Fronting The Finish Line

By Gretchen Goswitz – October 1, 2015
Illustration by David Pfendler

In this double feature, AFM interviews three of Austin’s most prominent race directors and also brings the city’s best events to do and see to one comprehensive bucket list.

Q&A with Dan Carroll

How long have you been a race director? We started High Five Events fall of 2006, and it’s been my full-time profession since then.

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the racing scene since you’ve been in this position? I think the biggest changes—and it’s not just in the last 10 years, really it’s in the last 15 years—is that, the level of expectation of event participants has risen dramatically. Back in the day, you could set up some stations with water and Gatorade at the finish line and give out some awards to the age groupers, and as long as everything went as planned and started on time, you had a considerably successful event. Nowadays you have the bar set high. We’ve been part of the problem, but I think the bar has been set high, so now people expect top-notch production when it comes to the look and feel of the finish line, flags and finishers medals. Even with the courses, it’s changed, because people would like to participate in urban areas, and those downtown courses are logistically difficult to get approval for.

How does Austin compare with other cities in terms of racing and events? We’re still a relatively small city, but the number of events we have is astronomical. And that’s all types of events, not just moving events like a race or fitness-related. We have music festivals, parades, protests, wine and food type of events. It seems like every single weekend there are three or four significant events happening in the downtown corridor or central business district of Austin. 

What are the challenges you face with putting on a race/event in Austin? There’s two sides to that coin [of having so many events in Austin]. The positive side is that we’ve developed expertise with management. The downside is that it’s almost impossible to get any kind of new event approved. While we have a very professional city staff that we work with, it’s almost become too crowded down here to get anything done. People move here because it’s such a vibrant city and there’s always something to do. But as soon as it’s taking place on their front doorstep, it’s a big problem.

Is there something Austinites can do to help fix this? Part of it is having a positive attitude. If you want to live in this city with all this great stuff going on, sometimes there’s going to be an inconvenience. My wife and I live in the Zilker neighborhood—it’s a wonderful neighborhood—and most days we can walk to Barton Springs or Town Lake trail, but a few times out of the year it’s a total pain in the butt because of ACL or Trail of Lights, and it’ll cause gridlock outside of our driveway because everyone is trying to park on our street. The best thing you can do is support the events by being a part of them. I do believe that downtown is the best place to hold an event, and a lot of people might disagree with me, but it has a great street network that allows traffic to flow around closures. 

However, if you look at other cities like New York or Chicago, they have much better mass transit than Austin. Year after year when it comes up on the ballot, Austinites vote against mass transit. If we had the subway system, nobody would care if the street was shut down. Our bus system is mediocre at best. We need some other options for people to move around the downtown corridors, and that’ll help events dramatically. But that’s not expected to happen anytime soon.

What have been some unexpected obstacles for you in producing this event(s)? Very rarely do we get blindsided by anything, and that just comes from the massive amounts of experience the staff at High Five Events has. Because Austin has so many events, the permitting process is very lengthy, and there are a bunch of events competing for the same roads at the same time of year—that’s where the challenges happen. Some events have more pull than others, regardless of how new they are to the scene. When a new event pops up and chooses a date on a whim, everyone who was previously harmoniously scheduled on the calendar has to re-do essentially everything from scheduling police and EMT to getting the right permits submitted to the city.

Aside from the events you direct, what is your favorite in Austin? I’ve always enjoyed the cowboy breakfast that kicks off the rodeo. Other than that, I’ll jump into any kind of race I can when available. I love cycling and off-road running events, but my participation has decreased over the last couple of years as our company’s schedule has gotten pretty full.

What was the biggest takeaway or lesson learned after your most recent event was completed? After every event we produce, I think the job is never perfect. We put on the TriRock Austin on Labor Day and by all accounts it was extremely smooth and logistically sound from our end. However, with our staff, we do a postmortem after every event, and we really are introspective and pick ourselves apart over what we can do better. I don’t think you can ever put on the perfect event. You’ll always walk away hoping or wishing for more time or trying to come up with a different idea. You can plan all year, but you only have a limited time to execute it all on the day of.

How long—from the first day of planning until race day—does it take to put it all together? How big is your team? The urban triathlon requires an awful lot of planning. It’s illegal to swim in Town Lake, so one of the things Parks and Recreation assists us with is passing a city ordinance to allow that. There’s a ton of work that goes into getting lifeguards and rescue divers, all in addition to preparing for a 25-mile bike ride and a 10K road race that’ll happen simultaneously on race day. There’s no way to wing it. You have to have everything planned out. The earliest planning for that starts 18 months out. 

What’s the most fulfilling part of your job? I think it’s very rewarding to see the enjoyment you’ve created for the participants. At the end of the day when people are getting their awards or high-fiving at the finish line, or just a smile on their face when they celebrate the achievement of finishing a half Ironman, bike 100 miles, or even run a 10K, it’s fulfilling to see that. 


Q&A with John Conley

How long have you been a race director? In 2016, it will mark my 20th year as race director of the Austin Marathon and Half Marathon presented by Freescale.

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the racing scene since you’ve been in this position? It would be easy to look at all of the wearable technology out there and say that is the biggest change in the racing scene. From chip-timing to performance monitoring and transmitting and social-networking apps, technology has made the racing scene easier for runners and race directors alike. But I’d have to say that the biggest change I’ve seen has been the emergence of trail running, ultra-running and “spectacle running” like the Color Runs, Mud Runs, Spartan Runs, etc. over the past five years. Twenty years ago, you were a hermit if you ran on the Greenbelt. Twenty years ago, you’d have slugged a volunteer who threw colored chalk on you as you ran by. Now people pay to run 100K on primitive trails or to slither through mud that I haven’t been neck deep in since U.S. Army basic training. Like runners everywhere, the runners in Austin are looking for challenges beyond the marathon and many are looking for entertainment beyond a few garage bands kicking out the jams on the race route.

How does Austin compare with other cities in terms of racing and events? I think Austin still ranks as one of the most vibrant and exciting cities for running events in the world. The race calendar contracts and expands, but no other city that I know of has as many road races, trail races and weird races in any given year as Austin. And all of this is in spite of the fact that we have grown by nearly 30 percent since 2005, and the urban core gets more dense monthly. People in Austin love to run. Even if they don’t run races, they still love to run. Just check out the hike-and-bike trail on a 100-degree day in July, and you will see thousands of people out there getting their miles in. Most other cities in Texas and the U.S. have very clearly defined places and seasons to run. Not Austin. We run on the roads, the trails, the track and in the park–and we do it year-round.

What are the challenges you face with putting on a race/event in Austin? Keeping it fresh. The marathon is a 2,500-year-old sport that consists of overcoming all sorts of challenges to put one foot in front of the other for 26.2 miles. At its basic level, the marathon hasn’t changed very much in centuries. The last major innovation to the sport was to incorporate entertainment as a core part of the experience. Wearable technology, miniature nutrition and hydration are all nuances. The riddle that keeps me up at night is trying to figure out how to showcase all of the cool things that make Austin the amazing city that it is, without turning the event into a circus. How do you tap into the pageantry, the courage, the craziness and the fun that IS the marathon? That is the challenge that I, and every marathon race director in the world faces. How do you renew and refresh something that has stood the test of time for thousands of years?

Is there something Austinites can do to help fix this? Lend the event your energy. One of the most gratifying things that I’ve seen over the last 20 years is the increasing support from the community. When I started this job 20 years ago, the only people I used to see out on Austin Marathon morning were insomniacs or people walking their dog. Now, I see thousands of spectators out having yard parties, cheer zones and impromptu beer stops. The crowd cheering runners in front of City Hall is as big as anything I’ve seen in Chicago, London or New York. By far, the best show of community support that I’ve seen was the “Cocktails for Quitters” yard party on Bull Creek. Come out and celebrate the event. This is the event that runners all over the world have heard about and have on their bucket list. Come be a part of the spectacle.

What have been some unexpected obstacles for you in producing this event? Keeping up with the rapid pace of change in the city. We plan the Austin Marathon and Half Marathon presented by Freescale on a 12-to 15-month cycle. That means we commit to certain key aspects of the race over a year before race day, and development in the City of Austin moves at a much faster pace than this. Where there was a big grassy field is now a construction site and in a year, 150 people will be living there. Where there was a nice wide street to run on, now there is a CapMetro Rapid Bus taking people to work. We literally have to monitor things like traffic patterns and condo development on a weekly cycle.

Aside from the event you direct, what is your favorite in Austin? I love the ACC Fairway 5K Cross Country run on the Riverside Golf Course on March 6, 2016, and the St. James Missions 5K in East Austin on March 26, 2016. The ACC run is the only cross country run on a golf course in Austin open to the public, and the St. James Missions 5K is an old-school 5K run in a historic part of Austin that most runners have never seen.

What was the biggest takeaway or lesson learned after your most recent event was completed? I’ve been a runner for 43 years and I’ve completed 17 marathons, so it’s easy to be a little jaded at times. But every year, I understand that training for a marathon is hard enough, and the sheer act of pushing your body through 26.2 miles of running and walking is as close to Mt. Everest as most of us will ever get.  This year, however, we were mesmerized at watching Hyvon Ngetich crawl the final 300 yards to the finish line. We cheered for her and wept for her as she struggled. We went nuts when she finally made it to the line. Her finish was viewed by over 2.9 million people on YouTube, and the story was covered across the globe by every major network including the BBC and Al Jazeera. It was clear to me that the marathon is still a heroic event that can captivate people’s imaginations about what is and isn’t possible. 

How long–from the first day of planning until race day–does it take to put it together? How big is your team? Conley Sports Productions LLC has a staff of six, but we rely on a core team of nearly a dozen folks to work with over 3,000 volunteers to make the whole thing come together. We envision and plan the event over a year out, and I look at the event in 15-month cycles. I try to anticipate trends, and I try to look at non-running events like food festivals, surfing tournaments and rock concerts to see how we might bend the curve a little more. A little innovation counts for a lot in this business.

What’s the most fulfilling part of your job? It’s the gestalt of seeing a world-class team of professionals inspire thousands of volunteers to execute on a plan that enables thousands of runners to reach their goals on a day with lots of curve-balls, operational challenges and oddities. It’s hearing the air-horn signal the start of the race and watch as 15,000 people spill out onto the street as the genie is let out of the bottle. It’s maintaining the Austin Marathon tradition of waiting at the finish line for the last finisher to cross the chip-mat, even if it takes 8.5 hours, and hearing their story of courage in the face of adversity. It’s understanding that the marathon is larger than life and is the culmination of years of planning. It’s understanding that on one weekend, we boost the Austin economy by over $20 million and support hundreds of jobs. It’s knowing that when Monday rolls around, we left the city cleaner than we found it. It’s knowing that we are part of what makes Austin great. I take enormous satisfaction from that.


Q&A with Andrew Willis

How long have you been a race director? This is my ninth year as a race director. 

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the racing scene since you’ve been in this position? Increased women’s participation. More masters aged racers (ages 35+). A move toward events that offer convenience and amenities.

How does Austin compare with other cities in terms of racing and events? I really cannot speak for other sports except that it seems like we have more events than other cities around Texas. With regards to bicycle racing, we have fewer events than the DFW area and a smaller number of licensed racers. But the events we do have, draw the largest numbers of attendance in the state. The Driveway Series is the most well attended weeknight series in the nation.

What are the challenges you face with putting on a race/event in Austin? Finances.

Is there something Austinites can do to help fix this? If you’re a fan of a sport/activity, go to the website of a local event for your respective sport/activity and click on the sponsors page and take stock of who/what is on there, then consider those sponsors for goods and/or services the next time you are out shopping or choosing a service provider. If you end up choosing an event sponsor, make sure the proprietors know before you leave their establishment or finish using their services. It’s a simple as saying, “Hey, thanks for sponsoring the XYZ race! I wouldn’t have known about you or come in here had you not sponsored.” Or even writing “Thank you for sponsoring XYZ race” on the invoice or on the receipt at dinner when applicable. You’d be surprised how far that goes. The owners and managers remember that. It goes a long way. 

What have been some unexpected obstacles for you in producing this event(s)? Theft/vandalism, bad accidents, and boundaries. 

Theft: Ice chests, water coolers, banners, signs, pop-up canopies, tools and sponsor product. We’ve had it all stolen and/or vandalized over the years, during events. I suppose it’s something to be expected but when you find out it was a race participant, it’s pretty disheartening.

Then there are the bad accidents. Of course becoming a race director, you know it’s going to happen, but until you’ve experienced it, you cannot truly appreciate or understand. I’ve sat in the hospital with a mom when she gave the O.K. to pull her son off life support after an accident at one of our races. I’ve spent Friday mornings with a scrub brush and bucket of soapy water scrubbing blood off the race track before the next event. Things like this change you. I went through a period where every bad accident made it hard for me to function and continue directing. That was an obstacle I didn’t see coming. People getting hurt at your events–it makes you see yourself, the events and people’s participation differently. 

Finally, there are boundaries. Having been a bike racer for years, and then starting off as a race director, most of my customers were also friends. I don’t race as much anymore, but I feel like most of the participants and I are on some sort of friend basis. Creating and establishing boundaries has been difficult. Sometimes more than others. By boundaries, I mean everything from the application of race fees and race rules to casual conversation outside of the Driveway Series. 

Aside from the events you direct, what is your favorite in Austin? Maybe the biggest irony in my being a race director is that I stopped going to other local events. When I don’t have an event, I prefer to be at home with my family or out on my bike. 

How long–from the first day of planning until race day–does it take to put it all together? How big is your team? Holland Racing is made up of four main people, including my wife, Holly, and myself. In fact, the name Holland Racing is from the combination of our names, Holly and Andrew. Every week at the Driveway we have about 20 to 30 people working the event. The last two years we’ve only directed the Driveway Series. It runs eight months a year on Thursday nights. We start working on the following year’s Driveway Series in June of the previous year. The past two years Holly and I have taken a step back on event production, only producing the Driveway Series, so we could focus on our kids and their school schedule and Holly could focus more on her career (she’s an electrical engineer at Silicon Labs). Prior to 2015, we had four to six other weekend events in addition to the Driveway Series. Depending on the scale and scope of each event, respectively planning would start nine to 14 months in advance. 

What was the biggest takeaway or lesson learned after your most recent event was completed? It’s hard to answer that question because the Driveway Series doesn’t really ever end. It just takes a small break in the winter. That said, delegation and trust. The only reason Holly and I are still able to “run” the Driveway Series is because we don’t really run it anymore. We’ve surrounded ourselves with a great team of people and sponsors whom we trust and who take pride in the event.

What’s the most fulfilling part of your job? Seeing people have fun. For my wife, Holly, and I, I don’t think we ever expected the Driveway to mean so much to so many people. It changes lives. We’ve watched people meet and fall in love at the Driveway, and now they have families and their kids are lining up in the kids’ lap. We’ve seen people lose weight with the Driveway being their weekly carrot to keep them motivated (myself included!). We’ve had people tell us that the Driveway has saved their marriage or helped a father and son bond. Every Thursday hundreds of people come together at the Driveway and for the most part it’s all good times. It’s a great feeling driving home, knowing that what you did helped people cut loose and have fun. The Driveway brings joy to a lot of people.



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