That’s how many times MVS has been the host club for the Thanksgiving Day race that has become a tradition for folks in the Merrimack Valley and beyond. We’ve often kidded that if we ever decided to not have the race, thousands of folks would show up on Thanksgiving morning anyways. But putting on this race has never been “a piece of cake” - or maybe pie in this case.
Like so many other major running events, we’ve had to deal with weather challenges – from blizzards to arctic temperatures. But, no doubt, the greatest challenge has been the Covid pandemic. Some worried that our race wouldn’t survive this battle, and then primary financial support of MVS would disappear. Our Organizing Committee members felt the pressure to succeed.
Preparation for the 2020 race presented the most difficult challenge we ever faced. In July of 2020, there was very little clarity about where this pandemic was headed and what the impact would be. The Organizing Committee ultimately concluded a “live” race would be impossible.
As one of the first major races to decide to go virtual, we had to make fundamental decisions based upon no previous data. How do you estimate how many will sign up for a “pretend” race? How many shirts and medals do we order? How do you get them mailed to the participants? Will we retain our sponsors?
We made our best guesses and were fortunate that our Presenting Sponsor, Schneider Electric, and Gold sponsor, Whirlaway Sports, stuck with us. Ultimately, we didn’t get our typical 8,000-9,000 entrants, had to recycle 4,000 huge medals, barely paid our bills, but 1,900 folks from the Merrimack Valley and beyond (even Alaska!) helped keep the race alive for another year.
So, it was with great enthusiasm that we looked forward to a “normal” year in 2021. We welcomed Dave McGillivray and his DMSE team back into the captain’s chair. Governor Baker announced there would be no restrictions on road races, and the Town of Andover gave us the “full steam ahead”. Our traditional Organizing Committee along with the crew from DMSE went back to work.
COVID raged on, bringing new concerns of what would be feasible in November.
With uncertainty facing every industry, sponsorship became a huge challenge. The biggest hit was losing our presenting sponsor. This year, we thought we were having a live race, but suddenly we weren’t so sure. Would it be live, virtual, or hybrid? We hoped our decision to stay live was the best option. But by August major decisions had to be made.
The toughest decision was the number of race shirts to order. We had to place the order by the middle of August, and, at that point, we only had 420 entries. We should have been close to 1,000 by a normal year’s standard. Our shirt vendor asked us how many we’d like to order. “6,000, 8,000, 9,000?”
How about 420? So, we made a calculated gamble and ordered 2,000 and the vendor promised to have an additional 1,000 in reserve…just in case.
Then we had to reach for the scalpel.
Under the skillful guidance of McGillivray, we began to look for those areas where we could eliminate or reduce expenses without harming the integrity of the event. We hoped that the Town of Andover would be lenient with our public safety requirements, we didn’t invite our “legends” (Bill Rogers and Joanie Benoit), eliminated our medical safety contract to rely solely on Andover Fire and OffSeason Sports, eliminated the Expo, and squeezed every vendor. Then we crossed our fingers and watched the daily registration numbers.
We didn’t know what was coming in the fall. The stress was extreme, but, thankfully, we had an extraordinary team working on marketing. Stephanie Guyotte was our primary wordsmith for news releases, Colin Kennedy was our newsletter editor, Robin Condon was masterful with community outreach, and every member of the team was diligent with social media posts.
Meanwhile, Crissy Lippman assured us that you, our MVS race volunteers, were pouring in like you all do every year. Registration numbers began to increase enough so that we rolled the dice and committed to the extra 1,000 race shirts.
Covid concerns deepened, and we made the decision to offer a quasi-virtual option as well as in-person hoping that would quell the concerns of local participants. Meanwhile, the Boston Marathon was about to happen with 20,000 runners expected. We hoped that if Boston came off without a hitch, that would be just the confidence boost we needed. To pay our bills we needed at least 3,000 entries.
On October 11th, the 125th Boston Marathon was held without major incident. Would this motivate our participants to come back? Our marketing team was unrelenting in press releases and newsletter blasts, and on October 31st, just about three weeks before Thanksgiving, we hit 3,106. Then the dam broke.
Each day we added 150 to 200 new registrations. By November 7th, we had more than 3,700 and on the 18th, we hit 5,022. Entries were now coming in at more than 250 per day which created a new worry. We promised 3,000 shirts, but we hated the thought that perhaps half the entrants wouldn’t get one of the prized shirts. Another tough decision had to be made.
We contacted our vendor who managed to cobble together enough stock for another 1,000 to be delivered, but since it was a rush print job the cost per shirt almost doubled. Fingers crossed; we placed the order hoping they would arrive in time. On Monday, the 22nd, the first day of our number and shirt pick-up, 10 boxes of shirts arrived at my house!
The final seven days were dizzying. Heading into scaled-down expo, registrations flooded our team. Kelly Yannalfo, Alan St Germain, and Will Meredith were heroic in managing the surge. Billy Bennett, our Expo/Pick-up captain kept tabs on Covid safety protocol measures. Then came the next surprise. We were going to sell out!
Part of our cost saving measures was to trim our race bib order to 6,000. At 6,660 entrants (including kids) we closed sales. We invited latecomers to run, but we had nothing to sell them!
We probably had 7,000 participants in total – an amazing comeback. A field with a 20% reduction from a “normal year” was far better than the industry average of a 40% reduction.
Race day was blessed with perfect weather, and the event went off as smoothly as we dared to hope. Standing on the speaker’s platform, the view of the starting field looked like the good old days. It seemed everyone was thankful to have Feaster Five back.
While we all left Andover on Thanksgiving morning with smiles, the work still was incomplete. One of the most thankless and difficult jobs on the Organizing Committee is customer service. Somebody must answer all those inquiries, complaints, and comments that get emailed to us. While that job is shared by several, one team member fled the country (OK that was me heading to Ecuador on the Saturday after the race) leaving the task to Kelly who single handedly spent the next weeks working tirelessly to make those with complaints (justified or not) happy. We truly owe her our thanks!
So, how did we do? First and foremost, we brought back our signature event and protected the brand. Feaster Five is a highly regarded event in the running world, and it remains that way. This race is the primary source of funding for all our club’s functions, from subsidizing our coached workouts, to funding the great gear we give away for the Iron Series, to the Scholarships we award, and to the community programs we support.
How did we succeed? That’s an easy one to answer. We have the best race director in the business, Dave McGillivray, as our race director. We have a dedicated team of volunteers on our Organizing Committee who, through years of experience, really know how to handle the complexities of staging a race of this magnitude. And, of course, we have a running club filled with so many who are willing to volunteer time to make this event seem easy to manage (including members’ kids – the future of MVS). We know it isn’t easy!
From the financial perspective, the 2021 Feaster Five was significantly successful. Despite meager sponsorship and less than a full return of participants, our revenue was enough to assure generous support for our charitable partners, ongoing support for our Scholarship program, continued support for our community outreach programs, and a significant boost to our reserves.
So, our “Phoenix” has indeed risen and is alive and well. 2021 was a challenge, and we’ve had a chance to get a few weeks rest. Rest assured though, plans for 2022 are underway for our 35th Annual Feaster Five. Put on your seatbelts…it’s going to be wild!