When more than 4,000 people show up to run a marathon, every detail is important.
That is the credo of new Mill Race Marathon Director Joel Sauer, and it’s one of the reasons the marathon committee sought him out to take over from Ken Long and Associates, which won’t return after handling the premiere event.
Sauer’s work has been on display the past 19 years as owner-director of the Indianapolis Marathon and Half Marathon.
“A perfect example is that I found a Porta John vendor who wants me to be successful so he can keep coming back,” Sauer said of his Indianapolis event. “This guy gets it. And you are not going to run out of paper.
“You have to find people who have passion for your event. If you develop those relationships, you are going to have a better experience for the participant.”
Cummins employee Dave Venable, who has run four Indianapolis Half Marathons and one full and serves on the Mill Race Marathon organizing committee, could tell Sauer had passion to direct a race.
“It was a very good experience,” Venable said of running in Indianapolis event. “I’ve run 60 to 70 half marathons and fulls combined. You get used to what is normal and not normal. Joel made it fun during the start and during the race.”
When the Mill Race Marathon organizing committee decided to seek out a new director, Sauer’s name was at the top of a very short list.
“He was the one I called personally,” Venable said. “I wanted him to have the option to lead us through this.”
Sauer, who works full-time for Eli Lilly as an engineer, was impressed by Venable and the race’s support system.
“The (Mill Race Marathon) has huge community involvement,” said Sauer, who is 48. “And the first time I worked with the planning committee, I could tell they were very passionate about this level. They also had such a great mix of people.
“There probably were 30 people at the first meeting I attended. I am used to a group of about six. The whole city seems to be embracing this. To see the enthusiasm, wow.”
That enthusiasm might have increased now that Sauer is on board.
“Since we started to work together, it has been fantastic,” said Cummins employee Randy Stafford, who serves on the organizing committee. “He does a great job with organization and with his timelines. By the end of March, we should have all our volunteer leaders in place and by the end of May, our volunteers should be set.
“It will be great to work with Joel. He puts on a race of a similar size, and he has for 19 years. He has a good understanding of what he needs and how to put it all together. We won’t be going into crisis mode and a scramble in the last two weeks.”
Mill Race Marathon organizing committee member Andy Pajakowski said that his committee wanted to take the race to a higher level after the debut in September.
“Joel is extraordinarily organized,” Pajakowski said. “The way he does things is seamless, smooth and organized.”
Pajakowski said the committee wants to make some improvements based on feedback from the first race.
“This is more about learning,” Pajakowski said. “We know the areas we need to polish.”
With Sauer leading the way, participants might notice a few changes.
Pajakowski said Sauer will organize the start so that more of a “corral” system is used where the faster runners are up front.
“It will be safer and smoother,” Pajakowski said. “We also would like to coordinate the volunteers better on race day.”
The Mill Race Marathon will not actively seek elite runners as it did in the premiere event.
Stafford said the first event did not have enough fencing at the finish so spectators were spilling onto the course. He said a few course changes should
alleviate the traffic tie-ups while also making things “visually better” for the participants.
However, Sauer said he is not looking past the fact that the Mill Race Marathon got off to a tremendous start.
“This is not a start-over,” he said. “We want to recognize what was successful, and keep it.”
He also doesn’t expect a perfect race.
“The thing I have learned is that you never are without issues,” he said. “I thought a couple of years after I started the (Indianapolis Marathon and Half Marathon) that it would just run itself. Once I learned that it never could run itself, I was OK with it. You plan things, then you do your contingency planning.”
Sauer was born in Indianapolis and attended North Central High School. He spent the years of his youth swimming and biking and not so much running. However, when he attended Bradley University (Ill.), he got into triathlons.
“I got tired of getting passed on the runs,” he said of his triathlons.
He became more enthusiastic about running, and when he turned 30, he noticed Indianapolis didn’t have its own marathon.
His work as a project manager made him confident that he would put on his own race, so he did. The first one drew 1,199 runners in both the full and half.
“It was kind of traumatic because my wife (Kathy) was pregnant with twins,” he said. “That race was on Oct. 15 (1996), and she was due
Nov. 2. But she went into labor six weeks early, and we lost our daughter (Angela) a few hours after birth.”
The other twin, Andrew (now 17) was fine, but the family was going through a heart-wrenching time.
“I had to go through with the race,” Sauer said. “But I got unbelievable support from my family and friends. It went off pretty smooth. It was basically a huge family project.”
Now with five children and a large extended family, Sauer said everyone comes together to work on the Indianapolis Marathon and Half Marathon.
“Marathon day is more exciting than Christmas day,” he said.
Both the Indianapolis Marathon and Half Marathon and the Mill Race Marathon drew just over 4,000 runners last year.
“For the past 19 years, I have been doing something similar,” Sauer said. “It seemed like a good fit.”
He said one of his goals would be for his organizational skills to have an impact.
“I hope the participants see more communication,” he said. “From what I have found, the more information you can give participants, the more they are relaxed with it. You want to lay everything out, maps and instructions.”
In the end, Sauer hopes his passion is recognized.
“My pitch was that I am not an event management company,” he said. “I started a race and own a race. It’s my baby.
“I want to get details right because details are important.”