The Peninsula Pacers got its start with the Door County Half Marathon in 2008. That race got its start where so many ideas form on the Door Peninsula – over breakfast at Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant in Sister Bay.
David Eliot was having breakfast with his then-girlfriend (now wife), veteran marathoner Krista Eliot, in January of 2007 when he and Lars Johnson hatched the idea of starting a half marathon in Door County. Johnson had batted around the idea of a distance event with Pastor Michael Brecke, and soon after, Johnson and Eliot started turning idea into action.
Eliot, founder of the local newspaper, the Peninsula Pulse, and Johnson, co-owner of Al Johnson’s and a runner himself, envisioned an event that would be embraced by residents and spark business on a traditionally slow weekend.
“The idea was to create an event to enhance the peninsula’s reputation as an active destination while boosting an otherwise slow spring weekend for the tourism-dependent community,” Eliot says.
Brecke and his wife Betsy Titterington, who had worked with the Kansas City Marathon for years, were brought into the mix, as well as Ephraim potter and silent sports enthusiast Brian Fitzgerald. He was soon brought on as race director, with Mary Knutson of the YMCA tabbed as race organizer.
By September, the idea became reality as the group convened with volunteers over another breakfast at Al’s and a new Door County tradition was born.
Early on, organizers set their sights on Peninsula State Park, considered Door County’s scenic jewel by many, as the host location.
“Peninsula State Park is perfect in so many ways,” Fitzgerald says. “It’s a reflection of what’s great about Door County, we are able to feature the beauty of the park, and we are also able to put on the race without closing down any public roads. It’s a great situation.”
A little more than a year after the idea was hatched, the first Door County Half Marathon brought 581 runners for the half marathon and the Nicolet Bay 5k to the starting line in May of 2008. Word spread rapidly through the running community about a beautiful course and an impeccably organized event.
“We stressed from the start that this had to be professional in every way,” Eliot says. “Runners have high expectations. We didn’t want this to come off as a small-time deal. We want people to walk away feeling that they just experienced one of the best running events in the country.”
Apparently they have, as the race draws more than 2,500 runners to the park each May.
Ultra-runner Roy Pirrung, a veteran of over 900 races big and small (from 5ks to a 722k challenge in Italy in 2011) said the Door County Half Marathon ranks among his favorites.
“The course is great, and the park is beautiful, but the organization is the most important part,” he says. “People love a beautiful course, but when you’ve grown at the rate of the Door County Half Marathon, it’s not the course, it’s the organization.”
That growth has enabled organizers to move toward their goal of making the race a fundraising opportunity as well.
In 2010, the Half Marathon began releasing 100 free race registrations to people who raised at least $250 for Door County charities. To date, through the Run for A Cause program and other contributions, the Door County Half Marathon has been able to raise over $150,000 for local non-profits.
“This is the tip of the iceberg,” Brecke says. “An idea that started as a conversation at a table at a local restaurant has turned into an event that brings in thousands in income for businesses and charities.”
As the event approaches its 10th year, it has exceeded all expectations – earning a reputation as one of the Midwest’s great runs, spurring business, and uniting the community in a common cause. The Door County Half Marathon, says Brecke, is about much more than 13.1 miles.
“It’s not just about a race, but about something to help the community, and that’s what we had in mind from the very beginning.”