2007 Race Director of the Year - Jay Silvanima

Presented by Gary Griffin

For those of you who haven’t noticed, we live in a great running city. Why do I say that? Well, think about it. We have a wonderful year-round running-conducive climate (if you eliminate Dog Days), an elaborate trail system, quality youth running programs in our schools and elsewhere, a stable of elite runners who have managed to make their marks nationally and what has got to be one of the finest running clubs in the nation, Gulf Winds Track Club. We also have an abundance of outstanding races and equally outstanding race directors – all of whom will tell you that they would never be able to put on the top-notch events that they do without the many volunteers that step up to help out. We have some great races – from our signature events like Turkey Trot and Springtime to the littler known (but equally classy), GWTC 30K that was run today and so many others. Yes, by most accounts, Tallahassee would seem to have it all. We have evolved into a premier running city. In my mind, though, there’s been a hole in our resume’. I suspect our 2007 Race Director of the Year felt the same. He did something about it, though — he got busy and filled in that hole.

In 2006 this individual took over as Race Director of an event that had been on the GWTC calendar for over 30 years. In fact, it is the longest running race of its distance in the State of Florida. You would think that in a race of that tenure that there would be some stability in it. Not a chance! This race has had more venues than the number of finish line noises emitted by Dana Stetson over the years.  Remarkably though, over those 30 plus years the race had never drawn more than 130 or so runners. Every race director who tackled the event felt as if they might have just laid out the right course, lined up just the right sponsors, figured out just the right formula … just the right “it” – to bring runners from around the country (or the world!) to Tallahassee to tackle what has become the signature long distance run in America today. Try as they might, it never happened. Yes – it was a wonderful race and we all enjoyed being part of it, but it just never “got over the top,” so to speak. Now, under the leadership of our 2007 RD of the Year, it has done that — and more.

How did this happen? Thirty years of trying without turning a lot of heads is a long time. What did he do that others had not done? Well, this individual simply put his heart and soul into creating something that would make people stand up and take notice. And, as the cliché goes, “he thought outside the box.” Let me give you some examples of what he has done in two short years of leadership:  Let’s start with money, for as much as you’ve heard it said in today’s sport’s world: “It’s not about the money” …. Well folks, sometimes it is – especially to elite athletes. With that thought in mind, our RD of the Year showed that he was not afraid to go boldly where no one had gone before. In fact, he went to Kenya. Well, not literally (and probably before he tries this again he will!). In order to protect a solid friendship with this individual, I will let Jack McDermott, a former director this race himself, tell the story from here:  “Our Race Director of the Year’s most admirable qualities have been his creativity and ambition. These were on full display during the running of last year’s event when he tried to lure the best national and even international runners to come to our race. Yet what started as a goodwill gesture to aspiring runners from Kenya, almost ended up with a phone call to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.  Our Race Director was ostensibly contacted by the 1997 champion of the Boston Marathon. Retired due to an injury, the e-mail claimed that he would attempt a comeback – at the 2007 Tallahassee Marathon no less – in exchange for an airplane ticket, and a modest appearance fee of $5,000. Our eager race director was all-over this possibility, but after consulting with some trusted club members he somewhat relented to their concerns. Nothing to fear though — after another e-mail exchange the runner, a native of Kenya, promised to come anyway, and even bring a few friends from his running club provided the race offered prize money. The club agreed to support his efforts and prize money was available for the first time!

Two nights before a race of this magnitude (when most race directors are fretting last-second details), our race director was at the Greyhound Station picking up his elite athlete who mysteriously arrived by bus from Atlanta. If that were not strange enough, the young man who stepped onto the Greyhound platform was not the former Boston Marathon champion — but an obscure 22-year old Kenyan runner that nobody had ever heard of. His name was not even mentioned in the e-mail as a possible runner who may attend. He also called himself “Edward.” This is what we refer to in the running industry as the old “bait-and-switch.” Not to fear. Perhaps Edward was just another of the many elite Kenyan athletes looking to establish themselves in the US. Curious about his running potential, several members of the club questioned him at the pre-race gathering that next night. Edward was rather cagey about his expected results and even notified us that he wanted to run the half instead of the full-marathon. This development had experts in our club speculating that he was merely saving himself for a more prestigious event such as the forthcoming Boston race.

When the race began the next morning, Edward did not take the early lead. In fact, he seemed to get lost in the pack, and was not among the early leaders. Perhaps – he was merely a slow-starter, waiting for the proper moment to demonstrate his athletic prowess. Unfortunately, that moment never came, and it became painfully obvious that this was not an elite Kenyan marathoner. A full two-hours and six minutes elapsed before he staggered to the finish line forcing me (Jack McDermott) to comment, “Geez, even Sue Kelly could have beaten him.” While inviting one who runs a 2:06 marathon is impressive – inviting one who runs a 2:06 half-marathon is not.”  There’s more to the story which demonstrates the kindness and the heart for international relations of our 2007 Race Director of the Year, but the saga of the first invited international athlete to ever run the Tallahassee Half-Marathon will have to remain another story for another day.

It all just demonstrates the determination of our Race Director of the Year to continue to make this event the very best that it can be!

For the upcoming 2008 race, through hard work and dedication he and his team have arranged a major sponsor in the Capital Regional Medical Center, and will offer cash incentives that could exceed $1500 each to the male and female winners. As one key member of his team put it, “He pushed us to try and find a primary sponsor. … when they (the potential sponsors) didn’t come through, he continued to make proposals to other businesses.” Another one said, “He didn’t seem to care if people said no or if they would think this marathon was just too darn small, he forged on! I really admire that. He has a very positive attitude.” What else did he do besides offer financial incentives? There has to be more, for most of us will never be in a position to have someone hand us a winner’s check? Well…

He continued the efforts of the aforementioned Jack McDermott in making use of extensive internet advertising, and made enhancements to Jack’s dedicated web site for the event. If you’ve not looked at it –it is a good one it is – with registered runner information, course maps, and even an elevation chart showing a total gain/loss of something like 50 feet. Don’t laugh. The one thing that Peg and I learned in our term as directors of the marathon is that most runners like flat, fast courses. Our Race Director of the Year recognized the meaning of the phrase “Boston qualifier” and found the flattest 26.2 miles in town! He brought on-line registration to the event, something that is proving to be extremely desirable to the out of town runners this race seeks to attract.

And what about the other amenities? Seemingly small things become big things in this competitive world of luring marathon runners to our city. Do you know that there are something like 11 marathons scheduled just in the state of Florida in January and February of 2008? That makes it tough. Yes, we love Tallahassee and what it has to offer to the runner, but we haven’t got Mickey Mouse and theme parks or broad white sandy beaches or oceanfront hotels or any number of other things that draw the running snowbird to Florida each winter. Even with an entry fee far below many of his competitors, our RD of the Year made sure that everyone who did decide to give Tallahassee a try went away knowing they had been part of a quality event, with great lodging opportunities, a well-done package pick-up, nice finishers awards, high-tech shirts to all runners, a well-marked course, great traffic control and encouraging volunteers, fast and accurate results and a great post-race party. And, as one member of his team told me, “When runners told him that they didn’t like the replacement drink, he ditched it.” Small stuff counts.

If all this doesn’t stir you, then listen to this. Just like money talks – well, statistics talk as well. I mentioned earlier that in the 30 plus years that this race had been run, it has never drawn more than about 130 runners. In fact, in the 10 years prior to 2007, the Tallahassee Marathon averaged 78 finishers. In 2007 -our RD of the Year’s first year on the job – there were 168 (from 25 states and three countries, I might add) – an increase of over 100%. The half marathon results were equally spectacular. At that rate, we will bypass New York in 8 years. With this guy at the helm, anything is possible.

There’s more, though. And, in my book, this is what really counts, above everything else. And for this, I will turn to the words of those who worked alongside him in this effort. Sue Kelly said this: “He does a really good job of keeping everyone informed as to what he has done, where he needs help, and where he is going.” Mark Priddy, his volunteer and traffic coordinator echoed those words. He said, “I guess what I like most about working with Jay on the Marathon is his leadership style. He inspires confidence but is not bossy or overbearing. He is persistent and makes sure the rest of us don’t procrastinate. He knows that he doesn’t have all the answers and readily admits that. If he doesn’t know the answer, he finds out or makes suggestions on where we can find the answers. He listens and accepts advice from others.” He went on to say “As conditions change, he refocuses on the new conditions and continues to move forward. During this whole process, he continues to follow up with us to keep us informed on what is happening. He wants us to attend to the little details so they would not become major issues later on. Furthermore, he is optimistic and sets large goals, but the goals are realistic. He continues try to make improvements to the Tallahassee Marathon and Half Marathon and to reach for just a little more than we have now to make it an attractive event. All of these leadership qualities are what make him a pleasure to work with.”

The one that Jack, Sue, Mark and I are talking about is our 2007 Race Director of the Year, Jay Silvanima.