Outer Banks Sporting Events Shows Its Muscle
For Lisa Howell, November’s marathon week on the Outer Banks is as much a part of her seasonal calendar as Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Howell, a 59-year-old Raleigh resident, has competed or volunteered every year since the inaugural marathon in 2006. She has witnessed the race grow in popularity and status, and along with it, the organization responsible for administering it and other athletic gatherings – Outer Banks Sporting Events.
“I feel like I need to give back to the running community,” said Howell, who owns a house in Kill Devil Hills with her husband, Mike, and considers the Outer Banks her second home. “I need to volunteer at races (in Raleigh) because somebody volunteered that’s allowed me to race. It’s the same thing at the Outer Banks, because I watch the faces of the people coming through the races, and everyone needs a little boost.”
From its modest roots and in a relatively short time, the OBSE has pulled off a remarkable civic trifecta: promote a healthy lifestyle; generate millions of dollars for the local economy; donate money back to the community for those in need and for education.
“They’re a real source of pride here in the community,” said Patty McKenna, executive director of the Outer Banks Relief Foundation, one of two local charities that benefit from the OBSE’s efforts.
OBSE greatly expanded its calendar and impact since it formed in 2010. The 501c3, non-profit organization now administers its signature Outer Banks Marathon race weekend in November, the Flying Pirate Half-Marathon race weekend in April, and triathlons and cycling races on separate weekends in September. In addition, OBSE took over the Running of the Leprechauns 5K and 10K races in March, from local restaurateur and benefactor Mike Kelly. It aims to add a couple of other events and to improve the ones it already stages.
Net proceeds from the OBSE are split between the Outer Banks Relief Foundation and the Dare Education Foundation. The relief foundation provides funds to people who have experienced illness or tragedy, to help defray expenses, while the DEF provides grants to teachers for educational initiatives and enhanced training for students. From 2010 through early Aug. 2018, the OBSE was the single largest contributor to the relief foundation, donating more than $885,000 – 63 percent of the $1.4 million that the foundation had distributed to 640 people during that period. The OBSE provided a similar amount to the education foundation, more than $50,000 in 2017 and over $1 million total, according to OBSE figures.
“I have not seen another community as philanthropically aware as this one,” said Ray Robinson, the OBSE’s outgoing executive director and a man who has studied and worked with non-profit organizations for almost a decade.
Since 2010, the OBSE’s economic impact to the Outer Banks has totaled almost $60 million. Its four events drew 7,053 participants and an estimated 29,000 visitors in 2017, from data that the OBSE compiled from participant surveys. Competitors and visitors generated an estimated economic impact of $8.3 million last year. Though participation numbers have dipped in the past three years – 9,000 people in 2015, 8,200 in 2016 – the economic impacts have held steady, because athletes brought more visitors with them, an average of 2.7 people in 2015 to 3.2 people in 2017.
“The county’s main economic engine is tourism,” said Lee Nettles, executive director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, “and to leverage that by putting on events that attract visitors, particularly in the offseason, and at the same time help those two organizations and contribute to the community is pretty impressive.”
The OBSE sprang from several local runners and entrepreneurs with a couple of “harebrained ideas,” according to Millie Ward, one of the instigators. She, John Gilliam and Ervin Bateman raised money for the Leukemia Society by running races around the region and nationally in the early 2000s. They were volunteering at a local 5K race and saw that the money raised here would go elsewhere, when they knew of a local family who had a son with leukemia. They thought, “Why don’t we start our own non-profit organization, so that locally raised money can be donated locally?” That group eventually became the Outer Banks Relief Foundation. As runners brainstorming possible events, they thought, to stage their own marathon? Thus began a whirlwind of activity, marshaling volunteers, businesses, local government officials, and all of the logistics required, resulting in the first Outer Banks Marathon in 2006. Race organizers decided to donate proceeds to the newly formed relief foundation and the Dare Education Foundation, a recent startup devoted to teachers and teaching initiatives.
“The Outer Banks has its faults like every other place that has human beings breathing air,” said Ward, a former wedding planner who still works closely with the relief foundation, “but we have a very generous, giving, loving community that’s always willing to man up for a family in need, a restaurant that burns down … It’s an extraordinarily generous, loving community that we live in.”
In the lead up to that first marathon, Howell and her husband were at a local eatery when they overheard organizer and later OBSE director Lynda Wood and others discussing the race at a nearby table. Howell had begun running seriously a couple of years prior, and she and her husband had been coming to the Outer Banks since 1994. She introduced herself to Wood and said that she would take race flyers and brochures back to Raleigh with her and distribute them among local running stores and inform the running community. She has since competed in multiple marathons here, as well as the spring half-marathon and the triathlon, and volunteered at numerous events where she didn’t compete.
“I was excited when I heard that there was going to be a marathon…because the Outer Banks was my second home,” Howell said. “It was almost like having a marathon at home, a race at home. I had a place to stay, it was convenient, it was just wonderful to be there. And to have the opportunity to run in front of friends there was exciting.”
Local organizers staged the marathon as a completely volunteer effort for four years, before deciding to launch a separate group, the OBSE, to trademark and market the marathon and other potential athletic events. Now, the calendar is dotted with a handful of events that routinely draw competitors and visitors from all 50 states and, last year, 18 foreign countries.
“People train hard, so you want to put on a good event for them and make them feel comfortable and make it approachable,” said race director Jenny Ash.
Ash, 48, has been race director since 2015. A marathoner and triathlete herself, she and her family relocated to the Outer Banks in 2011 from Minnesota, where she was a program director and race coordinator for the local YMCA and managed a staff of 30. The OBSE staff is considerably smaller, consisting of her, the executive director, new strategic initiatives coordinator Shane Miles, who owned a running store in Manteo, and an office administrative assistant. Still, Ash and her colleagues work with a small army of volunteers and organizers. A sizeable portion of her time is spent meeting with government and law enforcement officials from the local towns, as well as National Park Service personnel, to establish and maintain relationships and keep everyone informed of what’s required for various events.
“I can be at the start line and the finish line, but a lot of times for everything in between I’m relying on all the volunteers who I put in place for that day,” Ash said. “There’s always going to be fires to put out, but that’s being resilient and keeping calm. Of course, safety’s always our first priority, but the encouragement and camaraderie and feeling that the community came together for our athletes means a lot.”
Moving forward, the OBSE’s aim is to improve upon the athletes’ experience and to stage races that are challenging and enjoyable, for veterans and newcomers. All of the weekend events feature races at multiple distances that test seasoned competitors and can provide an entrée for those new to training and competition. For example, the Outer Banks Marathon weekend also has a half-marathon, as well as 8K and 5K races. The triathlon weekend in mid-September has a half-Ironman length event, a shorter, Olympic-length test, and a sprint triathlon. The cycling weekend in late September has 8K, 20K and 40K distances.
The triathlon experience, on Roanoke Island, has been tweaked so that it now includes the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site and the Elizabethan Gardens, with the blessing of the National Park Service. The Elizabethan Gardens will host the post-race party and awards reception. The area just outside the Lost Colony theater will be open for parking and bike racks, and the last 1¼ miles of the running leg will be on park service land adjacent to the Elizabethan Gardens.
Ash hopes to add a trail run in 2019, preferably in the Buxton area on Hatteras Island, to expand the OBSE’s footprint and to provide a different venue for athletes. She’s also open to partnering a race with a non-athletic event, in perhaps a festival-style setting that would expose the OBSE and its mission to a broader audience.
“Just re-examining and keeping things fresh,” Ash said, “and always looking for ways to do things better.” ♦
Dave Fairbank is a freelance writer living in Kill Devil Hills. Dave was a sports writer for 30 ears at the Newport News, VA Daily Press prior to relocating to the Outer Banks.
For more information on OBSE races and events, visit obxse.org
Photography provided by Outer Banks Sporting Events
Dave Fairbank is a freelance writer living in Kill Devil Hills. Dave was a sports writer for 30 years at the Newport News (Va.) Daily Press prior to relocating the the Outer Banks.