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Running with the Dogs

Although dogs may not be encouraged at most 5K races, in Decatur, Ga., they're more than welcome to come along for the Decatur Bulldog Booster Club's Frostbite 5K-Run With the Dogs. This year's event raised over $5,000 for Decatur High School's athletic program.

On Jan. 7, about 300 people and 80 dogs lined up to run the Decatur Bulldog Booster Club's Frostbite 5K-Run With the Dogs. This was the event's seventh--and most successful--year.

Originally, the race was called "Run with the Big Dogs," which referred to individuals who had joined the booster club at a high membership level. "But the run struggled early on, because there are lots of runs that people go to, and that one wasn't any different," says booster club member Bill Ainslie. "Then one year, after several people brought their dogs, someone said, 'Why don't we make it run with the dogs--literally?' So three or four years ago we did. We recruited vets and pet supply places as sponsors, and we tried to get the word out through them, saying, 'Yes, bring your dogs!'"

Planning the event takes a lot of time, especially with the added canine element. The Bulldog Booster Club starts its preparations by hiring a race director. "Getting the director takes a lot of race day logistics off our plate," Ainslie says. "We have one who has worked with our race for years. It's worth it for us to pay him to take care of the details. The race is getting big enough that we really need his expertise."

Next, the club obtains a permit from Decatur to hold the event, and gets the date set on the city's calendar. This is done about a year in advance, since the city has a limit of one race per month. Interaction with city regulations doesn't end there, however. "Then we have to get the police," Ainslie says. "They direct the traffic--volunteers aren't allowed to control intersections. It's an urban area, so they make sure everyone's safe throughout the route. The police dictate a lot of where we run, because of their safety concerns."

After this, the club works on getting everything else in order, including recruiting sponsors and volunteers. "It takes us several months," Ainslie says. "If you don't count putting the race on the calendar, it takes four or five months of pretty regular planning to make sure that everything lines up on the day of the race."

Shortly before the event, the club estimates the number of participants, to get its final orders in. "Even though we're in the South, the weather can be dicey in January," Ainslie says. "So we watch the weather report--we love those 10-day forecasts--they drive the t-shirt order. A lot of people wait until the day of the race to decide. They want to see what the weather's like, and what they feel like when they wake up. So we try to plan for that. We try to have t-shirts for all the runners, and bandanas for the dogs."

At the race, the booster club tries to make all of the participants feel welcome. "We have water bowls at the water station, in case the dogs want to stop," Ainslie says. "We also have water bowls and doggy treats at the start and finish--just like the people get bananas and bagels and bottles of water. We also have a photo booth, so owners can get a picture taken with their dogs. We try to think in terms of the owners who bring these dogs, because they think of them as part of the family and racers, too. So we try to incorporate the dogs and make it both an human-centric and a canine-centric sort of event."

Ainslie's advice for other clubs interested in holding a similar event is to be aware that holding a race is a big investment. "As attractive as a run seems to raise money, it's an iffy proposition starting out," Ainslie says. "If you go in knowing there's an initial cost, you can approach sponsors to try to defray it upfront. Then the runners' registration fees are just gravy. That's what we shoot for, taking care of our expenses with sponsorships.
 
"For our race sponsors, we've found that if the businesses talk amongst themselves, they feel like they get a fairly decent return just getting their name out," he continues. "We try to get the event out in the community, and our sponsors seem to connect with the public. We try to allow them to set up a table at the event, whether it's a vet clinic or an athletic shoe place. We hope that more and more businesses will want to get in as the race grows."
 
It's also important to note that building the event can take a while. "Just because a run doesn't make money one year, that doesn't mean it's not going to the next year," Ainslie says. "A lot depends on weather and timing. My advice would be, plan it with your eyes open, knowing that you're going to have to invest into the race. And two, if you're going to build it as a booster club event, stay in it for the long haul.
 
"Ours really didn't start making money until last year," he continues. "It took us six years to get from maybe losing a little, to breaking even, to now making money. But it's a good event. It brings the high school and the community in--and it's the community that feeds the high school. I think that's why we've hung in there, even though we didn't make a lot of money until the past year or two."


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