Race Director of the Month: Paula Harkin

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Event creator Paula Harkin lives and breathes all things running. She is known in the running community as a “streaker” or someone who runs every single day. She hasn’t missed a run since January 1, 2009—that’s 10 years of consecutive running with an average of six miles per day.

Paula has also completed marathons all over the world and is eyeing Tokyo for 2020. But running isn’t just her passion; it’s her business, too. Along with her husband Dave, she owns the Portland Running Company, regularly voted the best running store in the city, and she is the founder of Runwithpaula Events, which focuses on creating local races with world-class flair.

We recently spoke with Paula to get the rundown on how she puts together some of the most scenic races in the Pacific Northwest.

What can participants expect when they attend one of your races?

Participants can always expect to run somewhere amazing when they enter one of my races. The Bridge of the Goddess Half Marathon and 10K starts on the Bridge of the Gods in the middle of the amazing Columbia River Gorge that runs between Oregon and Washington. The view will take your breath away! And “Leave the City Behind” is our motto for the Helvetia Half Marathon, 5K and 10K that runs through the most amazing countryside in rural Washington County, Oregon, just outside of Portland.

Participants can also expect to see happy and informed volunteers, knowledgeable staff, beautiful, well-marked race courses, music, food, great beer, an awards ceremony and an awesome finisher’s medal.

Runwithpaula event participants enjoying a beverage.

How do you go about planning your events?

I imagine each event as a giant puzzle. Every day I put pieces together to create something spectacular. I know I need to put a lot of pieces together over a long period of time, so I have to pace myself rather than trying to put it all together in just one night or two. I treat it like a marathon and not a sprint. Sometimes the last and final puzzle piece is nowhere to be found, so I have to stand up and look for it. Perspective is everything!

Event-planning is a people business. What’s your style when collaborating with others?

I want participants, sponsors, vendors and volunteers to feel important! My goal is to give everyone the information they need before they ask for it. I want them to know what to expect before, during and after the race. I also like to deliver a personal connection to my participants. Often times I find myself meeting people from faraway places that come back again and again. Sometimes they say, “Hey, you answered my email!” Yes, I did.

What brings you the most fulfillment in your job?

I love producing a superior finished product. I love seeing everything come together. I love hand-delivering my product to my participants, and I especially like communicating directly with runners and walkers alike. I really love dreaming, creating and sharing my love and passion for running and what it does for people.

Tell us about PORTLANDATHON. That was a big moment for your business.

The City of Portland selected Runwithpaula Events to produce the 2018 Portland Marathon after it was canceled due to a misconduct investigation of the previous management company. We had just four months to deliver a full and half marathon after the scandal left our city without a marathon that had been running since 1972.

We worked diligently alongside the City and the Portland Police Bureau to obtain permits and secure venues and to certify a new course. We hosted an expo and created an amazing one-off race that saved the Portland Marathon—we called it PORTLANDATHON!

The ACTIVE registration platform was a great place for us to market and advertise the race. We had just purchased the IPICO Timing System, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. We even had a team from ACTIVE who traveled to Portland for the race. They helped us with our new check-in system, and they trained us on how to quickly deliver packets to our participants.

Portlandathon kicks off early in the morning.
Portlandathon participants get ready to start a great race!

Wow, that’s incredible! Have there been any parts of your job that have been especially challenging?

No matter your event, marketing is extremely important. Many race directors have to focus time and energy on the production of the actual event. It’s difficult to know where and how to spend marketing dollars.

ACTIVE’s email platform creates a direct connection between me and my participants. Unlike other email services, through ACTIVE, my participants receive easily customized and informative emails. And since I have been with ACTIVE for so long, I have a robust email contact list. Putting together bigger campaigns, especially for new events, is now as easy as creating content and clicking, “Send.”

What would you say ultimately drives your success?

I am invested in the personal touch. No one wants generic, “Anywhere, USA” events. I use as many local vendors and partners as possible to create a unique, memorable experience for my participants. Of course, race routes are an important part of any event, but routes can be copied. My dedication to the participant experience is really what sets us apart.

What tips would you give to your fellow race directors reading this?

Get organized and stay organized! Invest in tools and develop a team that will allow you to enjoy the event creation and production process.

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January 24, 2020
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