together to create a new normal for event producers.
Conley Sports, owned by John and his wife, Stacey, boasts an event production list that reads as a “who’s who” among Texas road races. Their marquee product, the LiveStrong Austin Marathon and Half Marathon, is coupled with other events, such as the 3M Half Marathon and the Austin American-Statesman Capitol 10K, the fifth largest 10K in the country. Past events include the Nike Human Race, Komen Houston, Texas Round-Up, and Zooma Women’s Half Marathon. As if they weren’t busy enough, Conley is adding a new 4-mile run and bike ride at the Circuit of The Americas track in early May called Mix3r.
“I feel like I have five, maybe seven, more years to really make an impact on the sport,” stated Conley. “Taking on Cap 10K presents a new opportunity and the Mix3r is a new, unique event that we’re really excited about.”
While Conley handles much of the event production, Grice’s expertise is in the logistics and working with the city. His company (Raceworks, Inc.) services almost 100 races per year, doing as little as setting up the start/finish line area to as much as mapping out every detail on the course, including police, barricades, water stops, and other details regarding runner safety. The biggest names on his resume outside of the LiveStrong Marathon and 3M Half Marathon include the big city marathons of Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Dallas. Those six events alone saw nearly 100,000 total participants cross their combined finish lines in 2012 (according to FindMyMarathon.com, some 528,060 people finished a US marathon in 2012).
These two consummate professionals have set a high standard for events across Texas, yet their fingerprints might not be noticeable to even the veteran runner’s discerning eye. Their signature includes a number of facets that, while seemingly a no-brainer, were once foreign to local races: a consistently and correctly measured (and certified) course; routes with clear course markings, so runners need never take a wrong turn; ample hydration stops; and functional pre- and post-race areas. These might seem like simple, standard details, but they’ve only become the norm locally due to Grice and Conley’s hard work.
For the longest time 5Ks, 10Ks, and even marathon-distance races were very low-budget charitable events. Sometimes the course would be off, timing incorrect, and streets open, with drivers unaware that roadways were full of runners. Participants were just supposed to “go with the flow” and accept these sub-optimal conditions because the run was all about a good cause. In fact, this mindset still exists in many places. While Conley and Grice still put on races for charitable causes, they’ve helped move Austin’s racing scene toward a more business-oriented atmosphere. They have improved course safety as well as the runners’ experience, all while creating the assurance that a comparable product will be received in return for ever-increasing and costly registration fees.
Some go through life working a job (or jobs) as a means to pay bills and support families. Others find a field they love, make careers, and cultivate their craft. These two men, however, fall into a third tier. Above finding a career is uncovering a passion, an almost all-consuming desire to devote one’s life to an endeavor and pour everything into its pursuit. This intense passion is what continues to drive Conley and Grice, motivating them through early mornings, late nights, long hours, and countless weekends spent on the job.
“It’s not a 9-to-5 job; you have to enjoy what you do, and early mornings and late nights are all part of it,” said Grice. “But it’s just who I am. I drive my wife crazy when we’re in the car and I notice the road marked for upcoming construction and immediately think I need to call the city to see when it will happen.”
“When we go on vacation, we go to running events,” joked Conley. “I think about running all the time. When I interact with people, I look at their shoes and wonder if they’re runners. I was exposed to running at a very early age—before any other sport—and it’s always been the one that appealed to me most.”
Runners are a different breed, fueled by a fire that may seem strange to others; to the majority of the population, anyone who would run for fun, much less for 26.2 miles at once, may seem a little bit crazy. For two men to devote their lives to the sport involves an even greater fire within. While there are the occasional glamorous moments, the majority of what Conley and Grice do behind-the-scenes would drive another person to a different profession.
“I remember a couple years ago I had spent part of the day at the [Austin] Marathon with Governor Perry,” recalled Conley. “The following Monday, I was out at mile 18 of the course scraping [used] GU packets off the street, hands caked in sticky gunk. It’s just part of the job.”
Conley and Grice’s careers will eventually separate. At 32, Grice is one of the younger people in the business. For now, his focus remains within the sphere of road running. Grice’s plate for 2013 is already almost full, the most recent addition being the inaugural Army Marathon starting in Killeen and finishing in Temple.
At Conley Sports, the founder and namesake has discovered his influence is valuable and desired in realms outside of event production. The veteran marathoner began holding quarterly “Race Director Roundtables,” providing a place for all event directors in Austin to gather and discuss the pressing issues facing their profession. He’s also serving on the Board of Directors for Running USA, one of the larger running nonprofit organizations.
Regardless of the trajectory of their careers, the two have already left a long-lasting mark in the Austin running community. Those here who love running have John Conley and David Grice to thank for a much-improved experience. Their tireless efforts to the sport have fostered a new era of racing, one that focuses on the runner and the quality of the running event. After all, these two avid runners wouldn’t settle for anything less than a well-run event.
1. Toilet paper: REI camp supply TP for emergencies.
2. Safety pins: For runners I encounter ten minutes before the start who have forgotten theirs and need to pin their bibs.
4. Glow sticks: These provide light or mark a position or an item.
5. Wire snips: Every race director carries these!
6. Zip Ties: You can never have enough Zip Ties.
8. NOAA All-weather radio: This handy device comes on automatically with warnings of imminent severe weather.
9. Sharpie/Miscellaneous pens
11. Business cards
12. Toothbrush: Gotta be ready for media interviews or briefing a team, and food particles on the teeth are distracting.
13. Hawaiian Ti-Leaf from Kawai’hao Church in Honolulu: I’m from Hawaii and the Ti-Leaf is considered a link to the Gods (and also a very practical tool for cooking); having it helps keep me grounded. Race Directors can use all the help they can get.
14. Chemical warmers: Worth a million dollars on a freezing morning—I usually end up giving them away to volunteers who've misjudged the weather.
16. Power Bar or Clif Shot: Race Directors can’t bonk.