It’s Year 22 for the Greater Buffalo Track Club’s Grand Island Half Marathon, and Year One for its new race director, Mike O’Neill.
His rise to the top of the organizational chart is typical for a nonprofit enterprise.
“When we needed a new person, everyone else stepped back and I was the guy left,” he said with a chuckle.
O’Neill added, “I have been part of the club since 2012. I had volunteered to do sponsorships because of my background in business development. I learned about the race through that. I’ve led some organizations before, and it’s all about communicating with people.”
One of the biggest requirements for a job like this is enthusiasm, and O’Neill has plenty as the raceday of May 7 approaches. He’d like to think it has found a niche on the year’s running calendar.
“It really kind of serves a couple of different masters,” he said. “I have run the New York race, and you’re tripping over people. Here you have about 400 to 600 people.
“It’s relatively flat, and for a beginner it’s a great race. For those looking for a PR (personal record), it’s also a nice race.”
One of the first decisions a new race director must make is how much of an agent of change he or she should be. Most don’t want to alter a winning formula, but don’t want to see the event fall into the “we’ve never done it that way before” trap.
O’Neill, a veteran runner himself, decided his first move was to share the proceeds of the race with the Roswell Park Cancer Institute. The GBTC membership has had a couple of personal connections to people who have died of melanoma. Runners spend a lot of time in the sun, so this sends a strong message.
“How many people think about running without putting on lotion?” he asked. “One of the things I asked Roswell to do is to be there at the race with sunscreen, including some for the spectators. They are standing, too. There could be ice on the river, but it’s still sunny. Runners spend a lot of time on clothing and nutrition, but they don’t think of the sun enough.”
From there, it was just a matter of doing a little tinkering to the many aspects of a race
“We have a certified course, and people like the course,” O’Neill said. “One of the things we wanted to do for the sponsors and the runners was give them a better experience. ... Last year, our goal was to get more groups at the race with tents. Fleet Feet will have a recovery zone at the finish line. We’ll have a licensed physical therapist there; the Buffalo Marathon does that.”
The race also hopes to give the runners a bit of a boost when the introduction of a rooting section along the course.
“We stole this from the Philadelphia half-marathon,” O’Neill said. “The big city races have areas where people cheer. This was really cool.
“At our little race, runners got to mile 9, and there’s nobody there. I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat if we had music and a ‘Fan Zone?’ Some UB students are coming out, we’ll have some fans from Grand Island. We’ll have a Zumba group, dancing and singing, and a spot to cheer on the runners.”
The course essentially starts and ends around Beaver Island State Park, as it follows the West River Parkway along the Niagara River much of the way. Speaking of the river, it can add a little twist to the race’s conditions that can surprise the participants.
“Two years ago, we had sunny skies in the forecast with temperatures around 45 to 50. You couldn’t paint a better day,” O’Neill said. “Ice was still coming down the river, though. It got to Beaver Island, and it shaved 10 degrees off. That adds to the intrigue in the run.”
The race usually is held on the first Saturday in May, and this year that means it’s the day before Mother’s Day. A 10-kilometer run is held at the same time as the half-marathon, but the longer race remains a good-sized attraction for many.
“A half-marathon does not require a huge time commitment for training,” O’Neill said. “With a marathon, if you work 40 hours a week or travel,’ you really have to allocate additional time. For people who run 5Ks or 10Ks and are looking for another challenge, the half-marathon is a neat distance.”
• BuffaloRunners 6-Hour Distance Classic, Northtown Center, Amherst, 8 a.m. on Sunday.
• SAPS Race WNY Maple Festival, various, 31 N. Main St. , Franklinville, 9 a.m. Sunday, 676-8060 x3204.
• Catalyst Fitness Race for a Cause, 5K, 2745 Seneca St., West Seneca, 6:30 p.m. Friday, 824-4655.
• Buffalo Undy 5000, 5K, Delaware Park, Buffalo, 9 a.m. Saturday, (202) 628-0123 x125.
• The 716 Mile, 1 mile, UB Stadium Track, Amherst, 11 a.m. Saturday, 645-6815.
• Run for Babies 5K, 44 Prime St., Buffalo, 10 a.m. May 1, 583-9527.
• Cinco de Mayo 5K, 383 Davison Road, Lockport, 12 noon May 1.
• Running Water 5K, Clarence Town Park, Clarence, 1:30 p.m. May 1.