Running Talk with John Halvorsen

In 1988, John Halvorsen set the course record at the Ottawa 10K, a record that stood for twenty years. Today, John brings that long history with running in Ottawa, as well as his experiences as an elite athlete who competed around the world (including at two Olympic games), to his role as Race Director of the Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend. We caught up with John a couple of weeks after the opening of registration to get the inside scoop on registration numbers and plans for 2014.

Q: Registration opened on September 3rd. How has the response been so far?

A: Really good. From being at other races, I knew there was a bunch of people that were really anxious to get in, ready to go. I met one guy at the marathon in Quebec City, and he comes up and says, “I’ve booked my hotel room. When are you opening up!?” And he was so excited about it, he was bouncing up and down. I expect he was one of the first ones signed up.

So, we set a record on the first day of registration and it has been steady since then. We’ve had 20 people sign up today and it’s 9:30 a.m.

Q: Do runners out there realize that it’s 40th anniversary of the Ottawa Marathon?

A: I think they do. We’re talking about it on the website and newsletter. And we’ll be doing more as we get closer to the event. Also, when you register, you see that you have the option to buy the 40th anniversary book. For marathoners, the book is actually included in registration until the end of November.

Q: What will be in the book?

A: Mark Sutcliffe, who is writing it, is trying to capture the history of the event. So there will be different elements, talking about the early days, the period when there was a decline in the marathon, what I call “the dead zone”, and then the rise in popularity since then. I’m sure there will be lots of interviews with people who have been involved, the organizers, some of the elite runners, and we’re going through old archives of photos. There is quite a history there. There were years when we were the Olympic trials for example.

Q: Speaking of the history, you have a long personal history with the race, starting as an elite athlete 25 years ago. From your experience, what do you feel the elite participation brings to the event?

A: I think the elite component brings something unique to the event. It’s one of the pillars that creates a certain feeling and enthusiasm around the race. If you look at all the top events out there, they all have elite components. I think it’s a requirement for an international calibre event. Many people tell us our race has a special atmosphere at our finish line and I think part of that comes from the elites; even if a runner might be finishing a couple of hours later, it still adds something. It’s not very often you can stand at the starting line with an Olympic athlete, and race against top world-class athletes, in any sport.

What we struggle with in North America is a lack of media coverage for the sport, which means that average people don’t recognize some of those names. You might watch the Olympics and not realize that the guy leading the Olympic event is the same athlete you lined up with here in Ottawa.

Q: Do you think the Internet will change that at all?

A: I hope that the Internet will help with that. We weren’t able to get the IAAF Championships on television in Canada. But with the Internet we can bypass that to an extent, which will allow us to get running coverage out to more people. And we want to use it to our advantage, to give exposure to our sponsors and elites, and to allow people to follow along at home. I think it’s great.

Q: So, you’ll be doing another live broadcast of the marathon and 10K then?

A: That’s certainly part of the plan. We’d like to get that out there.

Q: In terms of other plans, have you raised the registration numbers for 2014?

A: Yes, if we sell everything out, there will be 48,000 runners this year. We’re not permitting a lot of growth in the shorter races. If I look at the 5K, it’s basically the same numbers as last year. The 10K, 200 more. The half-marathon, 500. Most of the growth is in the marathon event, where there is still space to grow. In theory, I’d like to get the marathon to 10,000. So our target is 7,000 this year, with a goal of 10,000 for 2017.

Q: There are already wave starts in a couple of events. Will there be more wave starts to manage growth?

A: We’re managing growth a couple of ways. We are continuing with the addition of waves, so they’ll be wave starts in the 5K, 10K, and half-marathon. Adding waves allows more people to run. The downside is that it takes longer to run the race, so there are traffic impacts.

We are also moving the start times of the 2K and 5K an hour earlier, which will allow us to clear the finish lines in plenty of time for the start of 10K. I don’t see a wave start in the marathon yet. Runners in the marathon aren’t quite as rushed: “I’m going to be here for a few hours. It’s okay.”

Down the road, we also plan to address the merger of the marathon and half-marathon races along Sussex. At some points in the race it does get busy and there are runners moving at different speeds. I don’t see that happening this year, but it is in the works.

Q: So the 40th anniversary also represents 40 years of logistical experience figuring out how to put on great experiences for runners.

A: Well, I don’t know if anyone has been here since the very beginning! But we’re very lucky. We’re a small staff of 4 or 5 of us, so we’re lucky to have a very committed group of race committee folks that work for us at different parts of the year. Most of them also have a very committed extended race committee as well. We are lucky that these people, both the committee and extended committees, are largely repeat volunteers. Manny [Rodrigues] has managed the organization for the elites for the past 15 years. It’s a huge job, with a large extended team. And so on and so on. Those repeat volunteers are a very good thing for us.

Q: Why do you think there are so many repeat volunteers?

A: One reason is, like the race itself, it’s a great atmosphere. Sure, it’s a weekend you give up from a personal perspective, but it’s also fun. And people feel good about contributing to people’s accomplishment and to this community event with a strong charitable component. Being part of making this whole thing happen.

You know, the runners we run into out of town, they all say they love coming to Ottawa. They love the city and the scenery, and they love running through the individual communities—Manor Park, Rockcliffe, Westboro—where there are a lot of people out and they are enthusiastic. They’re out there at 7:30 in the morning with their coffee. Runners appreciate that. And we get spectators who come and say to us, “We had so much fun. We look forward to it every year.”

So, it all builds on itself, the volunteers, the atmosphere, the spectators, the runners to make an experience that people really value and enjoy.