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Madison Marathon Profile: Behind the Scenes with Erin Dougherty

Many hands and months of effort are involved in making the Madison Marathon events a reality. Photo (c) 2015 Focal Flame Photography | Credit: Clint Thayer

Many hands and months of effort are involved in making the Madison Marathon events a reality. Photo (c) 2015 Focal Flame Photography | Credit: Clint Thayer

There is more to races than the athletes. Many things have to happen for events like the Madison Half Marathon and Twilight 10K to run smoothly (no pun intended). Erin Dougherty, Director of Operations at Madison Festivals Inc., is one of the individuals responsible for behind-the-scenes efforts that are essential for the success of the event. Recently we asked her to share a glimpse into what it takes to put on the Madison Marathon events, an iconic race series for the region. Those races include the fall Madison Marathon on Veteran's Day weekend, and Memorial Day weekend spring events, which are being renamed Run Madtown in 2017. 

Focal Flame Photography (FFP): How long does it take to prepare for the Madison Half Marathon and Twilight 10K events? Can you share a rough timeline?
Erin: Usually initial preparation will begin immediately following the completion of an event.  The website needs to be updated with the next event’s dates and information (as much as possible).  Registration opens and typically my job is answering registration questions and working with the team to make sure large items (venue, equipment, etc.) have rental contracts in place.  Marketing will also begin to help push registrations. The beginning of the year is where we start getting into more of the specific planning, as courses are finalized, permits are obtained and vendors are contracted.  About a month before the event, everything starts falling into place and final details can be sorted out.

FFP: What goes in to preparation? What kind of things do you have to think about?
Erin: My main focus is registrations and information.  I need to make sure that I always have the most up-to-date information so that I can accurately answer questions, keep the website and social media updated and include certain things in our marketing blasts.  I deal with any of the “unpleasant” emails we might receive, so I like to ensure that the information I’ve been putting out there has been accurate all along so that I have a leg to stand on when responding! 

Race planning starts months in advance, with organizers doing everything from obtaining permits and keeping registration running smoothly to organizing hundreds of volunteers to setting up barricades, orange cones, and course markings. Photo (c) 2015 Focal Flame Photography | Credit: Austin Cope

Race planning starts months in advance, with organizers doing everything from obtaining permits and keeping registration running smoothly to organizing hundreds of volunteers to setting up barricades, orange cones, and course markings. Photo (c) 2015 Focal Flame Photography | Credit: Austin Cope

FFP: What does race day look like for you? When do you start? What kind of things are you doing? When does it finish for you?
Erin: My biggest involvement with race weekend is the expo.  I coordinate all of the vendors and the packet pickup/registration, so my weekend starts around 7:30AM on Friday, getting the expo set up.  The expo usually runs pretty smoothly (with the help of a LOT of volunteers) and I typically spend my time troubleshooting any registration issues and answering a lot of questions.  Once the expo ends Saturday evening, we tear down as quickly as possible and head over to Capitol Square, where the Kids Race starts at 6:30PM.  I end up helping with any last minute set up needs and will head to the Info Booth to help answer questions.  Once the Twilight 5K & 10K start, I head to the finish line to cheer on runners and help with any other things that may come up (trash cans need to be emptied, someone needs more cups at the water station, etc.).  Sunday morning is similar to Saturday night.  As soon as our course closes, we are in tear-down mode, making sure everything gets taken down, put on a truck, donated or thrown away.  We usually finish late afternoon/early evening on Sunday and then it is time to go home and relax!

FFP: How many volunteers does it take to put on this event? Where do they come from?
Erin: Approximately 875.  We recruit volunteers from many of the local non-profit organizations.  We “pay” our volunteers with a donation back to the non-profit of their choice and found it’s a great way to get people excited and still give back to the community.

FFP: Are there things to be done in the days and weeks following the event?
Erin: Yes, lots of wrap-up!  The first priority is making sure that anything we rented or used from another company gets returned.  We also ensure that everything is unloaded, inventoried and put away properly within the warehouse. I then spend a lot of time answering questions about results, lost & found, switching out shirts that didn’t fit and going through feedback that has been sent about the event.  Age group awards are sent out post-event, as well as extra shirts or medals that people want to buy. 

FFP: What is the most challenging thing about planning and putting on the event?
Erin: Keeping all of the moving parts organized and coordinating their simultaneous roll-out on event weekend. 

FFP: What is the most rewarding thing about planning and putting on the event?
Erin: Seeing all of your hard work come together successfully (usually!).  I also enjoy when people take the to time share a “thank you” and when they share that they were able reach whatever goal they set for themselves prior to race day.  It makes all of the headaches and frustrations seem worth it!

FFP: How do race photos help increase awareness of the event?
Erin:
Social media is king.  Everyone likes to show off what they’re doing and know everyone else’s business (whether they’d like to admit it or not).  Getting people to share photos of themselves at our event is one of the best marketing tool out there!  We’ve found that over 50% of our new participants are referred by a friend or family member, so if [photos] can prompt that discussion, all the better.

FFP: Anything else you would like to share?
Erin: I would encourage anyone who is interested in the behind-the-scenes operations of an event like this to reach out and become a volunteer coordinator for us.  Sometimes it seems like setting up a course or throwing together a packet pickup are simple tasks, but once you actually work the set-up and on-site, you realize that there are many more factors involved than the obvious ones.  Suddenly the reason the porta-potties are in one location vs. another (that might seem like a better option) may begin to make sense!

This article is part of a series featuring athletes and others who are participating in a Madison Marathon event in 2016. Focal Flame Photography is honored to serve as official photographers for the Madison Marathon. All runners will receive free FocalShare™ digital race photos courtesy of the event organizers. The Spring Madison Marathon events will occur on May 28 and 29, 2016 on the streets of Wisconsin's capital city.  For more information or to register, visit Madison Marathon.

- by Suellen Adams