Maybe it takes an athlete’s mindset to plan a successful race. Maybe it’s Duff’s college degrees in finance and sports management. Maybe it’s his passion for seeing people complete a challenging course.
Whatever the reason may be, Duff, who lives in Balsam, has become one of Western North Carolina’s most sought-after event managers when a local organization or community wants to host a running race, cycling competition or triathlon. As president of Glory Hound Events, Duff specializes in planning and coordinating outdoor sports events — such as courting sponsors, publicizing the race, signing up athletes, plotting out the course and setting up the all-important post-race parties and awards ceremonies.
“I’ve been doing event management since I was 13,” Duff said.
Back in school, when he was on the swim team, Duff found himself heading up a unique swim meet where parents raced as their children became the coaches and race officials.
From that point on, Duff found himself drawn to the world of sporting events and helped manage and direct various races for more than 20 years. Before his current job, he was the assistant athletic director at Western Carolina University, where he managed more than 300 events. He’s worked in the Ohio State University Athletic Department, the U.S. Olympic Training Center and the Alabama Sports Festival.
Gathering a wealth of expertise and experience, Duff developed a seminar on managing special events — a how-to guide for event planners to find and keep sponsors, set a budget, coordinate the event venue, and make sure participants are happy and willing come back the next year. Duff has taught the seminar at Southwestern and Wilkes community colleges and plans to offer it again at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College on Sept. 27.
So how does one manage a successful race, you might ask.
For Duff, it’s about seeing the finished product and then working backwards and putting all the pieces together. It’s like being the architect and making sure the project turns out like the blueprint.
“You’ve got to have community buy-in for everything to work,” Duff said.
That means working with county, town or community representatives to plan a race route that won’t interfere with local traffic but still gives participants a challenging course. That means advertising in the right magazines, along with brochures and Web sites.
That also means delegating reliable people to oversee an army of volunteers and staff — race officials, stand-by paramedics and law enforcement, volunteers to help athletes check-in before the race, marshals along the race course who stop traffic and point racers in the right directions, people who man the water stations, and folks at the finish line who tally race times. Some races might call for a few dozen volunteers while others, like the Asheville Half-Marathon and 5K being held Sept. 16, includes 130 marshals.
What happens if bad weather strikes?
“Plan for it; deal with it when it happens,” Duff declared. A few years back, the Asheville Citizen-Times Half-Marathon had to postpone its race when two rain-drenching hurricanes plowed into Western North Carolina. Though the rescheduled date might not have had as huge a turnout as some might have wanted, the race still offered several hundred people a chance to confront a challenging, hilly course.
For the Bent Creek Classic, a pair of 5K and 10K races at the N.C. Arboretum in Asheville, Duff suggested moving the date from April to June. Without the uncertainty of April’s cold or wet weather, the race in June proved to be a hit — registrations jumped 30 percent and participants had lots of positive feedback, Duff said. Sometimes one change in the race can make all the difference.
For Bele Chere’s 5K this year, the whole race course had to be reworked because of construction in Asheville’s downtown Pack Square, the normal site for the largest free street festival in the Southeast. Duff got together with race organizers and picked McCormick Field as a central location for the pre- and post-race activities. The minor league baseball field will host a packet pick-up party, award winners will be presented on the big-screen monitor, and Ted E. Tourist, the baseball team’s mascot, will greet children at the finish line of the fun run.
It’s important to make each race different, Duff explained, so it’s not just another cookie-cutter, free-T-shirt 5K.
For example, Duff made sure Greening up the Mountains, an annual springtime celebration in Sylva, maintained its green theme with 5K finishers receiving pine tree seedlings and top finishers getting potted plants or trees.
Duff also promoted the 5K as a tough course. Runners soon became familiar with the slogan, “I survived Savannah Drive,” a reference to the steep mile climb in the race.
“You’re in the mountains. Generally you’re not going to find a flat course,” Duff said.
However, a flat course may be just what draws athletes to the first-ever Lake Logan Triathlon in Haywood County on Aug. 5. With its Olympic-standard course (1,500-meter swim, 40-kilometer bike and 10-kilometer run), it’s one of two such races that make up the Endurance Magazine Development Series. The Lake Logan Triathlon is race number nine in the series that covers a dozen races in North and South Carolina, so as competitors vie for points in the standings, the Lake Logan event will be one to watch.
As a triathlete himself, it’ll be tough sitting this one out though.
“That’s the trade-off,” he said.
For Duff it’s more about the challenge of completing a course than keeping track of personal records. After training for his first triathlon in college, he got sick and had to bow out of the race, but 20 years later he tried it again and completed the course.
As his business picks up, finding personal time to train can be tricky, so he practices the time management skills he preaches to his clients. Depending on the race he’s training for, a typical week might include two days of swimming (2,500-yards), two days of biking (50 miles for the long rides, 20 miles for the “shorter” rides), and two runs (5-6 miles during the week and 10 or more miles on the weekend).
“Some people can run seven days a week — I’m not one of them,” he said.
Duff also has a pair of marathons under his belt — New Orleans and Knoxville. The New Orleans Marathon was especially interesting with beer and margaritas also available at the water stations.
One idea he did bring back from the Big Easy was to add music bands to the race course at the Asheville Citizen-Times Half-Marathon, so this year, look for a handful of bands to be set up in key places where the going gets tough.
Races draw people for a wide variety of reasons. Maybe it’s a local tradition. Maybe it’s a social gathering. Maybe it’s a fitness challenge.
Some are lured by prize money though Duff doesn’t see the need to tempt elite runners with large purses. He’ll have someone who knows a big-time runner like Elly Rono, call him up and make an offer — maybe a free hotel room or waiving the entrance fee is enough to entice a top runner.
Most people won’t win the trophy or medal for the fastest time, so it’s also effective to offer freebies. Those who ran the Bent Creek 5K or 10K earlier in June received running socks. At the Bele Chere 5K, there’s an artsy design on the T-shirt.
But it all boils down to finishing the race, and for Duff, there’s nothing better than seeing someone finish a race they thought they never could.
“That’s probably the coolest thing about all this,” he said.
Maybe it’s the first 5K or the first triathlon. When those endorphins kick in and the runner catches her breath at the finish line, there’s a wide smile, a sigh of relief, a thrill of accomplishment.
That’s what keeps Duff coming back for the next race.
(Duff can be found on line at www.gloryhoundevents.com.)
Ready, set, go
Planning to participate in a race? Here are some tips from Greg Duff, event management specialist, with Glory Hound Events based in Balsam.
• Sign up early for the race. Some races cost more if you sign up closer to the date of the race.
• Check out the race’s Web site to learn all you can about the race’s logistics — where to park, what time the race starts, and where the start and finish of the race will be.
• Get a course map of what the race looks like so you’ll know things like where the elevation changes, where water stations will be, and what to expect along the race route. It’s also a good idea to drive or practice racing the course before the big day.
• Leave yourself enough time to get to the race so you can warm up and stretch before the race begins. Most races take place in the morning; so if you’re not an early riser, give yourself some extra time to get to the starting line on time.
• Be sure you’ve trained adequately before entering a race — especially for the longer endurance races. Consult your physician if you have health concerns about entering a particularly grueling race like a triathlon or marathon.