If race director Jonathan Torchia’s philosophy could be summed up in one word, it would be: give.
Give runners the best experience possible, give volunteers the support they need to succeed and, most importantly, give back to the community twofold.
No event encompasses that philosophy more than his Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service Half Marathon, 10K and 5K. Not only does this event sell out every single year, but it gives back hundreds of thousands of dollars to local causes, most notably, the Heart & Stroke Foundation of Canada.
This past year, Torchia and his team were dealt a difficult blow. After a year of hard work and dedication, the race was canceled 36 hours before the start, due to snowstorms that took down trees and power lines across the course.
We spoke to Torchia on how he bounced back from this unexpected challenge.
We see you just got back from running the NYC Marathon! How does being an active race participant inform your own event-planning?
I love nothing more than going to other races and getting so inspired by what others are doing in the industry. When I go as a participant, I find it hard to shut my director brain off. I find myself always having an internal dialogue. How do they do this? How can I incorporate that into my event? I wonder what the cost of something like this would be? I wonder if my runners would like that? While out running on the course, my mind is running its own race, thinking about logistics of road closures, aid stations and volunteers.
Let’s talk about the WFPS Run. Net proceeds of your event support the Heart & Stroke Foundation. Why is giving back so important to you?
Giving back is always the focal point for why we put this event on. We love being active in the community and giving back as much as possible. We have built an amazing relationship with Heart & Stroke over the years, and we can proudly say, after this year, we have donated over $400,000 to the foundation.
We also do many other community engagements throughout the year that support our mission, whether it’s a shoe drive, sock drive, donating toys to the children’s rehabilitation foundation or donating to other events for mental health awareness or cancer care.
We are much more than a once-a-year event, and you can find us out in the community giving back as much as possible.
How do you choose which causes to support? Are there others you feel passionate about?
We stand behind our mission statement and vision, and every decision we make aligns with that. We have supported many other campaigns: donating to the homeless shelter, sponsoring a ball hockey team for mental health awareness, buying shoes for an inner city school run club, donating dog food to a local charity, donating to a local group collecting feminine hygiene products for those who can’t afford them and many more.
WFPS is also an event that sells out every single year. What do you think is the main driver of its success?
We are connected to the community. We aren’t just a once-a-year, weekend event. You can find our very kickass WFPS run ambassadors out in the community 365 days a year—not just promoting the WFPS run but giving back and doing amazing community initiatives.
Our race committee is also constantly engaged with the run community. I keep a good pulse on the run community, too, and always tend to have a presence, whether it’s at run club or a run clinic or handing out water on hot and humid weekends where runners are out for long runs.
The community sees this and stays engaged throughout the year, and in turn, the loyalty is there. We aren’t a business out to take someone’s registration money and then only see them on race day.
What other tools have helped make your race a success?
We absolutely love the ease of using ACTIVE’s registration and volunteer platforms. We started using them a few years ago, and the dynamic bib check-in has been game changing.
Having Matthew, our Account Manager, a phone call or email away is the greatest asset of all. Our minds are always at ease, because if I can’t figure something out, I know Matthew can in a hot second.
This past year, you had to cancel the event because of snowstorms. That must have been hard. How did you handle that challenge?
We were quite gutted. Thirty-six hours to the start gun going off—it was one of the most challenging and frustrating things ever. We quite honestly rolled with it and tried our absolute best. In the moment, we didn’t know what the outcome and reaction was going to be, but we worked hard and fast to put some fires out and do what we could in the circumstance we were given.
We came together as a committee and quite literally flew by the edge of our seats and always had in the back of our minds, “What is best for the runners and this community?” We stayed positive and I have to give so much credit to my amazing committee and ambassador team for keeping us upright and keeping the positive energy high. We could have just packed it in and been glum the rest of the weekend, but we had to still smile and give our best to the run community as much as we could.
I think at one point I walked outside of the expo, sat inside one of our event vehicles and literally screamed out loud and let it all out. But then I calmly walked back inside and got to work on what was next.
What tips would you give to fellow race directors about dealing with the unexpected?
Try to keep your cool. Step away from whatever hand you are dealt, and after the initial shock and awe is over, get to work on solving the problem, because just sitting there and mulling it over won’t do much.
You can plan and plan and plan and truthfully nothing ever goes to plan. Sometimes you just have to roll with it and try your best.
Will you be running any other races this year?
I will be wrapping up my 2019 season with the California International Marathon on December 8th. It will be my third full marathon in less than two months. I don’t advise this, but quite honestly wouldn’t change it for a thing.
2019 has been a great year of “comeback” for me as I vowed at the beginning of the year that my biggest goal was to be consistent again with my running, maintaining 100-plus mile months.
Is there anything else you would like to mention?
I would like to take this space and opportunity to say thank you to our supporters, volunteers, sponsors and run community here in Winnipeg. I try to say thanks and give praise as much as possible throughout the year to this great community because, without them, we wouldn’t be here doing what we are doing year-after-year.
I said to someone during race week that I literally wish I could stand at the doorway of the expo and shake each runner’s hand who comes and picks up their race bib and give them thanks. That’s how much I appreciate those runners.