A letter to the FOM Fans
It’s 2:00am on Thursday, May 12th, three weeks before the Festival of Miles. I am writing this now, in the middle of the night, because I can’t sleep anyway so I figure this is as good a time as any. And I can’t sleep because I woke up in a panic, courtesy of a nightmare. It’s the same nightmare I’ve had every year around this time for the last several years. The same nightmare I’ll probably have a few more times over these next three weeks. I dream that it’s FOM night but no one showed up. We somehow messed up the marketing and no one knew about the event. Or sometimes it takes a different form and the people are in the stands but I forgot to put the fields together and there are no athletes to compete. This all sounds completely messed up, I know. As confident as I am in a lucid state, my sub-conscious is a complete wreck.
But of course, thankfully, none of these nightmares will come true three weeks from now. In fact, my awake self can tell you with all the confidence in the world, that FOM will once again be spectacular. Everyone who comes out will be absolutely amazed, the athletes will make themselves a host of memories that will last a lifetime and our sport will be displayed in a super cool way, the way it should be. Then afterwards I’ll be exhausted. Our whole team who puts this thing on will be exhausted. But it will have all been worth it.
And speaking of it all being worth it, I have wanted to write this post for a while now. I’ve been searching for a way to say what I’m about to say and at the same time honor FOM for what I think it’s been and what I hope it will continue to be. So here goes: After nine years of this one day being my absolute favorite day of the year I have reached the decision, for a variety of reasons, that the 2016 Festival of Miles will be my last year helping to organize the event. But of course, I want to go out with a bang! The fields for this year’s pro races are as deep as we’ve ever had. High school entries are once again rolling in from all over the country and I can feel the excitement starting to build in Saint Louis, even from afar.
I could go into more detail about how awesome June 2nd is going to be but you’ll see, hear and read all about that on social media over these next three weeks. We are marketing machines after all! What I’d rather do here though, for those who are interested, is just tell you some stories and share some of the pictures and videos that made me pretty darn emotional earlier this week when I pored through the history of the event.
That’s Brigette Shutzman. She’s the reason there is a Festival of Miles. I remember standing around in the kitchen at the tiny house in Shrewsbury that Jen and I rented with Tim Bradley and Jon Bell, Brigette’s coaches at Saint Louis University, and trying to come up with a way to raise money for her. Brigette had been in a horrible car accident on New Year’s Eve 2007/2008 and things didn’t look good. Tragedy is never easy to handle but for some reason it always seems even a little tougher when the person is young, in-shape, vibrant. When they have such a bright future. Because Brigette was a middle-distance runner we thought a track meet would be a more fitting way to celebrate her than a typical 5k road race.
We held the first Festival of Miles in late April of 2008, just four months after the accident. We weren’t sure about how many people would turn out so we held it after a JV track meet at Saint Louis University High School on a Monday night. We wanted a built-in crowd just in case. But we hyped it up as much as we possibly could. The schedule was pretty light- a couple of youth races, a masters men’s race, a local women’s race and finally an elite men’s mile where we were hoping for that magical sub 4. Well, to our surprise the bleachers started filling up and by the time the men’s mile came around we had more than 1,000 people in the stands. Unfortunately, as it turns out, late April in Saint Louis is not a great time for a high level track meet. The guys did the best job they could and it was a super fun race but Neville Miller (a local guy from Vianney HS and Mizzou) could only muster a 4:08 for the win. But everyone there had a blast, we raised $8,000 for Brigette and more importantly we gave her a really fun experience. She even took a few steps in front of the crowd and thanked everyone for coming, this from a girl who had been given only a slim chance of making it through the night four months earlier.
And that would have been the one and only Festival of Miles if it weren’t for another accident that summer. Mike Rathmann, an all-state high jumper at Saint Louis U High, was paralyzed from the chest down just a few weeks after his high school graduation. Jim Linhares, Joe Porter and Tom Flanagan, Mike’s coaches at SLUH, had been a huge part of the planning committee for the meet back in April and I don’t think it took us all very long at all to realize we wanted to put on another edition of the Festival of Miles, but this time we’d do it for Mike.
With almost a full year to plan the event, things really exploded in 2009. Of course, Big River Running Company was also exploding. We had opened our second store and our database was growing by leaps and bounds. That helped immensely with the promotion of the event. We were able to talk some sponsors into coming on board, which gave us a bigger budget so we could put together a better prize purse and a better travel budget for the pro race. I have appreciated all the different sponsors we’ve worked with over the years but I am especially grateful to the Saint Louis Track Club, GO! St. Louis, Saint Louis Injury and Rehab, Drury Hotels and TRXC Timing. They are our longest-running partners and we couldn’t have done all of this without them.
But as much as their money and our promotion helped to set us up for success that year we really have one person to thank more than anyone. And not only for what he did for us in 2009 but really for how big the event has become since. It was about a week before the race and the fields were set. The budget was spent. We were bringing in a handful of really solid milers from around the Midwest and felt pretty good about our chances of seeing a sub 4. Then I get an email from Ryan Ponsonby, one of the coaches of 2008 Olympian Leo Manzano. Leo was coming off a sub-par race and was looking for some redemption. They wanted to know if we could get Leo into our race. Let’s see…can we add an Olympian to our little track meet in Saint Louis at a local high school? Yeah…I think we can make that happen! It’s funny in retrospect but I remember talking to Matt Helbig, my friend and Big River Running Company business partner, about the $700 dollars it was going to cost to bring him in. Turned out to be the best $700 we ever spent.
As you can see Leo did not disappoint. He unleashed his patented crazy fast last 100 meters in front of a crowd that was going absolutely ballistic. The result was a 3:55 mile, the fastest ever run in the State of Missouri. Derek Scott and Tommy Schmitz also broke four that night. After that, there was no turning back. FOM was here to stay.
Since 2009, we have continued on and always with one goal in mind—to make the event even bigger and better the following year. And thus far we’ve nailed it every time. The youth races have grown in numbers with every single edition of the meet. The crowd has gotten bigger and bigger. People are now arriving an hour early just so they can get a spot in the parking lot and a good seat. We had 2,500 fans last year and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we got to 3,000 on June 2nd. I’m biased but I believe we’ve paved the way for a lot of the similar grassroots events you see going on around the country. Our event is short: two-and-a-half hours start to finish. We jam the music during the races. We have super cool athlete intros before our pro races. We have an excited meet announcer (sometimes me!). We do interviews in front of the crowd with our winners. And the races themselves are crazy fast. I’ll just give you a few quick stats before I get to some of my favorite pictures and moments from these last nine years.
4:32.66- FOM junior high invitational boys mile record
5:07.26- FOM junior high invitational girls mile record
4:05.98- Big River Running Company Boys Mile Record (HS Only Race)
4:46.67- Big River Running Company HS Girls Mile Record
2:00.99-FOM Women’s 800 Meter Record
3:54.27- Saint Louis Track Club Men’s Mile Record
2:04.23- Hannah Long’s 2015 800 meter time (#2 US HS time that year)
3:59.38- Grant Fisher’s time to become the 7th US HS athlete under 4 minutes
$50,000+- Money raised for local athletes in need from FOM since 2008
All told, the four-minute-mile has been broken nineteen times at FOM between 2009 and 2015. Not too shabby for a high school track! But more important than any fast time or any one moment, what struck me the most as I took my little trip down nostalgia lane earlier this week was just how many people have been a part of this event. And I mean in every way. As l looked through the pics I saw so many of our best Big River customers and supporters cheering in the stands. I saw so many kids in the youth race pics from the early years that later went on to run in the high school all-star races. I saw distance running superstars like Emily Sisson and Colleen Quigley, two women who could very well be Olympians this summer, running at FOM as high school athletes. I saw professional athletes (and of course one high schooler) who broke four minutes for the first time at our meet. As an athlete you don’t forget that…ever.
And for me personally I just saw all of my friends. Essentially, my wife and I and our best friends put on this event and so many other great friends are in the stands or volunteering or even running around the track. I don’t know what else to say except that I love this event. I love the people who have given so much to it over the years. I love that we’ve shown that track can be a spectator sport. I love that my brother’s drinking buddies who’ve never run a step in their life come to FOM every single year because they have such a good time. I love that we’ve been able to help local families in need in a really tangible way. And I guess I just love the fact that after all these years it’s still so special to me that it wakes me up in the middle of the night three weeks beforehand in a cold sweat. If I can continue to find things that I’m this passionate about as I move forward I think I’ll live a pretty darn good life.
So thanks for reading. I hope to see many of you on June 2nd and I hope you enjoy the pictures (and captions) below:
Thanks to Katie Sutton and Ty Kanoya for all the pics I used in this post. I wanted to include so many more! If you want to take an even deeper trip down memory lane check out all of Ty’s pics from 2009-2015 here:
Thanks so much everyone. You guys are the best and I’m excited to see so many of you on June 2nd!!