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Visibility is the key factor for the success of a Tampa-suburb 5K race that benefited the area's two newest schools.

by Danielle Catalano


It wasn't so much the $2,600 raised that shocked Don Howard, rather the number of entrants who participated in his running club's inaugural 5K race and one-mile fun run that benefited the athletic departments of John Long Middle School and Wiregrass Ranch High School (WRHS)—the two newest schools of Wesley Chapel, Florida.

"Two hundred seventy-four people! Can you believe that?" asks Howard, President of the Wiregrass Running Club (WRC). "For a first-time race like this, that number's unheard of. We had about 170 people pre-register, and we were amazed. Then, we had 100 walkups the day of the race—we were stunned. I was an assistant coach for six years at another school district that held these kinds of races, but the most we ever had was 85, so I'm very pleased with the turnout—especially since we anticipated at most, 75 runners."

He credits two things for the high turnout: The WRC's unrelenting publicity strategies and the community's eagerness to welcome its new schools. "This is a great neighborhood community, and we're in Tampa, so the area's ideal for running during the winter. The people really want to see their schools succeed, and we, the running club, want to do what we can to make this happen."

Howard teaches math at WRHS and serves as the head coach for the boys' track and field and girls' and boys' cross-country teams. The high school is comprised of nearly 700 ninth and tenth graders, which places WRHS in a 2A athletic conference.

"While the environment is exciting and it allows the kids to make a precedence and create new traditions, it's frustrating as a coach," says Howard about the conference classification. "Our kids are at a disadvantage. Having a ninth grader go against a senior with four years experience and a junior-high development background, the ninth grader's going to have a tough time.

"And because these are new schools, their funding for athletic programming is lower than the other schools, which was expected," he adds. "If the schools can get whatever they need to help the students practice better or help ease them into the varsity level of play, it won't be so bad. Until our kids get to their junior and senior years, though, it's going to be a challenge."

That challenge is part of what spurred Howard and WRC's co-president Tom Ketchum to develop the running club's 5K fundraiser. "The running club's in its first year, too, and Tom and I also wanted to come up with a way to develop a running community within the school district," Howard says. "We thought this would be a good way to incorporate both and it was something we felt competent creating by ourselves."

PAST OBSERVATIONS

Organizing the race began in late October 2006, with the men dividing up the responsibilities to what suited each best. "Tom's in sales, so he took care of soliciting sponsorships," says Howard. "I solicited volunteers and designed the course, and both of us took care of registration and publicity."

Designing the race course and format was the easiest task. The distance between the middle school and high school is .7 of a mile, and Howard talked to both school principals about laying the course between the schools and their parking lots. The inclusion of a one-mile walk was decided because Howard and Ketchum wanted the event to be open to all members of the community, regardless of age or activity experience.

Finding volunteers also proved to be easy, as 20 of Howard's student-athletes, five parents, and five faculty members signed up to help publicize the race—which was Howard's biggest concern. Based on his previous experience as an assistant coach, he made sure the running club would be accessible to the public, without being overbearing.

"Running is such an individual sport," says Howard, "and I think the head coach that I worked under didn't like the idea of publicizing his races too much because he felt it was intrusive, and that if people wanted to support us, they would.

"I don't necessarily agree with that," he continues. "I think you have to be as visible as possible to the community. To reach runners, you have to work a little harder. But after awhile, it wasn't hard at all, and people were coming to us."

To see how effective the WRC's publicity strategies fared, Ketchum and Howard designed registration flyers in various fluorescent colors, specific to the areas where the flyers were handed out. For instance, when Ketchum talked to businesses about sponsorships, he'd ask if he could leave purple- or blue-colored flyers in their lobbies or on their counters. When the running club ran the trails at Flatwoods Park on Saturday mornings, the group stayed an extra hour at the trailheads, handing out orange-colored forms. Separate colored flyers were distributed at the middle school and high school.

Howard further publicized the race by contacting a local running magazine about the WRC's efforts and wrote about the race on two running club community boards. Additionally, because of his coaching background, Howard knew reporters at the St. Petersburg Times and told them about the 5K fundraiser. The WRC's publicity strategies worked: By Christmas, 100 people registered for the event, and less than two weeks later—after all the stories were published—that number nearly doubled, bringing in $1,300 in entry fees.

SPORTS BARS, JUICE BARS, & POWER BARS

Ketchum's familiarity with sales helped the running club raise the other half of its profits, as he was able to solicit $1,350 in sponsorships. Ketchum designed a three-tiered sponsor system that included one-$500 business donation, or a Presenting Sponsor; five-$250 sponsors, or Major Sponsors; and 10-$100 sponsors. Each sponsor would receive "privileges" for its business donation.

As it turned out, the WRC had one Presenting Sponsor, (a family sports bar) whose name was printed on both sides of the t-shirts that race participants wore on race day, along with the business's logo on the top line of the back of the shirt and received five free entries to the race. Three Major Sponsors participated (two of which were a juice bar and café), with each having its logo printed on the back of the t-shirt—on the middle line and smaller than the Presenting Sponsor's—and received three free entries to the race. Finally, there was one-$100 sponsorship, which also had its logo on the bottom line of the back of the shirt, and received one free race entry. A deejay was hired by the club to perform the day of the race, and all sponsors were mentioned numerous times throughout the event.

While the WRC had planned for more sponsors, "We were especially happy with those we had," says Howard. "They really talked the race up with their customers, and some held giveaways, raffling off their free entries—so even more of the public heard about our race."

The sponsorship money covered the major expenses of food ("Orange juice, apples, and Power Bars—nutritious snacks like that," says Howard), trophies, t-shirts, and the shirts' printing costs.

On race day, the 274 participants were divided in age and gender categories. The fun walk was only open to students 18 and younger, who were categorized as either Elementary School, Middle School, or High School. The race was open to those 14-years and older, and their categories were based on decades (i.e. 20-29, 30-39, etc.) up to 59-years old, with the last group including 60-years and older participants. "I'm 52, so I'm not sure how long we'll keep that group bunched together," jokes Howard.

The race began at 8:30 a.m., and the fun walk at 9 a.m.; the entire event ended at 11:30. "Three hours, $2,600. That's not bad for a day of fundraising," says Howard.

NEXT YEAR'S STRATEGIES

Howard and Ketchum are already planning for next year's 5K fundraiser, and while the format and the location will most likely remain the same, some changes will be made in their publicity strategies and beneficiaries.

"The runners we talked to were very receptive to the forms we presented, " says Howard. "But we're going to come up with a better tracking system. We didn't anticipate this much interest, and after awhile, we ran out of the specific-colored forms. We grabbed whatever was available when someone requested registration information, so we really don't know who specifically in the population was interested in our event."

As for which group will benefit from the money raised next year, the WRC is considering donating the money to each school's track and cross-country teams. "We have to look into this more," Howard says, "For right now, though, we're happy with however the athletic departments decide is the best way to distribute the money."

To learn more about Wiregrass Running Club and other information about their racing events, visit: www.geocities.com/wiregrassrunningclub



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