Jon Lugbill, executive director of Sports Backers, chuckles about the 1999 letter he sent out seeking a sponsor for a new 10K race on Monument Avenue.
Sports Backers was just getting into the business of creating and marketing local sports events, but Lugbill didn’t hold back on a bold vision.
“I said that we would create a signature running event for our community similar to Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta and BOLDERBoulder in Colorado,” said Lugbill, referring to the two largest 10K races in the country.
“We had ambition, I guess, for the Ukrop’s Monument Avenue 10K to become really good right from the start, actually before the start.”
With the race celebrating its 20th anniversary on Saturday, it’s apparent Lugbill was a big and forward thinker.
The event took off quickly and now consistently draws about 25,000 participants, making it the fourth-largest 10K in the country. As a measure of its local popularity, almost 20,000 of this year’s participants are from the Richmond region.
With its scenery, bands and fun feel, the race has garnered numerous accolades from running publications. The magazine Runner’s World rates it among its “70 American Road Races Every Runner Should Finish.” BibRave, a race review site, ranks it third nationally among 10K races and calls it “part pep rally, part block party and part costume party — all wrapped up in a competitive 10K.”
“I always call it Richmond’s Mardi Gras,” said runner Ray Flournoy, who has participated in every race.
Lugbill arrived at Sports Backers in May 1993. He spied Monument Avenue a few times and increasingly thought it would be a perfect place to hold a 10K race.
He stored that thought until 1998, when Sports Backers started shifting from bidding on outside events to creating, owning and marketing local events.
The organization’s first foray into that realm came when it took control of the Richmond Marathon in 1998, after the Richmond Times-Dispatch stopped sponsoring it. The marathon lost money for a long time, Lugbill said, but that didn’t deter him.
In 2000, after Ukrop’s Super Markets Inc. signed on as the sponsor, the 10K became the second event owned by Sports Backers.
“One of the things we think about in marketing Richmond as a destination is, what is it that Richmonders are really proud of, and how do we create an event that really showcases that?” Lugbill said.
“One of the things that people do is show off Monument Avenue to visitors and friends. Now there might be positives and negatives around the monuments, but nonetheless you get people out there. And then the beautiful homes and the architecture, and the way people keep their yards, the flowers and trees, all become part of it.”
Lugbill thought big because the challenges of putting on a race on Monument Avenue required it. Streets have to be closed to traffic, and that means higher police costs.
Then there’s access and parking. Lugbill said Sports Backers originally considered starting and ending the race at Willow Lawn. No sponsor stepped forward, however, and a start/finish closer to downtown was selected, around Virginia Commonwealth University.
“Downtown just has a ton more parking and a ton more interstate access,” he said. “It’s just so much easier to get 25,000 people in and out down there. It’s kind of interesting that is a big factor to the race’s success. We were a little bit lucky, I guess.”
With a break-even point of about 2,000 participants the first year, the race drew 2,436. The race grew to 4,680 participants the second year, then to 6,531 and to 9,997. It jumped to more than 15,200 in the fifth year.
“We went from a nonexistent race to the fourth-largest 10K in the country in five years,” Lugbill said.
At its peak, there were about 40,000 participants each year from 2011 to 2013, making it the seventh-largest running race in the U.S. and among the top 25 in the world.
“I thought it was the perfect place for a running race,” Lugbill said. “I still think it’s the perfect place for a running race.”