Runners’ Corner column: A peek behind the virtual Feaster Five Thanksgiving Day Race curtain
Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
Sometimes I feel like Norm from the classic 1980s TV show “Cheers,” but the place where everyone knows my name isn’t a bar, it’s the Off-Season Sports & Physical Therapy facility in North Andover, Massachusetts.
You just don’t run as many miles as I have without spending a fair amount of time in the repair shop. When I go to see my physical therapist Larry Bourdeau most of the other patients yell out, “Hi, Tom!”
Last year, as I was lying on the treatment table, I overheard this petite young woman on the treatment table next to mine telling Larry how exciting it was to run her first marathon, even though it led to an injury and time off from running.
We began to chat about running, and it didn’t take long before I had convinced her to become a member of my running club, the Merrimack Valley Striders. How fortunate that chance meeting turned out to be.
That young lady turned out to be Carrie Wu, a social media “influencer” and lifestyle blogger. Carrie’s handle on Instagram is @carriewuofficial, and it has more than 14,000 followers. Her site is the creative mastermind behind the Boston-based fashion and lifestyle blog “Words of Wu.”
Wu is an “influencer.” I didn’t even know what that was. An “influencer” is a person who has a large social media following, and her blog “Words of Wu” has many fans as does her Instagram account. She was just the expert I had been seeking.
As the chairman of the Feaster Five Thanksgiving Day Race, the largest Thanksgiving Day running event in Massachusetts, we knew our marketing weakness was exploiting the opportunities in our online presence, particularly social media. We drafted Carrie to head up our marketing and communications team, and her expertise had an immediate impact as we started preparing for Feaster 2020.
But then, COVID-19 took over the news.
By the beginning of April, it was clear to us that the likelihood of gathering 8,000 to 10,000 participants in downtown Andover, Massachusetts would be highly doubtful. Should we cancel the event? Should we keep our fingers crossed that a miraculous cure would allow the race to go on? Should we make it a virtual event?
We made the decision that we had to go virtual. However, the toughest part was trying to figure out how to put on an event that we knew nothing about. What we soon discovered was that there weren’t many race organizations that had any more experience than we did. Thus, we began writing the book on how to put on a virtual event. So, take a peek over my shoulder, as I share how we got to our launch date on July 19.
Our first startling realization was that our race director and Medford native Dave McGillivray’s - the same guy who is the Boston Marathon race director - expertise is handling the complex logistics of gathering large crowds of participants on a race course, while efficiently scoring their times and getting them home happily satisfied.
With a virtual event, participants are running or walking in their own neighborhoods, so no logistic issues there. Dave’s new job for this event would be as a valuable resource connecting us to running industry experts and celebrities.
Despite our 32 years of experience, we had no way of knowing if we could pull off a successful event. Here is where Carrie’s guidance became critical. As an “influencer,” Carrie has experience collaborating with national brands.
Wu had already severed her position as a race ambassador for several local road races. But with her prior industry insight, she told us we needed to make two important changes to the way we’ve done business. We first had to have a medal, a really big medal for the participants, and we then had to have race ambassadors.
A medal, really, who needs another medal? Carrie smiled at our committee members, and said, “I know you longtime runners have more medals than you know what to do with, but most race participants don’t, and they value them for bragging rights. Haven’t you seen #Medal Mondays on Instagram, it’s trending.”
Hmmm, no, but we got her point. As a result, a big medal will now go to each participant.
What about the race ambassadors? We got taken to school once again by the power of social media. Carrie was able to secure 13 “influencers” from all over New England and beyond, because, after all, when you go virtual there are no borders.
Each of the race ambassadors will use their social media platforms to broaden our message far beyond anything we had ever done in the past. Our reach will now extend from Massachusetts to Hawaii.
Our next task was to build more than a race; we needed to create an experience that would be challenging and fun in order to make the First Virtual Feaster Five Thanksgiving Day Race a “must do.” Because we are fortunate to have an amazing running coach Sharon Johnson in our club, we were able to sign her up for a 12-week online coaching program consisting of three videos each week. For new runners, we have a virtual “Couch to 5K” training program.
Traditionally, our race features a 1k for kids, and then a choice of a 5k or 5-mile for walkers or runners. Now that many races are also going virtual Carrie suggested that a popular option is something called a special challenge, so we are introducing the “Feaster Challenge.”
If you can’t decide whether to do the 5k or 5-mile, the Challenge combines both virtual events for a total of 13k. Accomplish that feat, and you will get a second and even bigger medal. All participants will also receive a “Race Buff.”
We will have a selection of limited-edition high-tech race gear to purchase. We have an app for that.
To record each participant’s run, we will employ a Feaster Five app designed by Active.com. It will record the runner’s time, and then upload it to the “Leader Board.” Knowing that everybody likes to have a chance to be a winner, our running store sponsor - Whirlaway Sports - is awarding a $20 gift certificate to every 10th finisher.
We know that virtual events are about more than just running. They are also about charitable causes, and again this year we will have as beneficiaries our own MVS Scholarship Fund, the Merrimack Valley Y and the Bellesini Academy. We are now excited to add the Team Hoyt Foundation to this list for the first time this year.
The classic line from the movie “Field of Dreams” is “If you build it, they will come,” but we’re not taking anything for granted. The truth of the matter is that we have no clue, no history to guide us on the potential size of the event. What will help are the endorsement videos we are producing from many running celebrities. To be sure we do the videos at the highest quality level, we put away our iPhones, and hired Greg Shea, a professional videographer, who has a terrific YouTube video blog, “Running with Cameras.”
Among the celebrities we will feature are running legends Joan Benoit-Samuelson, Bill Rodgers, Becca Pizzi, Jack Fultz and, of course, McGillivray.
So, there you have it, months of hard work via weekly Zoom meetings in creating a brand new event. But will it be successful? Will we have 500, 5,000, 10,000 or more run online on Thanksgiving Day? We have no idea, but we suspect it is going to be an epic.
Even though November seems to be miles away, I’d like to invite all of you, my readers, to register for the Feaster Five Virtual Event, just go to www.FeasterFive.com to sign up and learn more about it. Even better, create a team with your family and friends and each member will get $5 off the registration fee.
So much in our lives has changed since the middle of March because of this pandemic, but the good news is that we are all learning new ways to deal with it, and in many ways our lives will be better for it. So don’t let COVID-19 get the best of you. Celebrate family, fitness and fun, even if it’s in a whole new way.
Tom Licciardello is a founding member of the Merrimack Valley Striders. Licciardello has participated in 35 Boston’s and 88 marathons altogether, and is a BAA Boston Marathon volunteer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.