Story by Robyn M. Perrin
Photos by Clint Thayer
Editor's note: A version of this story was published in the Off the Couch blog of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Sunday, March 13, 2011 brought clear skies, brilliant sunshine, and a few thousand little green men, women, and children to Madison. Nearly 3,000 Irish-themed runners and walkers filled State Street in the downtown area for the 5K, 10K, and 2-mile walk courses of the Shamrock Shuffle. The races began just a few blocks from the Wisconsin State Capitol - the scene of historic labor protests over the preceding four weeks.
Despite the proximity to the Capitiol, aside from one or two politically-inspired costumes sheer whimsy was the order of the day. Runners donned everything from green fishnet stockings to green wigs, leprechaun costumes, feather boas, tutus, stovepipe hats, and at least one full-length superhero cape. Music provided by Marc Lovicott, race DJ and news anchor at WISC-TV3, echoed throughout the downtown area. Teams, friends and families hugged each other at the start line and high-fived at the finish.
First-place finisher of the 5K race was Ryan Novak, 34, of Madison, WI, completing the course in 17:58. The 5K women’s race was won in 21:33 by Ainsley Cray, 25, of Fitchberg, WI. For the 10K distance, Timothy Willcox, 32, of Madison took the men’s award in 33:48 and Shannon Ring, 28, of Belvidere, IL won the women’s race.
Given the festive atmosphere, it’s hard to imagine that the event was borne out of tragedy a few years ago.
In October, 2003, Middleton runner Jim Beyer was hit and killed by a drug-impaired driver while on a training run. “He left his wife and children and his kids were very young. It was pretty tragic for the running community, so people were looking for a way to help out,” said Steve Donovan, Vice-Chair of the 2011 Shamrock Shuffle organizational board.
Donovan teamed up with several other Madison-area runners including former collegiate runner Julia Voss, Megan Sisson, and Jessie Bathe to organize a St. Patrick’s Day-themed race to benefit the Beyer family. Voss said, “We all enjoy running and became good friends, [and thought] – ‘Why not organize a Madison race together?’”
The first year of the event included a few hundred participants and raised money for a college scholarship fund for the Beyer children. Having accomplished their goal of helping to support the Beyer family in wake of James Beyer’s death, Shuffle organizers began to think about ways to benefit children throughout the entire community. “At that time, the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County was looking for capital funding for their Allied Drive location,” said Donovan. “There was a huge spirit behind it and they were very ambitious, and we thought [The Boys & Girls Club of Dane County] was something that was not only going to be around but was always going to be an ambitious organization.”
Ambitious doesn’t even begin to describe the scope of services that the Boys & Girls Club has launched for area youth in recent years. Currently led by Executive Director Michael Johnson, himself a participant in Boys & Girls Club programs while growing up in the public housing development of Cabrini-Green in Chicago, BGCDC offers dozens of programs in education, leadership and character, arts, sports, and fitness at two Club centers, serving 2,177 youth in Dane County during 2010.
With a comprehensive approach to support the educational, emotional, and career-readiness needs of at-risk youth, BGCDC and its partners have had a tangible impact on the community. “One hundred per cent of the kids in our College Prep program graduated from high school, and more than 90% of them are in college this semester,” said Executive Director Michael Johnson. “We were able to do that because of the support of the Shamrock Shuffle and their runners. We’re able to keep our doors open six days a week because of that support. We’re able to provide certified teachers to support the academic needs of our kids in our clubs because of their support,” he said.
Indeed, the 2010 Shamrock Shuffle was the single-biggest outside fundraiser to benefit the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County that year. Having recently joined as Executive Director at the time the 2010 race was being planned, Johnson recalled, “I heard from [BGCDC] staff about the unbelievable support from nearly 2000 people that either run or walk doing the race, and so I met [Donovan], and I ran the race last year. I really didn’t know how much financial support that they were going to provide for our clubs. So we had a meeting in April, and they surprised us with a $30,000 contribution…it made an unbelievable difference in our work for our kids.”
Board Members of the Shamrock Shuffle are as strongly committed to leaving use of the Shuffle funds to the discretion of Boys & Girls Clubs leadership as they are to raising the money. “We like the direction [BGCDC is] going in and we believe in their vision, so [when] we give them capital we want them to decide where it goes.” This allows Johnson and his team the flexibility to focus immediately on areas of greatest need.
“I don’t want people to look at the Boys & Girls Club as a charity case,” said Johnson. “I want folks to see BGCDC as an investment vehicle to support young people in our community and to improve the quality of life for young people in our community.”
The energy of doing good while having fun was palpable on Sunday. Given a long winter of short days, the crowd was clearly ready to step forth in style. One of the most meaningful moments of the race occurred when DJ Marc Lovicott played the song “Jump Around,” turning State Street into a vibrating mass of hopping green humanity. The tradition sparked spontaneously at the 2009 Shamrock Shuffle, said Lovicott. “We thought, you know, it works at Camp Randall, why don’t we just try it here. And so we threw it on a couple years ago, and the folks loved it.”
“To see 3,000 people jumping up and down to the song, and they’re all wearing green at the race we organized all by ourselves – was just amazing. It just tells you everybody’s ready to have fun and is really excited,” said Donovan.
The grassroots success of the Shamrock Shuffle serves as a case study in how community-organized endurance sports events can build a better world, putting a new spin on the phrase “Serious fun.”
Could its success be replicated elsewhere? Yes, says Johnson, who urges race directors and nonprofit leaders to work closely with one another. “One of my advice to my peers is… to focus on partnership, to partner with other groups and to build awareness about what [nonprofits] do in the community,” said Johnson. Working together is critical, he says. “If we had to organize an event like this, it would just take so much of my time, of our development director’s time. And so to have a group out there advocating and raising funds to support the programs that we provide to young people in this community makes a world of difference.”
The satisfaction involved in getting the job done is a two-way street. “I have to tell you what is even better than the event itself - it's the day we get to attend the annual Boys & Girls Club of Dane County's April luncheon and present our donation check,” said Voss. “Think you got enough smiles from the race day? Come and see these kids and BGCDC Board Members when they see their educational and program goals can be accomplished that year. That's what this is really about.”