Steve Prefontaine was one of America’s greatest runners and quoted with asking, “what kind of crazy nut would spend two or three hours a day just running?” Many people have shared this thought at one time or another. We see people running in pouring rain, frigid temperatures, high heat and humidity, before dawn and after work. And we think, ‘why’?! Well, this Sunday, April 28th, the Pacers annual GW Parkway Classic , a local favorite 5K and 10 Miler race to many DC area runners, will be happening, with almost 8,000 “crazy nuts” getting ready to run the race of the season. For our second year, we are teaming up to provide a taco to each race finisher as they cross that finish line at Oronoco Bay Park. Before the big day we decided to sit down with Senior Race Director, Lisa Reeves, and Partnership Development, Heather Jeff, as well as Pacers owner, Chris Farley, to dig a little deeper into this history of Pacers, the stories that got each of them involved with Pacers, and how they managed to grow the well-known GW Parkway Classic into the enormous event that it is today.
Before we get into the Pacers background, we need to learn who these awesome staff members are and where they came from. For Lisa, it took a bit of perseverance trying again and again to make a connection with the Pacers events folks to put on a 5K of her own, as a fundraiser for her then job with the Amazon Conservation Team. For this race, Pacers events guru, Kathy Dalby, not only helped Lisa get started, but Pacers was timing the event. After over-selling the race by 700 runners, and raising more than $20,000 in sponsorship money, Lisa proved her success and legitimacy in the fundraising capacity. Fast forwarding 2 years, Lisa was getting ready to move onto her next position, called up Kathy, and said “I am about to quit this job, so you have two choices. Either you can hire me or someone else is going to hire me.” An hour later, Lisa was hired and has been with the team ever since.
Heather started off with Pacers through a fun run that wasn’t the most successful, due to the time and day of the week, but loved getting involved with Pacers. She was persistent (common theme?) in starting a blog for Pacers to document the awesome things happening in the community. Heather recounts, “it was a little intimidating because I didn't have a job, I wasn’t a runner, wasn’t a collegiate runner, I wasn’t crushing races or anything, I just liked to run.” Getting more and more involved without pay, might we add, Heather eventually worked her way through some free race entries, and after some time, was brought on as a full-time team member. Heather was at every race, working the event side, and winging it as she went. Without reason, they kept providing Heather with bigger and bigger chances. “It was incredible. None of it should have happened. I just kept showing up and they just kept believing in me and giving me opportunities.”
Chris, on the other hand, was a long time runner, running at the collegiate level and continuing into adulthood with a now impressive marathon roster under his belt. Working first as a new grad for the Department of Justice, Chris started as a part time employee for Pacers before quitting his 9-5 to manage the Pacers first store. A few years later in the spring of 2003, Chris bought the store from then owner Steve Fryxell, and has now grown it to be one of the most well-known running retail locations and race event companies in the DMV. But the event side of Pacers (aka, Lisa and Heather’s roles) weren’t always part of the picture.
In fact, the first event put on by Pacers was intended to be a one time occurence. Back in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit, one of the most famous customers for Pacers at the time was James Carville, a political advisor who lived in Alexandria. Born in Louisiana, Carville was passionate about providing relief from Katrina and helping the devastated area. Farley and his team at Pacers also wanted to find a way to get involved and make a difference. Using the connection he had from the store, Chris called over to James’ office and said “‘James, this is the Pacers guy. I want to put on a race for Katrina.’ He paused, and I thought ‘what a terrible idea,’ thinking his pause is a big fat no. He said, ‘that’s a great idea. I will call the mayor. We’ll put it on in 2 weeks’ and hung up the phone.” With no clue what to do next, how to get permits, and what it meant to organize and carry out a 5k, Chris and friend Kathy Dalby worked with connections, called in favors, and got help from everyone they could to make it all a reality. Whatever they did worked - and it worked big time. The race ended up raising $125,000 for hurricane relief that was donated to the Red Cross. “People were just showing up and handing us money. We ran out of bibs, we ran out of water, but they just wanted to help. That’s the running community. They just want to help and be apart of something bigger than they are. I still get chills thinking about it.” There was an overwhelming response to the event that they managed to pull together in only 2 weeks. The event drew roughly 4,000 people and presented a big opportunity for the Pacers team. “After raising $125,000 for relief efforts and pulling it off with duct tape and chicken wire, Kathy and I just kind of looked at each other after that exhausting race and said wow we have something here.” Interesting to note, at the time, the event only took cash. “People were giving us $20, $40, $60, $100. We had to walk back to the store with Harris Teeter bags full of $125,000 in cash. I remember my dad locking himself in the office counting these piles and piles of money.
From there, Pacers events was born! The team took learnings from that race and used the knowledge as a foundation in starting other events. A common goal for Pacers was to center themselves around events and holidays that focus on bringing people together. With some of the first races being around Valentine's Day, St. Paddy’s Day, Christmas, and Thanksgiving, they now have some races that are over 10 years old. All the team members recount how timing played a huge factor into their success with their events and their business. “We were really fortunate that things were timed correctly, because if we tried to do what we’re doing now 10 years later it never would have worked. There are too many races- it was an undersaturated market at the time.” Capitalizing on good timing and investing in good team members, Pacers now runs a tighter, buttoned up ship with the help of people like Lisa implementing procedures and processes, helping with overall growth and expansion. One example of their expansion was when Pacers bought the Capital Running Club six or seven years ago, bringing the company to the next level.
In addition to the Capital Running Club, a big acquisition for Pacers was the GW Parkway Classic. Previously owned by Nancy LaValle, the well known race originally began as just a 5k fundraiser for the United Way of Alexandria. She started the race with the Mayor of Alexandria at the time, Jim Moran. Jim was able to get a permit for the GW Parkway which was an impossible permit to get, as races weren’t originally allowed there. It was a nice 1,500 person race with a lot of potential. By 2007, Kathy Dalby, who was working as a prodigy assistant race director of sorts, was able to buy the race from Nancy. Since then, Pacers has taken the 1,500 person race, and turned it into the 8,000 person race that it will be Sunday, now benefiting the Boys & Girls Club of Alexandria.
So it’s Sunday morning, April 28th. You’ve signed up for the 10Miler and have been training for months now. What do you expect?
Well, according to the Pacers team, it is a one of a kind experience. Running up the GW Parkway is iconic in itself. But starting at Mount Vernon and ending at Oronoco Bay Park?The setup alone is truly one-of-a-kind. To start your morning, you hop on a bus with other eager runners from a location of your choosing, and head towards Mount Vernon in the dark, the wee hours of the morning. After a long ride of about 20 minutes, you appear at residence of George Washington and all over his front lawn is a huge festival-like party. People are everywhere, there’s a stage, music, and a million porta potties. It’s like a whole village. Nerves start to build, recess, and build again. Then before you know it, you’re running and running and running. Surrounded by other runners, you pass water stations along the way with people cheering for you and supporting you. There’s only one hill the whole race, and just when it feels like you’re never going to make the ending, you’re there! And not only are you there, but you’re greeted with your medal, beer, and most importantly, TACOS! Don’t believe us? Our Co-founder Marc Wallace is a veteran to the GW Parkway Classic and knows a thing or two when it comes to this race. “Having run this race several times (and completely barefoot twice!), it is one of my favorite events and courses. It has a great local community vibe, and I look forward to running the Parkway Classic every year."
We know it may not feel as easy as it sounds, so we asked for some tips to get through your first GW Parkway Classic race. From Chris, he advises running with a friend if you can! Not only do you serve as accountability partners for each other, but it helps to make it less intimidating. In a sea of runners, there is a lot happening and most people don’t know what is going on, so to not be alone through it all is really helpful. Another piece of commonly spoken advice? Ask questions. Everyone there wants to help. There is nothing worse than signing up for the 5K and accidentally getting on the 10 Miler bus and being taken all the way to Mount Vernon with no way home… well, except for running.
Can we get back to the tacos now? That’s where you can find us on Sunday! Nothing better than shuffling truck loads of breakfast tacos to the finish line for a delicious celebratory treat that is not only well earned, but the perfect recovery snack. From the protein-packed egg base, to the tasty carbs, the DT taco is sure to get you back on track! (Hint: the Alexandria restaurant has more where that came from right down the road from the race. Need Mexican Cateringfor a big group like this? We have that too!) But when it isn’t race day, what are the Pacers team members eating at DT? For Heather, she eagerly told us how this was the easiest question of the day! A big fan of the breakfast tacos, “Heather Way” is a breakfast taco on a flour tortilla with jalapeno and sour cream. Other favorites from Heather include the chips and queso, guac, and the Tomatillo salsa from the Salsa Bar. “I could eat it by the gallon.” Talk about getting your daily greens in! “Lisa Way” is a bit more simple, with a chicken taco on corn with pico de gallo and cabbage slaw, while Chris’s kids really steal the show with their ability to finish full cups of guacamole, with just a spoon. #impressive.
Pacers saw a lot of changes after their opening; transitioning from a single retail store to 6 locations along with altering the business to entail retail and events. Chris Farley, Owner, says that their strategy has always been to follow the organic growth and change of the climate. “We are best when we engage our local community- where we live, where we work, where we run- that’s where we are our best.” And they create a very noticeable impact indeed - making large financial donations to local charities, working with local schools and organizations for events and workshops, and even offering fun runs for local residents to encourage healthy lifestyle and complimentary coaching tips. “We want to invest in our communities so we choose local organizations, the Boys & Girls Club of Alexandria, Ainsley's Angels, Back on My Feet,and No Kid Hungry,to name a few.” Pacers is the running community that is #foreveryrun, meaning that they embrace and support runners of all levels - whether they are training for their 20th marathon, or attempting their first 5K. Farley offers encouragement to amateur runners, saying that, “There is always a part of you that thinks I'm not going to make it and it's too hard. Understand that you're not alone out there. The person winning the race has the same thoughts that you probably have, even when they're winning.” Pacers celebrates wins of all types - PRs, first races, unbroken traditions, top times; you’re a winner just for following through on your commitment to yourself.
We had the best time sitting down with our friends at Pacers and learning more of the story of how they got started and brought this incredible race to life! We couldn’t be more excited to partner up again to provide each and every runner with a delicious breakfast taco to reward them for their success this Sunday at the finish line. Haven’t gotten a chance to register yet? No a problem! Click the link to sign up today! And this is just the beginning for Pacers! Check out their website for all the latest on races, events, and activities in your area!