In April of 1999, my buddy John and I were hired to “bring back” the Long Beach Marathon.
Here’s the scoop: We left our jobs and took a chance with a guy who talked a big game with a new sports management company trying to resurrect the race. Truth is, John and I were both looking for something new in our careers and dove right into this opportunity without fully looking.
We had, from late April to Nov. 14, to create a 26.2-mile course, get sponsors, create t-shirt designs, promote the race to attract runners, skaters, cyclists, provide traffic plans, organize a two-day expo, find a location for that two-day expo, book entertainment, raise an army of volunteers and train them, recruit an elite field (we recruited Team Nike from Stanford) and speak to all stakeholders in downtown and along the route to get buy-in.
We quickly cut our “civic” teeth on this event by working closely with city departments who guided us to those stakeholders that we should speak with next. We met with police, fire, public works, health department, business licensing, water department and anyone else needed for logistics. It was a grueling seven months.
Every day we had a new story, a new madcap adventure and lots of stress. It often became a comedy of errors as the two of us and our assistant (who had no event experience) did our best to look and act professional with little means. Our fancy 7th floor office came with just one phone line and call waiting which didn’t really work and often times the callers could hear the other conversations. And we couldn’t fax anything if someone was online checking email at the same time. And we had to use our own AOL accounts for email.
John and I marched up and down Ocean Boulevard and were proud when sponsors jumped on board the event as we tried to promote ourselves as seriously as other major marathons. The Westin Hotel opted to offer two beds, actual beds, to the winners of the race. The L.A. Marathon offered cash and a car, and we were offering a Heavenly Bed from the Westin. Really? “Come to Long Beach and win…a bed.” It didn’t quite have the same ring to it as a Mercedes but we certainly were grateful to have the partnership.
On the Thursday night before the race, the three of us pulled a red Radio Flyer wagon stacked high with no-parking signs and hammers all the way from Ocean and Long Beach Boulevards down through Belmont Shore and adjacent neighborhoods. We walked seven miles that night putting up signs for legal notice about the race. We didn’t have the budget for the city to do it so we had to buck-up and handle it. It was extra fun being accosted by drunks on 2nd Street as we explained our wagon. While we walked and hammered we all discussed that it was doubtful that other marathons did this the same way.
Come race weekend I had been up for three days straight, no sleep, getting all the last details together and we were all barely hanging on. We could have no margin of error. We not only worked the two-day expo on the promenade all day but then had to go and drop all the water tables and supplies along the course late that night, and then be ready to get the race started and managed. Plus, there were VIP and volunteer parties scheduled for after the race. We had no idea how we were going to survive it all.
Come 5:30am that Sunday morning– the athletes started showing up. Things were looking good. We had copied Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles marathons by putting our big logo decal down on the start/ finish line. We were certain people would take us serious after seeing that.
We were thrilled. The streets started buzzing with athletes. Could our plans actually be coming together? The race announcer had his script and was doing his part. The 14-piece swing orchestra we booked got into place on their stage for pre-race entertainment. The USC Marching Band showed up to send off the runners with the national anthem and then played more hype music (and “Fight On!”, of course). The lead vehicles and drivers were in place. All seemed right. I was functioning on fumes.
The event timeline kicked into place. The inline skating marathon went off without a hitch. Then the bike tour. Now the runners lined up for the full and half-marathon (and we still had a Kids Run to do).
We had a full ceremony planned for months with lots of pomp and circumstance to “welcome back” the race to Long Beach which had been defunct for five years. We hired a buddy to dress like a runner straight out of Chariots of Fire who was stationed at Alamitos and Ocean with a huge flag with our logo. He waited for his cue to run towards the pack, run up the stairs of the announcer tower and plant the flag. The band would play. The crowd would cheer. How cool was that plan?
The event was big, and just a little too big for us. We had an incredible VIP area set up outside of the Westin. It was stacked with food, but we ran out of time to let anyone know so no one ate it.
Then literally just a few moments before the race was supposed to start, ABC News called me over for an interview which I didn’t want to do since I couldn’t keep an eagle eye on everything. Well into my tired and incoherent interview I could hear that our official race announcer had turned the mic over to one of the fitness models (our PR company had hired) to pump up the crowd. She got so pumped up on all the pre-race hype herself that she shouted “Are you runners ready?!” The crowd cheered. Then she let out a now infamous “Gooooooo!” And off went the pack! A false start! After a five-year hiatus and months of planning!
I stared in disbelief as the runners took off down Ocean Boulevard. I tried my best to remain calm with the ABC camera crew.
John had to sprint ahead of the entire running pack and jump into the back of a lead truck who burned out and took off without him when they saw the runners coming. When the runners passed our buddy standing at Alamitos ready for his cue, he gave a shrug, rolled up the flag, and skulked back to the starting line.
The radio chatter started to buzz as everyone insisted on using the Race Director channel rather than their assigned channels. I frantically tried reaching John for race updates while people interrupted with “I need napkins!” or “John, your grandmother’s here.”
I was too tired to laugh or cry.
The one and only transmission I heard from John’s tired voice was when he had reached mile 12 or so and said, “Blair, it’s a disaster.”
I stood motionless on Ocean Boulevard.
We realized an hour after the runners were coming back and getting their medals and refreshments that things were fine and not as bad as John reported. But it was also at that time that we realized that we had no plan to pick up all the garbage and heat sheets starting to fill up the street and sidewalk. The runners hated the medals; the promenade was abandoned with our leftover supplies; the winning first-time marathoner from Team Nike threw up on me when he crossed the finish line.
However, the volunteers remained cheerful and passed out the water, fruit, heat sheets, and just told everyone to head back into the promenade for music and awards. John’s family grabbed brooms and bags to clean up Ocean Boulevard. Thankfully our contact from Public Works said he would call the cavalry in. Thirty minutes later a fleet of street sweepers came to help us out. We didn’t even think about the cost.
Later that evening I had to be escorted out of the Volunteer Party for being totally incoherent when trying to thank everyone. My mom and sister drove me home as I had passed out in the backseat. It became a blur, and hard to believe we pulled it off until we looked at the cover of the Press Telegram. That Monday we read the good press and took our lumps from city staff about the mess and things to improve upon for next year.
I felt pretty good about things that evening as I drove down 7th Street to return the last U-Haul truck to the office.
Then I hit a bus. Our mirrors collided.
The bus had to be evacuated. I pulled over and ran back to apologize to the driver. He was understanding and said it happened often. I called John who was out to dinner with his family and said it was now my problem, not his. At that moment I wanted to become a crossing guard or a pool man and ditch the event-management career. I wanted a job where I didn’t have to speak with or deal with anyone at all.
I ended up producing the race seven more times.
Well, things happen, and we learned as we went along. I have taken all those lessons with me and have applied them to the events I have produced ever since. I hope you have been able to attend and enjoy some. When you have another minute, let me tell you about all the craziness behind planning First Fridays every month.