Race director Desiree Bell operates one of the top-10 marathons in the country.
There are women pushing boundaries for us all in the sport of running, from elite runners like Shalane Flanagan, Kara Goucher and Lauren Fleshman, to apparel companies like Oiselle, led by CEO Sally Bergesen, to race directors like Mary Wittenberg, former CEO of New York Road Runners who oversaw the storied NYC Marathon for a decade. Among those influential woman is Desiree Peterkin Bell, the woman behind the GORE-TEX Philadelphia Marathon, which opened registration on April 1.
Bell has been in charge of the popular Philly event for the past three years and is one of the few female race directors of a top-10 marathon in the country. The busy runner shares what goes into organizing such a large race, what she hopes participants get out of the event and what she thinks about her role as a race director in the fifth largest city in the country.
Women’s Running: What led you to the GORE-TEX Philadelphia Marathon?
Desiree Peterkin Bell: I serve in a dual capacity here in the city of Philadelphia for Mayor Nutter. As a city representative, I produce a number of city events, with the biggest being the GORE-TEX Philadelphia Marathon. I was a runner—I was a sprinter—and I’m five-time NCAA Champion in track and field, so I know all too well what it takes to compete and still have fun. It is a very special race for me. I know how much time, energy and effort the runners put into this—both the competitive ones and the folks who just enjoy our race and enjoy our course. It is my background and my love of running and passion for doing events like this that led me to be the race director for the marathon. The mayor helped, as well.
WR: Have you always lived in Philadelphia, or did you move to the city later to work on the race?
DPB: I went to Swarthmore College, which is located right outside of Philadelphia, so I am very familiar with how they managed the marathon and how the city has done events. Also, I was already here and doing a number of things inside the administration before I finally got the opportunity to be the race director.
WR: Since you produce a number of events for the city, how does marathon planning fit in? Are you thinking years down the line, or just focused on this year’s race?
DPB: We start planning for the next year before the last runner runs across the finish line. We are constantly trying to figure out how to make experiences better than the year before, so planning never really stops. Obviously there are big dates we get excited about, such as when registration opens up in early spring, but we continue to push information out to our runners throughout the year, especially for the health and fitness expo that we produce. We also focus on lining up our official charities—we have 33 charity partners this year—so the work never stops. We also have more than 3,000 individuals that make the race happen every year as volunteers, and I could not do this without them. With 60,000 spectators that gather along the course to show their support, we are always interested in looking at ways that our spectators can have a good time but also support our runners; we do this through creating cheer zones strategically placed throughout the course so that on race day our runners feel encouraged as they continue to run.
Related: Why You Should Volunteer At A Race
WR: Do you ever find yourself participating in other races or scoping out what other races are doing?
DPB: Always. We do go to other marathons and in fact, we have booths at other marathons, such as New York or Boston. Quite frankly after the Boston Marathon bombing and the unfortunate incident that happened, we were the marathon up next. As a result we spent extra time to ensure a safe and secure perimeter. We never stop planning and we are always looking outside of the city for best practices and for enhancing our experience for everyone.
WR: It seems you have a lot of support of the city as you produce this race to keep everyone safe.
DPB: The city does an amazing job with events and we have a pretty large inter-agency coordinating task force. As I am preparing for the marathon I have fire, police, EMS, the Managing Director’s Office, Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security in my meetings as we are planning the course and the details of our marathon.
WR: How did the sponsorship with GORE-TEX come about?
DPB: When I first became race director, I wanted to align with a brand and a sponsor that made sense. The marathon had not had a sponsor before. Since GORE-TEX is known for reliability and, particularly for runners, enduring the weather no matter what, it was a natural alignment with them. They have been an amazing partner and we are very excited to have them on board.
WR: You are one of the only female race directors of a top-10 marathon. Do you feel that in the position? Is that something you notice?
DPB: I only notice it when other people mention it. I think a lot of it comes from my own background. I have been competitive runner before, so it didn’t matter if I was female or male, I needed to train just as hard, focus just as hard and compete just as hard. I tend to not pay attention to the labels. While I do recognize it, it doesn’t drive how I do business or carry on my race. It is something to note, though, and I think not every day that you have a young woman—I am not 40 yet, so in my head I am young—who is managing a top-10 race in the fifth largest city in the country.
WR: What are some of your favorite parts about your race that really make it unique?
DPB: There are couple of things that make the GORE-TEX Philadelphia marathon unique—one being our mayor. The entire race weekend—starting with the kid’s run and 8K on Saturday and the half marathon and marathon on Sunday—he stands at the start/finish line and doesn’t leave until that last runner crosses. If it means running across with that person, then that is what he will do. He gives high-fives to the runners; it has become a thing where, instead of watching their watches for their time, runners make it their goal to get to the mayor to get a high-five. Some even come back if they miss him.
We have created the Mayor’s High Five Award and it is given to a participant who has an inspiring story. This year’s winner will be announced at the press conference [before the event]. Some previous winners have included a gentleman who was struggling with his weight and was clinically depressed. He made a commitment to run in the marathon and used the information we put our during the year about how to maintain training and stay fit. He finished the marathon, got his high-five from the Mayor, saw a drastic change in his lifestyle and happiness and shortly after, got married. It is those stories we love to recognize and inspire everyone doing the race.