In my last post I gave a leg-by-leg account of my team’s experience running the Reno-Tahoe Odyssey (RTO). This post takes a look at Eric Lerude, the fellow who conceived and brought to life the event.
But first a warning.
Be careful what new challenges you tackle as they may cause a major course-adjustment in your life.
Eric Lerude ran Oregon’s Hood to Coast Relay for the first time in 2003, and since then you could say he’s never stopped running.
ERIC LERUDE, RENO-TAHOE ODYSSEY EVENT DIRECTOR
Eric returned from the event determined to put together a similar “big relay” featuring his hometown of Reno.
He did just that, and the event debuted in July 2005 with 36 teams finishing. Four years later, in the fifth running of the RTO this year, 104 teams completed the event. Word has gotten out among runners that this is an exceptionally well organized relay with a course that will take your breath away. (Those that have run RTO know that this is a double entendre because the elevation really can take away the breath of us flatlanders.)
For an interesting look at the origins of the event read this 2006 article about Lerude from the Reno Gazette-Journal.
I asked Eric how he determined the relay’s 178-mile course. He wrote a fascinating account of the process he went through, which due to space limitations I can’t include here, but I offer a synopsis below. (Please e-mail me if you’d like to read his entire description.)
He knew he wanted to put Reno in the spotlight so that was accomplished by making Reno the beginning and end of the relay.
Downtown Reno’s strongest suit is the Truckee River. Eric chose Wingfield and Idlewild Parks for the start and finish locations respectively, while taking runners out of downtown on the first leg on Riverside Drive, and bringing them home on the last leg on the bike path which runs along the river from Sparks to downtown Reno.
Besides Reno, he wanted Lake Tahoe to play a key role so he weighed the suitability of different routes to and from the lake for safety, elevation changes, and location of potential hand-off spots. Certain roads were out of the question because they were freeways or because of extreme elevation gain or loss (Mt. Rose, for instance). The other region that Eric wanted to be sure to include was the rugged and historic Comstock Lode area, location of the relay’s last van-to-van hand-off in Virginia City by the Bucket of Blood Saloon
Eric’s keen native’s knowledge of the area, connections with other local runners and cyclists, and discussions with various jurisdictions in both Nevada and California were all part of the process that resulted in his original course design, which has undergone only a few very slight modifications since 2005.
I first met Eric in December 2004 when I was waiting in line at the marathon relay packet pick-up the day before the California International Marathon (CIM) in Sacramento. He had begun promoting the first RTO at other big events in the region starting with a booth at the CIM race expo.
I hadn’t done a big relay like that since the Calistoga-Santa Cruz event in ’02 but Eric’s persuasiveness coupled with the allure of doing an inaugural event led me to decide to try putting a team together. (Eric would later prove to be crucial to the making of my team. That first year I was only able to assemble six runners so he paired us with another group of six from Truckee so our first team was named the “Chico-Truckee Connection”. He continues to offer teams “matchmaking” services when necessary.)
The development of the RTO was and remains as much a personal odyssey for Eric as for the runners taking part in the relay. A lawyer by training, he found by his early 40s that the practice of corporate law had lost its luster.
He continues to practice law but his lawyering is of an entirely different sort: he now reviews convictions on behalf of felons in northern Nevada who originally may not have been adequately represented or fairly tried. Eric finds the work rewarding, and also easy to arrange around periods when the RTO demands most of his time.
But the detail-oriented traits of a successful lawyer are also engaged in the RTO side of his life, both in long-term planning and day-to-day execution of the relay.
Quoting from the 2006 Reno Gazette-Journal article: “The course runs through two states, eight counties, six cities, two towns, three different national forests, and 35 relay exchange points, each with a different private property owner. It’s a logistical nightmare that only an attorney could love, dealing with all these disparate entities for permission to have close to 900 runners come through.”
Furthermore sponsors must be lined up to assure the financial viability and attractiveness of the event, as well as an army of volunteers to staff the start and finish lines, plus the 35 exchange points.
Clearly, a director for a relay race like the RTO has to have the appetite to eat, sleep, and breathe the event in the year leading up to it.
And flexibility must be your middle name.
Relay runners need to be adaptable in case of a teammate’s injury, weather problems, vehicle problems, and so forth.
But that’s nothing compared to what an event director may have to face.
In ’07, the third year of the RTO, the massive Agoura fire raged in South Lake Tahoe shortly before the relay was to take place. It was a difficult decision, but instead of a total cancellation Eric opted to remove the middle third of the event (legs 13-24). It changed the nature of the event that year, but left intact the record of delivering an annual relay that will enter its sixth year in 2010.
Eric now has a terrific part-time assistant, Kim Kennedy, to help with the myriad details of putting on the RTO. Kim knows the event well having run in the ’05 inaugural race and is as enthusiastic about it as Eric.
But since the relay’s inception his family has been Eric’s mainstay of support, starting first and foremost with his wife, Stephanie. You’ll see Stephanie pitching in on any and all days of the RTO doing whatever it takes to help make the event successful. (And don’t be surprised if you see one of their sons helping out, too.) But that’s only what’s visible to participants.
A big race – relay or otherwise – is like a huge tree where most of the tree is roots that no one can see. For a race, the “roots” are all of the work that goes into the event days and months and sometimes years before a single step is run. Stephanie is integral to Eric’s and the RTO’s root structure.
ERIC AND STEPHANIE LERUDE
The success of the original Reno-Tahoe Odyssey has led to the creation of three sister Odyssey events, which Eric and his business partners operate under the auspices of Odyssey Race Management.
This past April the first running of the American Odyssey (Gettysburg, Penn. to Washington, D.C.) took place. The mayor of D.C. ran the anchor leg which finished at the Washington Monument!
In September 2010 the Southern Odyssey in Georgia is scheduled for its inaugural event.
And then this September a kind of beta-test, invitation-only London Odyssey takes place with a course that includes such landmarks as Windsor Castle, Oxford, and Blenheim Palace.
From Reno to London in five years. Pretty darn good, I’d say.
The next and last of my Reno posts will be unrelated to running: a look at the state of the city’s downtown today.