Hi friends! It’s Erin, your Susan G. Komen 3-Day Insider, and I’m coming at you today with a special Insider’s Guide to the 3-Day. Last year, we brought you the full Insider’s Guide to the 3-Day, which included (among many other exciting things) some details about the route, from the perspective of yours truly, a 15-time 3-Day walker. Those posts (which you can see here and here) really focused on what walkers can expect to see and hear on the route, but didn’t really dive too deeply into how the route is created. And that’s good. I mean, if we here at the 3-Day are doing our jobs right, walkers will journey through their miles, enjoying all that the route has to offer, without ever questioning the behind-the-scenes work that goes into building that 60-mile experience.
But you know what? I do have questions. I know I’m not alone either; many of you out there have probably wondered a lot of the same things I have about how an event of this size and scope is executed every year so flawlessly. I’ve been around the 3-Day for the better part of my adult life, and my curiosity has always itched for behind-the-scenes intel. Even having worked for the 3-Day for the past 5+ years, I’ve never really pulled back the curtain, so to speak, on how the incredible routes come into being. Until now!
I had the chance to chat up my colleague and friend, Sarah C., who is the Director of Event Production for the 3-Day, and the expert on the ins-and-outs of how the 3-Day route is created.
Here’s what I learned…
The Women With the Plans – So who are these wizards behind the event planning curtain? The 3-Day employs 4 full-time Event Planning Managers (or EPMs) on staff, who are dedicated to planning all aspects of each 3-Day event, including the route. One of the EPMs (Meredith) manages one 3-Day event, and the other three (Emily, Kiki and Missy) handle two 3-Day locations each.
Down Time? What’s That? – One might think that after one 3-Day ends, the EPM can kick back and relax for a few months before even thinking about the next year’s events, but that’s not true. It takes nearly a full year to plan a 3-Day event, so once one ends, it’s time to start thinking about the next one right away. (I imagine it’s like Santa’s elves on December 26: “Okay, let’s start getting ready for next Christmas!”) Everything has to be redone every year. Nothing is a given. The event planning team prides itself on building great relationships in all seven 3-Day markets, but those associations are fluid; sometimes there are new contacts (a new fire inspector, for example) or new legal requirements, so it’s a new learning curve. There’s some networking and sales involved, but the EPMs know the cities well and spend a lot of time nurturing relationships. Because the 3-Day is a well-established event at this point, it’s a little easier, but all the magic still has to happen every year.
Let’s Talk Big Picture – The first thing the EPMs think about is, how are we going to highlight the city? In every 3-Day market, there are some really iconic sights we want to make sure we include which showcase the location we’re in. Think about it: if you’re going to Seattle, you’re going to want to see the Space Needle, right? Or visit LOVE Park in Philadelphia. Or spend lots of time on the Pacific Coast in San Diego. So the plan starts there, then works outward to surrounding areas. Even for an event like Michigan, which isn’t really centered in one major city, we try to include towns that, over the years, have evolved into what the Michigan event is (think Plymouth and its amazing pink fountain cheering station, for example); we knew that the metro areas were so great, so THAT’s what we wanted to hit instead of being right in Detroit.
Once we know what points in the city we want to spotlight, the cycle starts with contracting our major sites (Opening and Closing Ceremony locations, camp, lunch and pit stops) in the winter months.
Major Sites = Kind of a Big Deal – I think a lot of participants, myself included, take for granted the task of finding a camp location. When it comes to planning the route, camp serves as the anchor site, and everything else works outward from there. There are so many different moving parts, not only for camp to work logistically, but also to be a great layout from an experience standpoint. Is the site big enough to accommodate all of our participants and tents and vehicles? Does it have a terrain that’s conducive to a great camp experience? Sarah shared a story about how, a few years ago, they had considered using a really nice community college as camp for one 3-Day event; it would have been beautiful, but not the best from an experience standpoint, because the showers would have to be located half a mile from the sleeping area, which was too far from the dining tent. Stuff like that is taken into consideration, and so the plan is constantly tweaked.
There is also a ton of permitting required for camp; we need building permits so we can put stakes into the ground and keep those giant tents upright, permits for propane and water usage, fire code compliance, having enough exits, food service permits, noise permits… There have been amazing potential camp sites that seemed perfect, but then oh no, they didn’t allow overnight sleeping. If one thing isn’t checked off, it may be a no-go. Finding Opening and Closing Ceremony sites is a similar process, though a little less intensive. The more permitting required, the harder it is to get a site.
Connecting the Dots – Think of route planning as establishing the dots first: camp is the biggest dot, followed by ceremony locations, then lunch and pit stops for each day. We figure out where the dots are going to be, then look at routes we could possibly take to connect them.
You Have Thoughts – At this point, I asked Sarah a kind of cynical question, but it’s one I’ve certainly thought about through my years of walking, and one I’ve heard from other walkers too: does the 3-Day really listen to suggestions that participants make about the route? Sarah answered with an immediate and resounding, “Yes!” (I should’ve known better…)
We’ve gotten feedback in survey comments about “Can’t we highlight here or there, walk past this spot or that spot?” and sometimes we can make it happen. We know that the majority of our participants like a good mixture of trails, city walking, residential neighborhoods and downtown/main street areas, so we think about that and we listen to what you have to say. There are certain neighborhoods that we know are safe, have good sidewalks, etc. If we know there’s a beautiful trail between two stops in Dallas, we’ll try to include it, to have some variety. We might go a few blocks in one direction or another to make sure we pass the Governor’s mansion in Atlanta (in fact, a few years ago, almost the entire Atlanta route was revamped based on participant feedback). And just this past year, we got numerous comments from Twin Cities walkers about all the trails, and so we changed a large portion of Day 2 to include a new town and some more residential walking.
All that said, I think we all can acknowledge that, while we’d love to set up the route to include every great area and neighborhood around a 3-Day city, we also need to create a safe (priority numero uno), continuous route—dot-connecting all those logistically-complex major sites, remember? So if you have a great park/neighborhood/trail to suggest, heck yeah you can tell us, and we’ll do our best! And hey, if it turns out we can’t incorporate them into the route, you can always use those amazing locations as the setting for some spectacular training walks. Boom!
Oh, By the Way… With variety, often comes hills. We don’t intentionally include hills, but we also can’t avoid them. In case you were wondering.
Fascinating stuff, right? Well we’re not done! Later in the week, your Insider will be back with Part 2 from my conversation with Sarah, about all things 3-Day route! Check back soon, and meanwhile, let us know your thoughts in comments!