Growing a Marathon Race Event

Blue Ridge Marathon, aka America’s toughest road marathon is one of the signature events put together by Roanoke Outside.  Under the event director Julia Boa’s leadership the race had grown 15% in revenue each year for the past five years. In this special interview we talk to Julia about her strategies in growing a marathon race event.

Julia first talked about the history of the Blue Ridge Marathon and the backstory for adding the double marathon distance to the race. Furthermore, she told us about how growing a marathon race event also helped a sleepy town to become a destination for outdoor enthusiasts.

With the pandemic fundraising options for a non-profit organization has been limited. Julia shared her strategies on virtual fundraising, developing ideas to approach sponsors and supporters for funds, and using organic social media techniques to grow an event.

Listen to the podcast or watch the video below:


Julia Boas is the events director for Roanoke Outside Foundation. Roanoke Outsides creates economic growth by leveraging natural assets to attract investment and talent. 

Contact for Roanoke Outside Foundation

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Find out more about Blue Ridge Marathon:

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Swire Ho #thepromoguy (00:01):

Welcome to the small business show. We created a platform to have candid and in-depth conversations with


. This is professional. We find fascinating. Learn the tips and tricks for marketing, running, and growing a small business. A small business show is the official podcast of Garuda, promo and branding solutions. Hello everyone. Thanks for tuning in my name is Swire. The promo guy. My guest today is Julia boas event director for Ronak Alside foundation, Julia and I met food for the race matter for poor rich marathon. Also known as America toughest row marathon, and this Julius leadership, the blueish marathon has increased 15% of revenue for the last five years. How are you doing Julia?

Julia Boas, Event director at Roanoke Outside  (00:46):

I’m doing very well. Thanks for having us.

Swire Ho #thepromoguy (00:49):

Can you please give us a quick bio about yourself and then your role at the foundation?

Julia Boas, Event director at Roanoke Outside  (00:54):

Yeah, so I started at the Roanoke outside foundation in about 2014. So I think like almost seven years, so I’ll be starting my seventh year here soon. And I came from a background of like outdoor adventure programming, so kind of the outdoor world where I led backpacking programs. And then I ended up being the director for an outdoor program here in Virginia. I used to spend my winters ski bumming it in Colorado, but once you get older and more responsibilities, you can’t do that quite as much. So so yeah, I started working for the foundation really was a great fit for me. It is covers all of my passions and the things that I care about and I get to work every single day to make the community that I live in you know, a better outdoor community that we’re recreation is just kind of a part of our everyday lives to develop those assets as well as the events that we put on.

Swire Ho #thepromoguy (01:53):

Okay. let’s talk about Blue Ridge marathon. It has been named a 10 best marathon here in the country. So can you give us a little bit about the history and how it came up with the name tibia America’s toughest road marathon?

Julia Boas, Event director at Roanoke Outside  (02:09):

Yeah, so we, when we started out planning the race, this was probably about the first event happened 10 years ago. So we started in 2010. So that was about three years before my time. But the intention of the people who created the race was essentially to have this sort of showcase event that would draw people to the Roanoke region. So before our organization started Roanoke, really wasn’t known as an outdoor town. If it was known at all, like most people had never heard of Roanoke, Virginia, still people sometimes would be like, you mean like the lost city of Roanoke and that’s in North Carolina, so it’s not the same or that either they maybe thought of this as like a train town, because the Norfolk Southern headquarters is based here or was so they just had no idea of what the fact that Roanoke was, this beautiful outdoorsy town surrounded by mountains because the city, honestly just hadn’t dedicated resources or funding or marketing or any of those things to that effort.

Julia Boas, Event director at Roanoke Outside  (03:13):

And so that’s kind of why the Roanoke outside foundation was started. And so the marathon was actually our very first event. And we knew that we wanted something that could attract people from all walks of life, from all over the country. And so running is kind of, one of is like a natural fit for that because people of all ability, levels, shapes, sizes, whatever can come and participate in a 10 K half marathon marathon. And so it was, it is an easy way to attract people here and the America’s toughest part that just kind of happened naturally because as we started planning the course, we wanted to showcase like all the beautiful mountains. And so the full marathon actually goes up and down three separate mountains that are all like right near our city. So they start in downtown Roanoke and can hit three separate mountains within 26 miles and end up straight back downtown.

Julia Boas, Event director at Roanoke Outside  (04:08):

So that just shows you how we really are nestled in this Valley, surrounded by mountains. And so once we started doing that, then obviously the elevation profile just kind of skyrocketed. And before we knew it, we had more elevation change than any other road race in the United States. So we thought like, why not make a thing? Like why not make it a selling point and niche to all those kinds of crazy people out there who just can’t resist like that challenge and can’t resist something that has a unique moniker about it and say, I tackled America’s toughest road race. And so yeah, it just kind of happened naturally from there, we didn’t set out with the intention for it to be that hard. It just is the way our terrain is set up.

Swire Ho #thepromoguy (04:49):

Yeah. I just want to add to that. If you’d like the scenery so much, then you can actually sign up for the double marathon. You run it.

Julia Boas, Event director at Roanoke Outside  (04:56):

Yeah. We, we didn’t start that event or ourselves, either people just started doing it. They would show up, it was this kind of like underground club and they would show up in the middle of the night and run the marathon by themselves. And then they would come back to the starting line with everybody else and do it all over again. So it started just happening. And then we had to do a lot of work because the city and other entities insurance and the blue Ridge Parkway were not super cool with us making it like a legal thing. So it took a couple of years once we decided to make it legit to actually bring it into the fold liability-wise and stuff like that. But now we sell out of the mayor of the double marathon every year with we have a cap of 150 participants for that race.

Swire Ho #thepromoguy (05:45):

Yeah. I think it was 2018. I was falling the race. And then I think that year there was a funder storm. So we’re not an up to the race cancel, I think right in the middle. But I follow a couple of the ultra runners. They didn’t care, you know, no support and finishing it and you know, they’re all happy and posting on shows your media. So that was kind of fun. And they’re at the high court kind of group.

Julia Boas, Event director at Roanoke Outside  (06:09):

Yeah. Yeah. We, we did have to pull the plug a little bit early one time. Luckily, you know, 85, 90% of the runners had already finished at that time, but you know, the ultra runners, they’re the ones who really need the full like seven and a half hours to finish. Cause they’ve already run a marathon and they’re probably walking and stopping a lot. So yeah, they, I mean, they’d been out there for whatever 14 hours at that point and they are super hardcore.

Swire Ho #thepromoguy (06:36):

So I’m going to ask on behalf of the runners. So right now it’s about mid December. So are we still on for Blue Ridge marathon? 2021 on April 17th?

Julia Boas, Event director at Roanoke Outside  (06:46):

Yeah. That’s the plan as of now? You know, I think one of the benefits is even though we are a fairly well known race nationwide and kind of a bucket list race, we’re a small race. So we, you know, we have between 3,500 to 4,000 runners the last couple of years that’s been our kind of our target and, and that’s against across all the distances. So, so because we’re a little bit smaller, it allows us to do things that are race, like all the other big global ones that are canceling or postponing can’t do, you know, you just can’t do certain things with 10 or 20,000 people that you can do with, you know, and we may end up having to have some caps on some of the different distances that we don’t normally have. So we may end up with only 2000 or 2,500 runners this year, depending on how we break it down by the distance and how we have to space out the corrals and the timing and everything else. But yeah, we are planning to move forward with COVID restrictions in place

Swire Ho #thepromoguy (07:48):

And anything else runners should know about and expect to happen in 2021.

Julia Boas, Event director at Roanoke Outside  (07:54):

Yeah. So we actually have a page on our website on our website called COVID updates essentially. And it’s a page that we’re going to be updating regularly. So we’re working with a team of doctors regionally here from Karelian, which is kind of like our big medical conglomerate in the area. And one of whom actually also wrote the book for Ironman and rock and roll marathon. So he’s their medical consultant. He all, he just happens to live in Roanoke and he’s our medical consultant as well. And so he already wrote, you know, basically a book for them that they use for some of the races that they did back in like July when they were able to have some in-person. And they’re also planning to move forward with some smaller scale events for the spring too. So he’s working with us and I’m sorry, I’ve got a four year old here. Just a little bit better. Okay. I will, after I’m done. Thank you to wait. Sorry. Normally I have dad is back up here, but he’s gone right now. So but yeah, so for 2021 on that page, we kind of have a list of the things that we’re working on now and like what we’re tentatively planning, but that’ll obviously just be changing and being modified as time goes on.

Swire Ho #thepromoguy (09:18):

Yeah, I know that, you know, other than the Blue Ridge marathon, you, you also have a lot of event mass outdoor events for the foundation. So wanted to get your take on, you know, dealing with the pandemic and, you know, obviously more people, more fun sometimes, you know, you know, you gotta have, you have concerts too. You also have you know, a mountain bike race, and, you know, people are having a good time in concerts. So how are you guys adjusting to, you know, what’s going on around us and then, you know, putting on good events.

Julia Boas, Event director at Roanoke Outside  (09:49):

Yeah. So we were able to hold two in-person events this year in 2020. One was a socially distanced benefit concert where people like actually, instead of just getting a ticket, they would get a pod with up to six people in it. And then all the food and beer and everything like that, they would order it from an app on their phone. And the pod, you know, was a lot of them, they could get the option to have it be like decked out with chairs and coolers and like beer already in it. They all had these like little lights around them and it was super well received. And we sold out both nights. Granted sell out was still not like a huge amount. I think it was about like 600 people per event or something like that. But it went really well.

Julia Boas, Event director at Roanoke Outside  (10:33):

And through events like that, we’ve also added in like virtual kind of fundraising components. So one of the things that we did was we did a hundred thousand dollar fundraiser where basically we worked with some of the corporate sponsors that we already have had that, you know, maybe the event that we worked with them on was canceled and things like that. So we were able to pivot their dollars to something that would benefit the community overall. So we started a new fund called project outside where outdoor related, like businesses and events and projects, things like that could basically get grants from this fund that we created. And so right now we’re actually working or taking applications from those organizations to get the grant money. But the first step was raising that a hundred thousand dollars, which we did all online.

Julia Boas, Event director at Roanoke Outside  (11:25):

It was about probably half the corporate sponsors diverting dollars. So like, I think ended up being like $65,000 corporate dollars that were diverted from events that couldn’t take place. And then the rest of it was just from individual donations that we recruited online. So yeah, that was one positive thing that came out of it. And so now we’ll have a hundred thousand dollars, which isn’t a ton of money, but we hope it’s a kind of a start for something bigger that we’re working on with some dedicated funding. But then that can be used to build river access points, new trails and all kinds of all kinds of outdoor related things that we’ve been working on for the last few years actually getting them done.

Swire Ho #thepromoguy (12:04):

That’s that’s amazing because I’ve also had you know, a lot of compensation with other nonprofits they’re cooked, they’re kind of struggling because normally they will have their poker nights they’ll have their outdoor event which unfortunately it got canceled, so they are find a full race, different race. And how did you guys come up with that virtual fundraising idea? Did you guys initiate you know, and reach out to the sponsor or did the sponsor suggested that idea?

Julia Boas, Event director at Roanoke Outside  (12:32):

No, we actually kind of had to create the whole idea pretty well. You know, we had to put together a package and everything and sell it just like you would any other event. So that’s kind of the thing about it is that you can’t go to them with something that’s sort of half thought through. You want to say, like, we have this plan, we have this strategy, we already know where the money’s going to go. It’s going to benefit the community. It’s going to make you look good because it shows that you’re doing something for people at a time when they need it. And you know, usually the outdoors is, you’d be surprised. There’s a little bit of a hard sell as far as like big dollar donations go because people are always thinking like cancer or pediatrics or, you know, there’s just things that like pull on the heartstrings a little bit more than just the outdoors.

Julia Boas, Event director at Roanoke Outside  (13:19):

But because of the pandemic, people have really gained a little bit greater appreciation for the fact that we need these outdoor spaces. We need these places to be able to go and recreate because we’ve all been trapped inside. And so without them, without the trail networks, without the river access points and things like that, then you, you would have had nothing, you know, you would have just had nothing to do and you would have been completely stuck. So, you know, that kind of helped our mission in the short term. But yeah, figuring out what your selling points are and making sure you have a well presented package to take to the sponsors.

Swire Ho #thepromoguy (13:53):

Yeah. Let’s dig deeper. Like, do you research on East sponsor and obviously knowing where, you know, they will take their marketing dollar before reaching out to them. You know, how are your thought process? You know, you have a couple of title sponsor, which is well known, you know, a shoe manufacturer. So obviously, you know, energy bar so do they normally tell you what they, what they will support or you really have to do your research and deck through, you know, these are some of the key points that they’re going to be interested in.

Julia Boas, Event director at Roanoke Outside  (14:25):

Yeah. And so most of the, our biggest sponsors are are, are a little bit more regional. So like, you know, ultra the things for the marathon, people like that, they usually donate things like prizes. And so it is a little bit of knowing what people are willing to donate. But the ones that we went to first for the project outside project are people who are more within our community because they can see that direct result back to them. But then once we started going live with it and saying, Hey, these people donated, these people donated these fields that it did kind of take on like a little bit snowball effects and making sure that you’re, you know, through social media and marketing and things like that, that you’re letting people know that you’re fundraising actively and what, who else contributed and what they’ve contributed that allowed some other people who started reaching out to us, wanting to contribute as well.

Swire Ho #thepromoguy (15:19):

Yeah. That’s excellent advice. You know, Julia, you know, I think, you know, me as a marketing and sales person, I always find out why people would want to buy from us. You know, that’s known for us, but I think for nonprofit, sometime they have to put on a marketing cap. Like you want to just describe and think about the sponsor, the donors, you know, what do they really relate to? You know, what what do they want in return if it’s just a name brand. So, you know, if you give them the reason and you show them, this is, you know, and can make an impact to what you are, stand for, what you’re trying to do. You know, what there are, there are opportunities out there and obviously, you know, people are not attending trade shows and other exhibits right now, there are still marketing dollar available to sponsor such as events that tie into what they do.

Julia Boas, Event director at Roanoke Outside  (16:05):

Yeah. And so we basically, for the, for the fundraiser component of it, we tried to build out like a sponsor deck almost like you would normally for an event. So we built in the fact that we’re going to be promoting this and have this site we’re going to be doing all of this marketing for the fundraiser, through our e-newsletter and social media, just like we normally would be, it would be doing paid ads and things. And so, you know, we tried to show them that there would be a value there. It would be all online for the most part, but you know, that they would still get a marketing value out of it.

Swire Ho #thepromoguy (16:36):

Okay. So let’s circle back to Blue Ridge marathon. I want to ask you for your tips and secrets for growing a raised. So how were you able to you know, go in, look at, you know, what the race will be and develop a growing strategy for the event?

Julia Boas, Event director at Roanoke Outside  (16:52):

Yeah. So, I mean, I don’t know if they’re necessarily secrets. I feel like it’s just kind of, you know, good management of time and of resources, but for the marathon specifically, you know, we really wanted to make sure that it was the community’s event and it, everyone that lives here feels super involved. So that was actually where we started our efforts is making sure that this is a big deal for everyone that lives here. So just constantly like recruiting people sorry. Okay. and so w recruiting people from the community. And, and so like one, for example, one thing we do is we actually, all of our volunteer, we, it takes about seven or 800 volunteers to put on the blue Ridge marathon. And most marathons take a ton of people to put them on. It can be hard to recruit that many people for free.

Julia Boas, Event director at Roanoke Outside  (17:51):

So what we did is we started a charity incentive program where they commit a certain number of people like say 25 or 30 people. Then they get a donation, they get money directly from the race proceeds to their organization. And so that was an easy way, you know, so now we have hundreds of people and dozens of organizations that have a direct tie to our event and feel that benefit back to them and their organization. And so now they kind of promoted on their behalf and they want to go above and beyond to make their, you know whether it be like their aid station or whatever it is extra special. So I, one of the things that people say about why they love our event so much is because when you go through the course, there are tons of people just like tailgating out in their yards and having the block parties and, you know, handing people, beer, and mimosas and food, and those aren’t things that we set up or organized. That’s just the community feeling like it’s important to them. They want people to have an amazing time and want to come back to Roanoke. And so there’s people doing all kinds of things like that that are just beyond the scope of what the race itself does. And I think that’s the thing that makes people fall in love with the event. That’s what makes people want to come back over and over again, and feel that like, kind of strong emotional tie to what we do.

Swire Ho #thepromoguy (19:11):

Yeah. That’s nice. And you make it you know, a big running party, you know, and run runner loves to get back. And I remember in my experience, you know, running one of the ultra side, there is a station, it was all a nowhere. And they sell a booth and they actually have rice balls over there. I’ve never have rice balls in a station. So it was a fantastic experience. I ended up having three rice balls, turning there and talking to them. So and I know that you guys utilize social media a lot. Do you think that is one of the things that you know is good for you know, a race event to advertise?

Julia Boas, Event director at Roanoke Outside  (19:50):

Oh, like the stuff that the, beyond the race you mean like and stuff. Yeah. I mean, we try to do our best to promote all that stuff. And the good thing is once you get people like, you know, your ambassadors or whoever else, like kind of posting and creating that content on their own, then they start doing the work for you. So they talk, take the picture and they post it to their people and brag about how amazing all the different like aid stations or views or whatever it is that makes your race special. You know, they take over that responsibility for you and do a lot of the work on your behalf, which is kind of the ultimate goal, especially when you’re a small race like us, who I’m literally the only full-time employee, you know, some people have 30 plus people working on their race and can have one person dedicated to social media while I do all the social media and all the newsletters and all the marketing plans and everything else. So, you know, I really need people to help me do my job.

Swire Ho #thepromoguy (20:49):

Yeah. And as you know, I do talk to a lot of race director and I, you know work with a lot of different races. So by actually knowing what they’re trying to do and knowing their marketing strategy and especially, you know, I do a race medal with the way that they approach a race metal. I can kind of tell how they would grow. And then you know, to tell you the truth with your expertise and details to just doing the race mmedal, I know that, and I’ve seen that the racist is taking off this by the attention to details that you have on all the elements.

Julia Boas, Event director at Roanoke Outside  (21:24):

Yeah. Well, I mean, I think that, you know, every single thing that you do impacts your race and medals are a big thing that people care a lot about, and they share a lot of pictures of it. And if they look good, then it’s free promotions, you know? So that’s kind of why not free because we pay, but although they pay us for them, but, you know, it’s, it’s a way that you can promote every single thing you do is something that can promote your race or make a good impression, you know, be that thing that they talk about or tell their friends about.

Swire Ho #thepromoguy (21:54):

Yeah. Because I I’ve really reported, you know, if you’re going to start a new race, you have to at least certify three years for it to grow. You know, because, you know, for example, you have to raise t-shirt, you have the race matter, you have people running it, you can really build the loyalty, you know, in the first year, you know, and then think about, you know, I suggest people to think about race medals or race t-shirt is your promotional product that you actually use after the race. Imagine, you know, if you go onto Instagram or Facebook the day after the race, how many runner actually, you know, where to meadow and the t-shirt and the posts. So they actually, like you said, doing all your marketing for you, you don’t even have to spend any money. People are so proud with their metal, the history, power of the race. T-Shirt some of them wear it to work, right?

Julia Boas, Event director at Roanoke Outside  (22:41):

Yeah. I mean, I, where I live, you know, I live right on the Greenway, which is like a little running path. That’s what a 30 plus miles long here in Roanoke. And I see people wearing years and years and years of ratios. And so, you know, it’s nice to see them out there and you can tell which ones are more popular or who were, you know, which ones people were more. And so it’s kind of that constant feedback of like, what’s working and what’s not working.

Swire Ho #thepromoguy (23:07):

Yeah. It’s good that you really, you really pay a lot of attention to details because you know, some racial thing, you know, it’s a additional expense that, you know, they have to do, but then, you know, from working with you, I know that, you know, there’s, there’s a lot of details, you know, you want to make it look nice. And you know, people are really proud. I I’ve, I’ve looked for all the picture. People are so proud with things that they’re receiving their experience. So I think bringing a good experience it’s it was bringing people back years after years.

Julia Boas, Event director at Roanoke Outside  (23:40):

Yeah. And I totally agree. And that’s why it’s takes time. Like you said, to build, because building a relationship with someone and you know, that first experience is like, wow, I never knew Roanoke had this stuff. Then the next year, like another good thing happens in your building on it year after year and making them have this like positive relationship with what you do. So yeah. It definitely takes time and you have to keep that user experience at the core of everything you do.

Swire Ho #thepromoguy (24:08):

So I, I do have a question for you. You have actually touched on a lot of the things, you know, so what are some of your favorite strategy for fundraising as a nonprofit, you know, you talk about branding, you talk about marketing, you talk about having your sponsors and, you know, asking volunteers to become an ambassador. Are there anything that you’d like to share to all the nonprofits out there?

Julia Boas, Event director at Roanoke Outside  (24:33):

Well, you know, I think that sometimes nonprofits have unique challenges, different than businesses, but then a lot of times nonprofits have really good opportunities because people, oftentimes they want to do something that’s for a good cause. So making everything you do be about that bigger, greater picture, you know, beyond yourself it’s giving back to whatever community it is, you know, whether it be like an actual physical one or one that’s, you know, surrounding some sort of you know, goal or, or disease or whatever it is that people are kind of, you know, rallying around. So, you know, events in years past have been our largest scale way to raise money. So we raised the most amount of money through big events. And we have about four large events and then several small events throughout the year. And so, but every single time we have, so every, every time we have one of these events w we make it about that thing, you know?

Julia Boas, Event director at Roanoke Outside  (25:44):

So like, yes, you’re running, but you’re running for something bigger than yourself, or yes, you’re building, we do like a large scale outdoor festival will all the money from that festival, like from the beer sales goes to building trail or from, you know, all the different components, all the races that we do at that festival, each one would have its own like project or goal, or non-profit related thing that the money’s going to go to. So it gives people like, kind of that feel good and the reason to want to participate. So it’s like, it’s fun to participate and we make it a really good time. That’s important too, but also it makes them feel like they’re doing something good and bigger than themselves. So that’s the benefit of being a nonprofit.

Swire Ho #thepromoguy (26:29):

Yeah. Thank you so much for information. I it’s coming from you. I know that, you know, you have spent a lot of time thinking about the marketing, you know, thinking about the why, how, and then before you ever reach out. So, you know, I think this, this is incredible strategy that Julie is sharing here, you know, to help nonprofits. So Julia, if people want to find out more about the foundation and especially about Blue Ridge marathon, where, where should they go to?

Julia Boas, Event director at Roanoke Outside  (26:57):

Yeah. So the foundation is called the Roanoke outside foundation. That’s a Roanoke or obviously we’re on Instagram and Facebook and all of those things. And, you know, maybe that’s a good place if you’re, if you’re a nonprofit, I try to always go or really any business go and find all the other like aspirational nonprofits or related organizations that inspire me and I follow them and see what they’re doing. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. So like I’m constantly looking at what other things that are like me, or even bigger than me. Like, what do I want to work towards? Who do I want to be like? And so sort of keep following and watching those like-minded organizations is definitely something that I do on, on social media and just a website. But, you know, we’ve got a great website tool as well that we had people cite many times as the reason that they moved around.

Julia Boas, Event director at Roanoke Outside  (27:48):

So, you know, making sure that your website is actually somewhere that gives people a lot of information that they want. And then the marathon of course, is blue Ridge And we’re also on all the various platforms all under blue Ridge marathon. I’m pretty sure if you just looked it up, but yeah, we’re, we’re, we’re also planning to have a virtual America’s toughest road challenge this year, which is new. So even regardless of wherever you live in the country, you could try to tackle like an elevation gain, kind of a challenge for yourself and get a metal from swine.

Swire Ho #thepromoguy (28:26):

Thank you so much for sharing all the tips today. I think they’re, they’re wonderful. Thanks so much for coming onto that, Julia.

Julia Boas, Event director at Roanoke Outside  (28:33):

Yeah. Thanks for your time. Appreciate it.