Organizing a Trail Run for Freedom

Ever find yourself doing something you don't really feel qualified to do? I feel like that's the best way of explaining how I got to organize the only half marathon trail run in our area.

Last fall, a colleague challenged me to do something epic for a charity his friends helped start, an organization called Lives Transformed, which provides services to women trafficked into sexual slavery (visit bearclawrun.com to learn more).

Anyways, I ended up buying a road bike and training for two and a half months to cycle 100 miles in a day. Amazingly, friends and family, local businesses, and even a few churches got behind the cause and helped me raise $4,700!

 As part of the first Fit For Hope campaign ever, Jake raised $4,700 to help open an emergency women's shelter.

As part of the first Fit For Hope campaign ever, Jake raised $4,700 to help open an emergency women's shelter.

Altogether, our trio of amateur athletes (me, that crazy colleague I mentioned, and my little brother) raised $16,000—which was then matched for a whopping $32,000!

We were so inspired by the response we received, we decided to form a nonprofit to help others do the same—raise money for amazing causes while training for their next event. So, Fit For Hope was born, and the question quickly became: what now?

Enter that crazy colleague's equally (and awesomely) insane wife who wanted to train for a half marathon... in Florida... in June!

Not surprisingly, no one was crazy enough to attempt to organize a run in the dead of Florida summer. You see where this going...

I'll be honest—originally, we had no intention of putting on a legit run. We thought we'd talk to a few local running clubs, set a date, and gather for a really long, really hot group run.

Instead, as result of a multi-county game of telephone, an informal group run became a half marathon race! So, we "ran" with it (c'mon, you knew a bad pun was coming) and quickly built a website, pieced together a registration process, sourced a timing software (kudos to RUN SUP), AND went full-boar on fundraising.

Every day the race got closer, I got more and more nervous. Was the route long enough? Would we have enough water? What if someone got hurt? Had we communicated the cause clearly enough? OMG! DO WE HAVE ENOUGH VOLUNTEERS?!

Yeah... it went on and on like that. Apologies again to my lovely wife for the relentless tossing and turning at night.

But, ready or not, the day came and despite getting less than 2 hours of fitful sleep, I. WAS. JAZZED! After countless hours of preparation, dozens of miles run on the course, hundreds of conversations (and even hundreds-more emails sent), runners would be arriving ready for a fun day in the woods.

 Volunteers helping register runners the morning of the run. All in all, 42 runners from across the panhandle braved the woods to take their shot at outrunning the bear for freedom!

Volunteers helping register runners the morning of the run. All in all, 42 runners from across the panhandle braved the woods to take their shot at outrunning the bear for freedom!

Admittedly, the early moments of registration were a little messy (Note to self: have separate stations for EVERYTHING); but, we eventually found our stride and got everyone checked-in and ready to run.

Then, the moment came for that crazy colleague of mine to make yet another of his moving speeches. He eloquently reminded all of us why we were here: because women everywhere are being taken advantage of, and because they desperately need a helping hand—one that we, as athletes, can provide.

 Michael, an IRONMAN and one of our co-founders, sharing stories of the work the Bear Claw Classic helped to support.

Michael, an IRONMAN and one of our co-founders, sharing stories of the work the Bear Claw Classic helped to support.

After he wrapped up, I asked a local pastor to bless the morning before I asked our halfers—just like a flight attendant—the question I needed an audible answer to: "Are you ready to #outrunthebear?!"

"With a resounding "Yes!", we sent them off before posing the same question to those who remained: "Are you ready to out run the bear?!" With a resounding yes, we sent off our 10k-ers. And that was that.

 With 42 registered runners, our team sent off the half-marathoners first before unleashing the 10k-ers just a few minutes after.

With 42 registered runners, our team sent off the half-marathoners first before unleashing the 10k-ers just a few minutes after.

Runners were off, the clock was ticking, and our team of volunteers was quickly disbanding to assume their various posts along the course. And just like that, it was quiet and I was forced to reflect on every single day that had lead up to this moment over the past 3 months.

I was left asking myself the question: "Why?"

Why did 42 runners wake-up early on a Saturday morning to run this event? Why did people voluntarily donate $2,500 to a cause that they may not even know much about? Why did friends show support and volunteer their time to make this possible? Why did runners buy hats to promote getting fit for hope?

All I could see in the moment was that the the reason "why" was community. Regardless of the route, or the start time, or the weather, or even the cause, people long to belong to a community that shares their passions!

 Runners connecting before the start.

Runners connecting before the start.

Since the beginning, we have dreamed of Fit For Hope creating a vibrant community of active and aspiring athletes committed to leveraging their fitness to serve others. And through this hot, humid run in the middle of the Florida summer, we were on our way to doing just that: creating a community of fitness fanatics who made a lasting impact by outrunning the bear.

Sadly, a course marking gaff shook me out of my poet-philosopher musings as I was forced to reconcile the our team mistakenly chopping a mile and a half off of the intended route.

To some extent, the nightmare that had consumed so many restless nights came to fruition: our half marathoners would be coming in under-mileage.

I remember pacing the finish line on the phone with two volunteers at different points along the course trying to figure out what happened and how we could redirect runners still on-course to get them to 13.1.

But we were too late, our first half marathoner came blazing across the line after just 9.6 miles. And then another, and then another...

 Runners crossing the finish line sooner than expected, but in high spirits!

Runners crossing the finish line sooner than expected, but in high spirits!

To my surprise, when I communicated their times and distances and asked if they wanted to go for another 3.5-mile loop, they all panted some variation of the same sentiment: "Nah... 15k is plenty for me. Great run! Thanks for organizing it."

I was baffled. We'd mis-marked the course and they didn't care? I thought they'd be furious, or at the very least annoyed. Instead, they were gracious and thankful?

I can't say enough about how our finishers truly embodied the spirit of generosity and how thankful I am for that!

 Nothing like seeing finishers' faces lit up with smiles after a beautiful run.

Nothing like seeing finishers' faces lit up with smiles after a beautiful run.

Worry put to rest, I continued to communicate the SNAFU to runners as they crossed the line. And while we had a few take us up on the reroute to get their full 13.1, most were happy to snag a spot in the shade, kick-up their feet, and dig into a delicious Black Bear Bread Co. bear claw.

Before I knew it, the morning came to a close as quickly as it had begun. Our fastest finishers were collecting their The Honey Hutch trophy jars of golden goodness as others snapped photos in front of our totally awesome sign. Eventually, our closers galloped across the line and the team began the process of breaking down.

 Our fastest 10K female finisher raising her golden trophy in style.

Our fastest 10K female finisher raising her golden trophy in style.

Sooner than I had expected the gravel parking lot was empty save my little Mazda—packed to the gills with tables, coolers, and left-over pastries.

I climbed into the driver's seat exhausted and elated: we did it, a small band of volunteers with a dream to integrate ‘getting fit’ with ‘living generously’ had organized a trail half marathon!

Even then and there, I was ready to start dreaming about the next event—what would go right, and wrong, as we grow our community of friends committed to getting fit for hope.

 Those who survived to tell their tale of how they #outranthebear for freedom.

Those who survived to tell their tale of how they #outranthebear for freedom.

To learn more about the Bear Claw Classic, it's impact, or the people who made it such a success, visit bearclawrun.com.


Special thanks to Brenna Kneiss Photo Co. for these incredible photos.