Races and events are incredible feats of organization—there’s aid stations, start lines, timing devices, and sometimes hundreds of volunteers to coordinate. Most of the time, however, we only think about running the race, getting our swag, and going home for food and a nap. Behind the scenes, there’s so much happening that we don’t ever see, including the people and organizations behind the event. One of our local race directors is James Zwick of Sports-Am.
James Zwick is the mastermind behind the Sports-Am events hosted around Salt Lake City. Races like the Cold Turkey Run, Gateway to Log Haven, and even the brutal Hidden Peak Challenge started out simply with the thought of, “I could have a race here.” Today, Sports-Am holds many running, cycling, and even snowshoeing events for participants to test their mettle, try out a new distance or event, and have a great time, on some of the best running routes that Salt Lake has to offer.
James is an avid runner and cyclist, as well as a participant in other sports. Around 1989, James was running in City Creek Canyon and thought it would be a great place to hold a run. The catch? He wanted to host a run on Thanksgiving Day. Friends told him that no one would want to show up on Thanksgiving to run, but James said, “I don’t care, I’m going to do it anyway!” That first year, 50 people showed up, and in the years following, participant numbers increased exponentially to the point where he has nearly 1000 people registering each year, and had to have a sister event in Millcreek Canyon so more people could participate. That first year, the Cold Turkey Run was born, as was James’ career as a race coordinator.
The Cold Turkey run has become one of James’ favorite events, and guesses that it may have been the first Thanksgiving Day run.
A favorite race day memory of James is that of a Cold Turkey Run four or five years ago:
“Every year it’s very, very cold, but that year was particularly cold. Everyone was lined up at the mouth of City Creek Canyon. The night before, there was a lot of ice on the road, so when I got there, I said ‘Okay, guys, today we’re not going to run. It’s not the Cold Turkey run, it’s the Cold Turkey crawl. No one is allowed to run.’ We started the run, and everyone starts running. I was really concerned because it was so slippery. Nobody got hurt, everyone ran on the side of the road in the snow. It turned out to be a wonderful day.”
How does James come up with such great places to hold events?
It turns out it’s just a matter of organizing events around some of his favorite routes.
“I like to run at East Canyon, and thought it would be fun to do a half there. I thought running Hidden Peak sounded like fun, so I started the Hidden Peak Challenge.”
Eventually, running the events became like a full-time job for James.
“Several years later I didn’t have a job because I was putting on so many events. Then I said, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’ It hasn’t always been easy.”
Lucky for James, he has an excellent crew of people working for Sports-Am, and has come up with some incredibly creative ideas to set his company apart.
The Sports-Am medallion is one of those great ideas. Many races these days provide a medal for finishers, but the luster of earning a medal has worn off.
“It used to be that when you finished a race, the medal would get put around your neck, and that made it something special. Now they just hand it to you and it doesn’t have the punch that it used to.”
The first time a participant finishes a Sports-Am race, they get a medal, as well as a commemorative pin. Every subsequent race earns you another pin, and the idea is to keep all of the pins on the medal’s ribbon, so rather than collecting a box full of medals, you get to add to the same medal.
“More and more people are starting to check [on the entry form] that yes, they have a medal, and so far people are really liking having the pins. We are going to have a pin party as well so people can trade pins too.”
The company also has a partnership with The Road Home, a local non-profit organization that works with individuals and families experiencing homelessness in the Salt Lake valley. For each event, Sports-Am outlines different things that The Road Home is needing (it usually varies with the seasons), and participants then donate food, clothing, blankets, or whatever else may be needed at the time.
“I worked with other nonprofit organizations, and I never got any support from them. I was at The Road Home dropping some things off, and asked to speak to the director. I introduced myself, and the director, Celeste, interrupted me and said, ‘Let me tell you what The Road Home can do for you.’”
The Road Home is in charge of the aid stations during events and they provide many volunteers, which is incredibly helpful to James. In return, The Road Home receives donations from participants. 2014 marks the third or fourth year that Sports-Am and The Road Home have been working together, and it has turned out to be a very successful partnership for both parties.
Additionally, James works really hard to keep entry fees low, a welcome change in road racing where races seem to get more and more expensive each year. “We are able to keep our entry fees low because we print our own t-shirts, our awards are made by our company, and we design our own banners.” James sometimes worries that people will think the events aren’t so good because the fees are low, but that definitely isn’t the case.
Take the Stairway to Log Haven 6K and the Gateway to La Caille 7K. The courses end at either Log Haven or La Caille, where participants are treated to a delicious, hard-earned breakfast. Definitely beats the standard bananas and chocolate milk.
James doesn’t just do running events, either. An avid cyclist, James started the City Creek bike sprint, a laid-back bike race along one of his favorite routes, the Widowmaker, from the base of Snowbird Ski Resort to Hidden Peak, and the East Canyon Echo Road Race, a US Cycling Federation sanctioned race that covers 60 miles.
There’s even the Snowshoe Stomp, a 5K snowshoe race.
Local runners are guaranteed to find something they’ll enjoy.
With so many events to choose from, it can’t be easy for James to pick a favorite event.
“The Cold Turkey run, or Hidden Peak, or Canyon-to-Canyon, they are all so different. How can I say which one is my favorite?”
It’s clear that he really cares about each race and loves each one for different reasons. One thing that is absolutely certain, though, is that James works very hard to create a challenging but fun event for all participants. He even has an official mascot—his dog, Esky. She started out going on runs with James, and came to events as well. “She’s a kid’s dog, the runners love her. She always gets treats.”
If you’ve never run a Sports-Am event, go ahead and register for the Cold Turkey Run, taking place on Thanksgiving Day. There’s no better way to start your Turkey Day than by a quick run before the food coma sets in!
And on race day, keep an eye out for James and Esky; more than likely, they’ll be the happiest faces out there, as they celebrate another successful anniversary of the longest-running event for Sports-Am.