As race director for the Dallas YMCA Turkey Trot, Courtney Rayburn is responsible for one of the largest multievent races in the country.
By Jackie Veling
Courtney Rayburn is living her dream. Having always wanted to work in the nonprofit space, she is now in her second year as race director for the Dallas YMCA Turkey Trot, the largest paid fundraising event for any YMCA, anywhere in the world. With almost 25,000 participants attending the 8-mile, 5K or 1K Junior Trot on Thanksgiving morning, it’s one of the largest multievent races in the country.
We spoke to Rayburn to learn more about the history of this incredible race and how she gets ready for the biggest event of the year.
It’s your second year as race director for the Dallas Turkey Trot! What did you take away from your experience last year?
I was new to Dallas, new to working for a non-profit and completely new to the running industry. I was extremely lucky that the previous race director and a long-time Trot committee member were in leadership positions at the YMCA. They were willing to impart their wisdom and expertise anytime I needed it.
Our ACTIVE account rep and event services consultant were also huge players in my education—and still are. I had a lot of learning to do last year, and all the knowledge and support these folks passed on to me is my biggest take away.
What do you think makes this record-breaking event such a success?
Tradition and innovation. Every year we know multiple generations of families will participate, from great-grandparents to babies. We honor the history of the Dallas YMCA Turkey Trot, but we also make changes that reflect advancements in the industry, technology and the expectations of our participants.
For example, the now certified 8-mile distance was born from the approximately eight miles “to the big oak tree and back” on the shores of White Rock Lake, 52 years ago. When participation numbers outgrew the lake shore, The Trot moved downtown in 1979, and we’ve been there ever since. In 1984, the leadership recognized that not everyone was up for running eight miles and added the 3-mile fun run. The shorter distance was certified as a 5K in 2009 and is the favorite distance for families. Last year, we introduced a 1K specifically for kids, ages 6 to 11.
Over the years additional experiences have also been added—finisher medals, a family area with free entertainment, a VIP area and a dog park.
What would surprise people most about planning one of the largest multi-event races in the country?
That there is only one paid staff person that is ultimately responsible for the event. For most of the year, the race director is the only YMCA staff person focused on planning The Trot, and it’s not their only job at the Y. My official title is Special Events & Marketing Director. In addition to planning The Trot, I am part of the leadership team at the downtown Dallas YMCA and have responsibilities to the branch.
Obviously, an event of this size cannot be planned, marketed and executed by only one person. In the final months, we layer in additional staff support and ultimately more than a thousand volunteers to execute packet pickup and race day. It’s amazing to see everyone come together to make it happen.
What tools have helped you and your team manage such a large-scale production?
Internally, we use a report that tracks daily registration numbers from the opening of registration through race day. That report has been used since 2007, so we’re able to view the trends in registration from year to year. Being able to drill down the reports in ACTIVEWorks Endurance to a specific day makes transferring the numbers into our internal reports much easier.
We also love the ACTIVE On-Site mobile app for check-in. We have four geographically spread-out packet pickup locations. It’s challenging enough to stock them with the race supplies without having to also deal with computers and slow tech. On-Site is easy for the volunteers to use on tablets, and it’s super easy to find a participant with the QR code or by name, assign the bib and move to the next one.
Last year, I heard many longtime participants comment with surprise at how quickly they were checked in and assigned a bib. They expected to be in line for a lot longer.
What’s a big challenge you have faced along the way and how did you tackle it?
Managing expenses is always a challenge and marketing dollars are almost always the first to be cut or shifted when the budget needs to be stretched. We use a popular platform for sending eNewsletters to Y members, but the monthly fee is based on the number of contacts you have. When we’re not sending a lot of emails to our Trot participants, our cost is manageable, but when we add 30,000-plus subscribers, it becomes a huge annual expense.
I tested ACTIVE’s email features several times last year and earlier this year. It has become the only way we email participants now. It’s saved us money and a ton of time because we don’t have to download the list from ACTIVE, format it and then upload to the other system. It gets bonus points for the reporting—you can see how much revenue was generated from each email—and for the list segmentation and custom segments.
What continues to drive your passion in this industry?
Our participants. As I mentioned, they are young and young at heart. They might be a member of the YMCA or they might not be. For a lot of them, The Trot is the only run/walk they will ever participate in, but they will do it every Thanksgiving for as long as they are able. For many of them, it may be the first 5K they run or their first long-distance race. Their reasons for Trotting with us are as diverse as their ages and ethnicities. My passion for this event is renewed every time I hear a new Trot story.
What tips would you give to fellow race directors reading this?
Externally, remember to focus on the participants’ experiences. Sometimes we get caught up in the day-to-day of working with vendors and meeting deadlines, and we need to stop and think about how our decisions will affect the participant. From our marketing, to registration, to the finish line, the participant experience is paramount.
Internally, take time to take care of yourself when things start to get hectic. Drink plenty of water, eat and sleep when you need to. At the risk of sounding like a candy bar commercial, you can’t be your awesome self when your body and mind aren’t rested and nourished.
What do you dream of doing next in your career?
Working for the YMCA and being a race director is a completely new career for me. My first career was 18 years in the theme park and water park industry. My dream was always to use my experience in sales, marketing and event planning in a non-profit, so here I am—living the dream!