A light gray and drizzly day greeted 5000 runners in San Jose, California on March 2nd, 2014. The masses began to slowly gather around the downtown SAP Center as the partial sun came up on Sharks territory. United by the presence of a starting line each in attendance was here for the 3rd Annual San Jose 408k “Race to the Row” Benefiting the Pat Tillman Foundation. The humans had gathered for a multitude of reasons from fitness goals to charitable promises to local pride; each had a reason. From the elite runner’s perspective, perhaps in the mind of standout Brett Gotcher, the conditions were perfect. A mellow breeze, cool temps and a flat point-to-point course lay out in front of him. In 1982 this would have been the overarching sentiment, but running has since changed in this era of musical marathons, costumed color parades and medals for everyone. In earnest, our production team has adapted well to creating events for the social media minded millennial and the lingering jogger from the 1980s alike. My favorite part of race day is standing at a starting line knowing that we brought these people here. It’s a beautiful sight to look out upon that many people, faces as different as snowflakes, but all standing at one moment in time together. And so as the sun continued its rise and the runners continued their arrival, I looked over them one last time hoping the next few hours would go absolutely perfect. For race directors it never does, but you can always hope.
For the greater part of the past year my team was consistently in different stages of preparation for the 2014 event. Per usual our goal was to put on a large-scale race featuring the local pride of the “408” area code and simultaneously raise some money for the Pat Tillman Foundation. Seems simple, seems easy. It’s not and never is. Every year and with each event we work thousands of hours to try and perfectly sculpt the outcome. That is the life of the top event crews. You create, plan, prepare and often agonize over the creation of the perfect event. Eventually you realize that perfection is a myth. Anything can go wrong at a race with thousands of participants. Perhaps an equipment shipment gets lost right before the expo or in our case the weather decides to disagree with your plans. The truth is we do not produce events in a fairytale vacuum, but instead in a world a human influence. And when humans are involved the results are unpredictable. Ask Boston Marathon Race Director Dave McGivilary about the implication of the unthinkable and you realize that anything is possible at an event of thousands. My team, likely led by my sentiments, has always viewed this human element as a negative. Perhaps a runner could miss a directional sign and go off course or maybe a volunteer would provide some crucial misinformation to a participant. In any case, it always felt like the possibility of human error was the only thing we could not fully control. That being said, after this event, I would never underestimate the positive power of the human individual again.
Being a race director has changed dramatically in the last 40 sum odd years. Back in the day all you needed to produce the New York City Marathon was Fred Lebow, a bullhorn, Popsicle sticks and a ton of passion for the sport. Of course it still required a ton of work, but it was certainly a simpler time. Now we are required to keep up numerous websites, social media channels, and maintain traditional marketing just to get the runners to your starting line. Cornerstone events are now competing with mud runs, beer gardens, color blasting and even foam parties. When I started directing events with the Silicon Valley Marathon in 2006 the new kid on the block was the Rock N Roll Marathon Series. At the time we thought that was outrageous and potentially a fad. We were wrong. I personally bought in by running my first marathon at the San Diego Rock N Roll the next year and it was a damn good time. The point is that race producing has become more than just bibs and street closures. The participants want and expect more and if you want to stay in business you have to give it to them. Many of the participants are new to the sport and their expectations are weighted differently than runners of previous eras. Shirts, medals, and themes are more important than times and accurate courses. Preparing your race day outfit takes precedent over preparing to perform. With this in mind, we try to create a blend of the old and the new by continuing to respect the roots of organizes races, while still making the experience cool for everyone. It’s a tight rope to walk, but the end result can bring about inspiration, smiles and a job well done. We have a cool job.
At our events we try to prepare a number of what we like to call “memory makers” or “Facebook moments” on race day. For example, this year we had a mix of new and classic VW’s leading our runners in association with a new local sponsor, behind the cars a gang of custom wood bikes led out the runners, and a live DJ created the soundtrack to get the runners fired up. Make the event feel big and you build a foundation of excitement. On the course we planned for a radio station to sponsor each mile to specifically show off the eclectic Sounds of San Jose, plus we always treat our runners to the final Mariachi Mile featuring six live bands lining the route. Our Santana Row finish line is a carnival of opportunities with a 408kids zone, post-race parties, beer garden, and more live Mariachi. It’s all wonderfully local and it feels like San Jose. And this is how the event flowed, smooth enough at the start, entertainment on course and then a big finish. It was not perfect, but it was pretty freaking good. And then it happened. It got even better.
I was checking social media soon after the event, just to make sure the twitter and Facebook were clear of major problems, and I came across a video. This video was low resolution and taken with a cell phone. It featured an old man, dressed in his military uniform and he was clapping for the passing runners. My eyes started to well up. You must know, and my wife will tell you, I’m not a crier; maybe if someone dear to me dies, or maybe after the movie “Up” and definitely after the Giants lost their 2003 World Series bid. I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve given in to that so-called salty mess over the last decade. Not a crier.
Anyways this older gentleman is cheering on the runners and my eyes are welling up. Then one of our participants steers off course and starts B-lining it for the uniformed man. The runner extends his hand, the veteran receives it and the runner says thank you for your service. This unleashes a flood of more runners veering off course towards the old vet. At this point the floodgates are wide open. I’m alone in our warehouse, crying my eyes out and it hits me that this just happened at our race. I’m certainly talking to myself at this point. “This just happened on our course, this is amazing, and this is beautiful. It’s perfect.” And then I realize this might be one of the greatest achievements of my life and I had almost nothing to do with it. It’s the human element. The element that always made my previous events imperfect has just created perfection. That mysterious force of energy that I previously detested just renewed faith in why we do what we do. We produce events for people to find their personal inspiration. Represent Running has always been about finding more than just scratching the surface. We called it Represent Running because we wanted to represent the individual participants passions. Whether it was your town, your family, or your favorite team we want to provide the platform for your expression. On this day, our runners represented themselves in the best way possible. At the 2014 408k, our runners represented and displayed gratitude.
It was then viewed 3 million times, shown on everything from NBC Nightly New to The Today Show. I had to ask myself why did this particular video capture the nation? Why does it affect so many, so quickly? I believe it’s because we all know that veteran. Joe Bell is simply one of thousands of veterans and soldiers that have fought and continue to fight for this country. We all know “a” Joe Bell. For me Joe represents my grandfather’s Bruce Service and John Pete Armstrong, both late WWII veterans. He represents my Cousin Stephen Fernandez, a veteran of multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. When I saw the appreciation being poured out for Joe, I felt my heart yearning for the members of my family that had made similar sacrifices. I believe millions of viewers of this video feel some of that gratitude and somehow wish they could thank their Joey Bell’s.
But the story goes even deeper, deeper into the abyss of amazing human connectivity. We originally asked the Pat Tillman Foundation to be our benefiting partner because of its local connection. Our race series is based on area codes and the culture of a region. In San Jose it’s mariachis, low-riders, the Santana Row shopping village, and Silicon Valley technology. It’s a wonderful mix of culture, innovators, hard workers and we’re all surrounded by beautiful terrain. Pat Tillman was a product of this culture, just like myself. We never knew each other, but if you were from San Jose you were proud of Pat. You were proud of Pat in the NFL, you were proud of Pat when he decided he was joining the Rangers after 9-11 and you were deeply saddened by his passing. There was no other charity to choose in my mind. I’d run and won the original Pat’s Run – San Jose and then when it went away, we made the Pat Tillman Foundation our charity partner. Admittedly, and I want to be honest with this, we are not a non-profit event. Our livelihood depends on putting together races and we guarantee the foundation a baseline amount. Then do our damndest to blow that baseline figure out of the water. Since the inception of the event we’ve raised over $35,000 and millions of impressions for the charity.
Now here is the crazy connection. The race is benefiting a charity in which their main goal is to send returning veterans back to school as part of their military scholars program. Amazingly, that first runner to adjust course and thank Joe Bell, was one of these returning scholastic veterans. His name is Erik Wittreich, he served proudly in Afghanistan and will soon be graduating from Stanford Business School. I do not believe it is a coincidence that Wittreich started the flood of appreciation. Instead I see it as symmetry. Wittreich is a man that knows the experience of a soldier, he may have even saw glimpse of his future in the 95-Year-Old vet and simply wanted to acknowledge him. This is part of the story that has been missed by most of the major news outlets. The video is beautiful without the back-story, but once you realize that the moment may not have happened without Erik sparking the fire, then it becomes even more beautiful. From one human to another, from one veteran to another and from one runner to one supporter…he created a memorable moment.
In the end, the circle is closed by the human element. Our event partially supports Wittreich’s transition back into excelling in society and in return Erik’s gratitude helped create the greatest moment I have ever been a part of. So now I find myself beyond thankful. Thankful for Erik, thankful for Joe Bell, thankful for the Pat Tillman Foundation, thankful for my dedicated event team, and most of all thankful for my 408k runners that flooded Joe with appreciation.