With warm weather comes plenty of talk of Tribe games and day-drinking and, for our purposes here, hitting the pavement and trying to get back into shape. Running. It's the great equalizer of physical activity, and it's best done with some sort of goal in mind: Get in shape or beat your personal best or have fun and make that day-drinking feel less guilty. Neal Neroni is the president of Hermes Cleveland, the region's go-to race management group. In search of a 5K this weekend? Hermes has you covered. We spoke with Neroni about running, now that the weather is breaking for good, and about the social side of it all.
Eric Sandy: I've got to say, this will be the first year that I take up some of these races. I've only recently started running.
Neal Neroni: That's how it goes: Everybody runs when they're in high school, then in college they kinda do it. Then when they get out of college, they come back and they're too busy going out and drinking beer. They get to 28 and 29 and they're like, "Oh, man, I better get back in shape."
ES: That's my story.
NN: Good luck!
ES: What was the impetus behind starting Hermes?
NN: I was not around with those guys back then. Rich Lawhun and Gary Easter started Hermes, and they actually put on the first Turkey Trot. They thought that they'd just have a few hundred people. Well, 600 people showed up. They did it down in the Metroparks, and they thought, "Wow, we should keep doing this!" They had real jobs, and they were just putting on races on the side. That was back in 1982. I met them in 1989. I just got out of college, I was looking for a job. I happened to meet one of the guys, and I just started helping them out with races. At that time, there was an event called the Ohio Sports Festival; it was a statewide Olympics thing. That was my job when I got out of college. When the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission was formed, I was part of that too.
ES: That's another organization that's grown quite a bit.
NN: The last event I did for Greater Cleveland Sports Commission was the 1999 AAU Junior Olympic Games. At that time, the Sports Commission was transferring over to what they are now, with Dave Gilbert and everything they're doing. I was more of an operations guy. I went to Rich and Gary, and right around that time, in 1998, I said, "Hey, I've been helping you with these races, and I think this is a pretty great thing. Why don't you let me make it a full-time deal?" Back then we had 37 races, back in '98.
ES: For the whole year, right?
NN: It was a big calendar for guys who were working on it part-time. I met Nick Swingos, and he wanted to get out of the restaurant business. He was a computer/finance guy. And I wanted to take this full-time and make it a big deal. We went to Rich and Gary and worked out a deal. It turned into a full-time deal right around 1998, 1999. Here we are today with 160 races and Corporate Challenge and the Sports and Social Club.
ES: The calendar has filled out immensely. Are there any trends you can point to in the company's growth or people's interest in running?
NN: I think there are more races now, because a church or a school — I'm trying to look at some of these races on our calendar — if they're trying to raise money for a cause, they can put together a race and get 300 or 400 people and raise a few dollars. It gives them some awareness. There's a handful of races that are over 1,000 people, maybe 15 of them. The rest are small community races, fundraisers for a specific cause. That's good for running, I think. There's a new race we just did called Outrun Hunger. They get about 300 people, and some of those people believe in the cause, so they came out and ran. A couple people I talked to had never run a race in their life. And maybe that's the only race they're gonna do, because they believe in their cause. But they're getting out there, and not only do they get some exercise in, but it's social. But then they'll get hooked.
ES: Running is a solitary activity, but would you argue that it's easier and more effective by doing it with other people in a group setting?
NN: Absolutely. There's a good following of people I see almost every weekend at a race. Maybe they don't believe in that cause, maybe they do. They just want to get out and run and meet people and hang out. You can see it after a race. It's not just the awards ceremony, but you see them milling around the food and cheering everyone else on. The two ladies I mentioned who were running their first race ever: There was a person behind them, and they didn't know that person. But they stood at the finish line and waited for them to finish. They wanted to cheer them on, and in my opinion it's more social than anything. It's a good way to get out, get your run in and raise money for a cause.
ES: Attendance has probably risen a lot over the years?
NN: Totally, yes. With 160 races on the calendar, the numbers are up. You may see those people every weekend, or they may just come out once a month or once a year.
ES: Are there any new or unique races you're particularly excited about?
NN: The nice thing about our calendar is we have a mix. You're gonna see mostly 5Ks. And, you know, I'm not a big runner, but I can get up and run a 5K on a Saturday. But if it's a 10K or a half-marathon, then I've got to really think about it. That's why you'll see a lot of 5Ks. On our calendar, I love the staples and the mix: the 10-miler in the spring and the half-marathon for the River Run in the fall. Then you look at St. Malachi: tradition, four miles, come out and have some fun. The Shot in the Dark is beer, bands and running at night. The Sombrero Shuffle speaks for itself. It's not even a mile run with some fun things involved. I like the variety. The Turkey Trot is tradition at the end of the year. We have some runs that go through Progressive Field. And every little community race brings out someone new in that community.
ES: Any last words before I huff through another couple miles out there?
NN: Just get out there and think of the social aspect of it. Everyone wants to get into shape, and that's great — running is a great way to do it. But I think if you pick a race and go there and meet some people, your enthusiasm will get even better. Then, when you're out there running by yourself on Monday and Tuesday, and you're like, "Geez, why am I doing this?"... well, you're doing this because in two weeks is the Hermes 10-miler. Or the 10-miler is a ways off, but they have a five-miler, and I'm gonna start off with that. It gives you something to shoot for and things to do on the weekends. And every race has a great charity attached. Everyone should know that somehow, in some way, they're always helping those people out.