Michael Clemons, a.k.a. The Mayor of Louisville Running, has valuable advice for anyone who wants to get involved on the operations side of the running industry. He speaks from experience; he owns and operates his own race management company, the Louisville Running Company, and has worked operations for many US road races, including the 2022 World Athletics Championships, the New York City, Houston and Chicago Marathons, and the US Marathon Olympic Team Trials. He’s currently the Finish Line Manager for the Chicago Marathon, and has just been elected to the Board of Directors of Running USA.
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Michael was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, and still calls it home. He kept thinking he would go somewhere else, but, he says, “for anybody that lives in that, not small but smallish town vibe, it just keeps sucking you back in, and that’s what happened. I’ve gotten to know so many people so well. The running community itself is just so friendly and so welcoming, and here in Louisville is no different. And so it’s great to be on a long run on the weekend, to know I’m gonna see so many of my friends out. Even if we don’t plan it, we’re just gonna run by each other, join each other for our group runs. It’s so nice to enjoy some time with people and get to know everybody.”
When he was growing up, Michael’s mother was a cross country and track coach and his father was a runner, but he had no interest in running. “I was one of the rebellious kids that was like, ‘Well, my parents are doing it. I’m not gonna do it.’” That changed in high school, when a family friend told him that he didn’t think that he could run a half marathon.
“We were talking about their fastest race time and I was like, ‘Oh, that’d be cool to do that.’ And they’re like, ‘You probably can’t, though.’ And that’s all I needed. All the motivation I need is somebody to tell me I can’t do something. And I was like, ‘I’m gonna prove you wrong.’ So I ran a 5K and then I ran a half marathon. I just went straight to the half marathon distance after one 5K. And from there it was like, ‘You know what? This is actually better than I thought it was gonna be.’”
Michael joined the cross country team in college, and never looked back. He got a Fulbright grant and spent a year in Madrid after earning his undergraduate degree, teaching English, and ran his first two marathons in Spain – a mere six weeks apart. He decided to run the Barcelona marathon, and his father, who had never traveled outside of the US before, came to run it with him. “It was really good,” he recalls.” I got to show him Madrid; we traveled together to Barcelona on one of the high speed trains; ran the race; got to explore Barcelona. And then six weeks later, I was like, ‘You know what, I’m living in Madrid and there’s a marathon here. I might as well run that one too.’ And that was not a good decision, but it was still fun.”
After grad school, he was hired as JAM Active’s first full-time event manager and traveled all around the country, putting on the Tap ‘N Run, a 4K race with runners in costume and beer stops along the way. He was involved in every aspect of event management: permitting, loading and unloading trucks, answering participants’ emails, supporting the registration system, working with sponsors, organizing volunteers, arranging travel…
A lot of race management, he says, is learning as you go. “My thought process is the race is gonna happen no matter how prepared or unprepared we are or what happens at our finish line. So we just have to do whatever it takes to make it work. Whenever an issue comes up, we can’t just throw our hands up and be like, ‘Well, guess the race isn’t happening.’ You figure out a way to make it work.
“We on our side of the industry are just as passionate about making it a good experience for you as you are about having a good experience. We’re working year-round and all it takes is one little thing to go wrong to really throw off race day. So we’re really having to think of every possible problem that could arise, and then still we’re gonna have problems that we didn’t think about that we have to figure out how to solve in such a small period of time.”
For anyone who’s interested in working in race management, Michael suggests starting out as a volunteer, which is what got him his first job. He ran JAM Active’s half marathon in Louisville, and afterwards emailed the race director. “I said, ‘Here are some of the recommendations of what I liked about the race, what I didn’t like about the race. Could I help you out at your next one?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, come on and help us out.’
“And so I went and volunteered at their next race and was one of the first volunteers there, was one of the last volunteers to leave; tried to be proactive in my volunteer role where I was doing anything I could to really support the race. And then when it came time for him to make his hire, he remembered that, ‘Oh, there’s this kid that’s in his graduate program at U of L in Sport Administration. And maybe he’d be a good fit for this role.’ So he brought me in without even really knowing much about me, just because I had volunteered and I had interacted with him and supported his race as much as I could.
“I did a similar thing with Chicago Event Management. At my very first Running USA conference, I went up to Mike Nishi, who’s the COO and one of the founders of Chicago Event Management, and said, ‘I wanna be where you are one day. What do I need to do to get there?’ And Mike could have said, ‘Oh, that’s great. Thanks, talk to you later.’ But he really took the initiative to follow up with me and said, ‘Hey, come up to observe a Shamrock Shuffle,’ and that was my first experience there.
“And while I was observing, I did some stuff just supporting the race of, I knew that barricades needed to be moved or I knew that their team was gonna need some of these additional pieces of support and did it while I was up there. And they kind of took a chance on me and brought me back to work in their command center to work different things. So I would say, definitely volunteer for the races, put yourself out there, and know that it’s not gonna be a lot of money in the beginning, but you’re gonna get a lot of good experience from the beginning.”
While Michael has been managing races, he’s also been running them himself. This fall, when he runs Berlin, it will be his 20th marathon. For a long time, his goal was to break 3 hours in the marathon, and he credits achieving that, after eight years of trying, to two things: working with a coach and coming out as a gay man.
“That was something that was super liberating and I know it may sound corny, but it really was like a weight was lifted off of my shoulders. I had held myself back in my personal life so much that I think a lot of other areas of my life really struggled. And when I came out in 2018, it was like the weight lifted and somehow I feel like I was able to run faster and I was able to just not have this additional burden always on me. It really coincided right with that time when I started running faster, I started running freer, and just feeling so much more of myself and that was a huge part of it, as well.
“I was 30 when that happened and so very much later in life and that’s always something I tell people. Yes, I could look back on it and say I, not wasted, but I wasn’t living my full self for a lot of my life. But I try not to look at it that way and I try to look at it as now I am living my full self. So what can I do to really be that and live that authentically and not beat myself up that I didn’t do it sooner or that I missed out on opportunities, but now that I have the opportunities to really take advantage of them.”
Michael is passionate about making the running industry an inclusive and safe space for everybody. “I know the power that running has had in my life and in my journey of who I’ve been as a person to be able to be a runner and to experience the joy of running,” he says. “And it just is a shame to me if some people don’t feel safe or don’t feel comfortable getting to experience that.”
This year he put on the second Louisville Pride 5K. “It was so great to be out there and to have a drag queen at the finish line greeting everybody as they came through these rainbow arches and to see families and to see non-binary runners and trans runners and walkers and people of all ages out there. It just warms my heart because that’s what our sport is about, being able to accomplish a personal goal and to do it alongside somebody who has a completely different journey than you do. But you’re both there in this moment, being able to cross that same finish line.”
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