Run Oregon interviews Portland Marathon Event Director Les Smith

This is the first in an occasional series where Run Oregon interviews local race and event directors. Our subject today is Mr. Lester Smith, Event Director of the Portland Marathon. Questions and answers have been edited for context and brevity.

Lester Smith, Event Director of the Portland Marathon since 1982

Q (Tung Yin/Run Oregon): What is your day job when you are not working on the Portland Marathon? A (Les Smith): I’m one of the founding partners at the law firm Bullard Smith Jernstedt Wilson, otherwise known as Bullard Law. Q: Are you a runner yourself? A: I used to run a lot of marathons. It took several years to convert from being a runner to a race director, which is a completely different mindset. I don’t run now. I walk … but not enough (laughs). Q: How long have you been an event director? A: I’ve been the event director for the Portland Marathon since 1982.

Q: What attracted you to the idea of becoming an event director?

A: I had just become president of ORRC and was looking for an agenda, and didn’t know if it should be publication, membership, or quality of events. But that fall, in 1981, I decided to run the Portland Marathon. Only 457 people registered, the race started late, and aid stations weren’t set up. I decided that would be my project. That previous December, I had run the Honolulu Marathon and met Fred Lebow. I got to hang out with him for 3 days and picked his brain. I was interested in learning as much as I possibly could. So I took the directorship on and created a committee a diverse group of 15: civil engineers, advertising, finance people, because I saw the need for people who could build a first class marathon for Portland. That’s what I worked toward all these years. I enjoy working with people, running, and marketing, and the combination of those is what we do. If we can do something to make it better for you, that’s what we’re going to do.

Q: How do you make the Portland Marathon stand out?

A: One of the things we’ve tried to do is to have the best swag. We have the best race shirt. We have the medal that’s been found to be the best in North America. That excites me. I think we are innovating in what we do. We had the first walking division, which was started in 1986. We have an event coin, which is a challenge coin (from the military). We’ve done 9 virtual runs for the Oregon National Guard when they’ve been deployed. We always created a challenge coin for that event because we know the military likes that sort of thing.

Q: What does your staffing look like?

A: They’re seasonal. We have a 60 person volunteer committee, think of like a wagon wheel. At the middle is a hub, which is myself, my assistant director Mamie Wheeler, and a couple of key coordinators (volunteer, IT, graphics). They’re not employees; they’re independent contractors [who also work on other events, giving them expertise]. At the end of each spoke is a function, like medical, course, logistics, registration, expo, all those are functional areas. Those people have been on my volunteer committee – the average time has been 22 years. So we’re old salts, but we have some great new people. In between the wagon wheel and hub are 4 or 5 seasonal coordinators to support them.

Q: How many volunteers do you have during race week?

A: Overall for event, we use around 4500 volunteers. During the week, have a variety of things – warehouse oriented, registration at expo, day of race – on course, monitors, traffic control, I would say we probably have 2500-3000. And of course at the end of course with food, and green teams to sweep.

Q: You said that being an event director takes a different mindset than being a runner does. What’s an example of that?

A: Runners want to be able to register as late as possible for a race. For an event director, that’s no good. We need to have a good count for the logistics, permits, and so on.

Q: What’s an example of a decision that you have to make as an event director that racers might not think about?

A: [One is,] how do you handle medical? Take London, near the end, the finish is near Buckingham Palace. Along the one side there are these alcoves. I have no idea what they were built for, but at the race they set them up almost like operating rooms. What are they going to do? Our philosophy is, if someone is going to the hospital, it’s the EMT’s call. We are triaging them. We don’t want to make things worse.

Q: Who are some of the more memorable runners (not necessarily elite pros) who you can remember running your race?

A: The memorable runners are the older runners, like Mavis Lindgren. She was 71 in 1983. She ran her last race at age 91. In between she ran 76 marathons. I had the honor of running with her. I was like her blocking back. The second runner I always call attention to is Clive Davies. I saw that man at age 64 run a 4:46 mile. The third was Dr. [Paul] Spangler. He was 88 or 89, came in Hood River and ran for many years in the first years of my being an event director.

Q: What do you feel as you see people crossing the finish line? The first? The last?

A: We work all year on this event, and one of the things I like to think of in terms of the event weekend is to slow it all down. I want it all in slow motion, because we work on it so long, and suddenly it’s gone. For me, to see the runners come to the expo and to see their excitement, that is so satisfying, that’s the reward. To see them on event day, to wish favorable weather – it’s only rained once, and that was terrible, otherwise it’s October and the weather is favorable – the chances are good that you can do it without injury, that’s the great reward. You feel like you’ve done something that’s worthwhile. And every one of those runners, you know they have a story. I pretty much stay there until 3:30 or 4. I’m very committed to people in the back that they don’t get forgotten about. We pack food in – we call it a garage – so that those people who are late are going to be treated well.

Q: What else makes you feel good about the Event?

A: I am proud of my committee and our volunteers because they really help create a valuable community event. Our event creates enough revenue through hotel taxes to pay for city costs (although sad to say we get no credit for that from the current city administration). And it is rewarding to know our event gives back over $250,000 to charities, nonprofit entities, service clubs, and school activity groups and athletic teams. Last year, over 125 grants or donations were given under this program.  Being able to do this for our community is a terrific reward for me and all our volunteers.


Thanks to Les Smith for making the time for this interview! The 2016 Portland Marathon will take place on October 9, 2016. If you haven’t yet registered, you can do so here.

About Tung Yin (277 Articles)
Law prof by day, runner all the time. Got off the couch in January 2011 and have been obsessed with running ever since.
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