This week, we fly back to Canada with Kirsten Fleming from Calgary Marathon!
And Calgary is no sleepy town. It has a vibrant entrepreneurial scene and Run Calgary organizes 6+ events per year.
I was fortunate to connect with Kirsten through Charlotte Brookes who we interviewed in October.
Let’s go to Calgary!
What is your background? How did Kirsten Fleming end up race director at Calgary Marathon?
I came to it by accident but also through a surprising sequence of events. I am a journalist by trade and the tv station I worked for sponsored the HSBC Calgary Marathon and I ran the Jeep Half Marathon and did a number of segments on the race and mceed a few things for the organizers – which was my first introduction to running and the Calgary Marathon.
I really fell in love with running and joined a Running Room clinic and started training for my first Marathon, which was Dubai as my aunt and uncle, avid runners, live there so I went and ran it with them.
A few years later I was running all the time and also considering a career change when I interviewed Sir Richard Branson and he asked me about my passions and why I wasn’t pursuing running as a job. I knew I was never going to be a professional runner but I eventually did leave my job and ended up moving to Dubai where I became entrenched in the ex-pat run scene and started volunteering at races and helped with organizing the half-marathon there.
When I returned to Canada I sought out the marketing director at Calgary Marathon, who I knew from my time in media and I did some contract work for a year. She called me up in 2012 and asked if she could pick my brain because she was resigning and was moving to…Dubai of all places. We ended up going for dinner and she convinced me to apply for the role. The board of directors didn’t even consider me at first but the more I researched the role the more I wanted it and I by pure chance, saw the president of the board walking in downtown Calgary and I walked up to him and told him he should hire me and no one would do a better job.
He went back to his office and called the recruiter and told him to bring me in for an interview – the rest is history as they say!
What is your most memorable day as a race director?
SO MANY MOMENTS ! Don’t make me choose.
I have some extremely vivid finish line memories, most include a lot of tears. In 2013 we had our first ever Guinness World Record with #tenfastguys linked together for the fastest marathon tied together raising money for MitoCanada. That was my first year and everything was such a blur but I was at the finish line when they crossed and I was so proud to have been a part of something that meant so much to so many, creating a platform for people to raise money and accomplish big things.
In 2014, the 50th Anniversary of the Scotiabank Calgary Marathon, (longest running marathon in Canada!) my dad was celebrating his 60th birthday on the same day and ran his first ever half-marathon. I was at the finish line when he came across and was able to give him his medal, it deeply personalized that day for me as 15,000 people finished but amongst them was my dad, which was pretty special.
In 2016, Chris Koch came across the finish line on his longboard. He was born with no arms and no legs and had been denied entry to the LA marathon. We worked with him so he could compete using his mobility device and it was a a big uglycry moment seeing his girlfriend run up and embrace him as he crossed the line. He did the marathon again this past year and now regularly races in events using his longboard, as he fell in love with it and it’s a part of his healthy lifestyle – very fulfilling.
What makes Calgary Marathon a truly unique event?
A lot of things I think. Every race has a beer gardens and bands now so you can’t claim that is what sets you apart but I think our desire to innovate.
We aren’t afraid to try new things as an organization, call it the Calgary entrepreneurial spirit I guess, but we look for opportunities to make every year exciting and new.
We added a 50K Ultra for the 50th Anniversary, we did a 150K relay for the Canada 150 this year, we added a mindfulness moment to the beginning of the race and we put together a national ambassador program and brought runners from every province and territory. We don’t just rinse repeat.
What do you wish you knew about organizing running races when you started out?
Everything and also anything lol.
I didn’t know much. I was given an incredible opportunity and stepped in to a role I had to work my butt off to understand and so many people helped me along the way. I was a runner, a mediocre runner and I possessed the skills required to be successful in this industry – although I hadn’t been developing them.
I guess looking back I am glad I didn’t know what I didn’t know – especially how much work it is because I am not sure I would have been brave enough to tackle this job and now I can’t imagine doing anything else. I would hope for new people coming in to the industry is to understand and build effective process. It’s everything.
You must have seen everything when it comes to race logistics! What are your best logistics tips for race directors?
Don’t underestimate the importance of small details.
What are your best race promotion tips? What works best for Calgary Marathon?
We know the majority of our runners are coming back year over year – it’s largely a hometown race so we innovate. We don’t just do the same thing every year and hope the high quality of our events and a new medal will be enough to keep people coming back.
How do you differentiate your race from competing races?
Innovation and quality control. If you do a Run Calgary event, whether it’s our largest road race, the Scotiabank Calgary Marathon, or our smallest fun run, runners know they will get a quality event from start to finish.
How many volunteers do you have? How do you recruit & manage them?
Roughly 2500 throughout the year for our 6+ events. We live in a city where western hospitality and volunteerism are at the core of who we are… some say it is the legacy of the ’88 Olympics. All I know is we are incredibly fortunate to have dedicated volunteers, many of whom return year after year.
Our core organizing committee of roughly 60 volunteers continue to blow me away and have become like family. Some have been with the Calgary Marathon for 20+ years, through route changes and a number of RDs and year after year they provide the consistency and quality control that is required to grow and evolve as a race.
Race directors’ #1 challenge is securing sponsors. What is your secret sauce when it comes to finding & securing sponsors?
We are so fortunate to have and retain great support from small local businesses to major Canadian corporations.
It’s all about relationships, valuing the ones you have and nurturing new ones. It can’t be done overnight and it takes time and I try and always always deliver on what I promise.
What is usually your biggest challenge when it comes to organizing races?
Resources. Time, people, money.
Anything you would like to add to this interview?
I am beyond grateful I found race directing. It’s the most rewarding career and I wake up every day excited to see what’s ahead.
I have met rad people, travelled, learned so much about myself and I feel like I am always growing and being challenged. I am so grateful they took a chance on me.