When 17,000 runners and walkers crossed the starting line for the Kentucky Derby Festival marathon and miniMarathon April 30, Deja Lawson wasn’t amongst them — but she wasn’t just standing on the sidelines, either.
Lawson is the event’s race director, overseeing the state’s largest road race each year. And there are races within the race — there’s the full marathon (26.2 miles), the miniMarathon (13.1 miles) and a team relay event for both distances. And if managing the logistics of a major endurance event wasn’t enough, Lawson also manages five other Kentucky Derby Festival events.
Centered around the greatest two minutes in sports, the Kentucky Derby Festival runs for two weeks leading up to the race itself. More than a dozen different activities offer something for everyone and give the city a lively buzz for days.
Lawson oversees the Great Steamboat Race, the Macy’s Kentucky Derby Festival Spring Fashion Show, KDF They’re Off Luncheon, Tour de Lou Cycling event and Texas Hold’em.
“Everyone on the event team carries the same load or more,” Lawson said. “This team is truly amazing — 70 events in two weeks!”
Not all of them, though, have to deal with the same challenges.
“I move port-o-potties at 1 a.m. the morning before the race,” she said, “and every year we have a dead opossum somewhere on the course!”
Lawson has spent a decade with KDF, starting in 2006 as an event manager. That weekend, the team is divided between the Great Balloon Race and the miniMarathon/marathon.
It was mostly “fun grunt work,” she said — signage and start/finish set-up and tear down.
“I helped the previous race director and the committee with whatever they needed at the time,” she said. “As the years went on I worked on the expo, runner entertainment and committee expansion.”
In 2012, she became the race director — in a male-dominated industry. While more and more women take over as race directors, including for such big events including New York and Los Angeles, Lawson said it’s still a mostly male-dominated industry overall.
“If you look at many of the vendors, suppliers, city services and support for endurance events, the majority of them are operated by men,” she said. “It is changing, but for a long time it was men talking and negotiating with other men. It is changing, and now within the industry you are starting to see more women in leadership roles or more female-owned businesses that work with races and endurance sports across the country.”
In the beginning, she said it was challenging — some contacts wouldn’t respond directly to her.
“Once I proved I knew what I was talking about and could negotiate my needs, it was a smooth transition,” she said. “Plus I don’t give up easily so eventually they would have deal with me!”
All jokes aside, Lawson notes that women sometimes are able to multitask and delegate more comfortably than men, both traits that help her events be successful.
“I think females can sometimes juggle more at one time and stay focused with multiple issues arise at once, we can delegate without feeling like we are giving up control or that someone else is not in charge,” she said.”It can sometimes be who is marking their territory and I think women think less about that and are more focused on getting the job done.
It didn’t take Lawson long to find her footing as race director — in the last 5 years the Marathon has grown 20 percent and the mini has grown about 5.5 to 6 percent.
Camille Estes, a long-time race director in Louisville, said that type of growth is remarkable.
“The market is completely oversaturated right now,” Estes said, referencing the explosion of distance running events. “To see any type of growth at all, especially right now, is incredible.”
Estes, former owner of River City Races and participant relations manager for the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon, said Lawson has “to think outside of the box on how to increase participation” and commended her for innovative ideas to do so.
For example, several years ago the races introduced an ambassador program, recruiting runners of all abilities to help encourage excitement about the race, especially utilizing social media and grassroots marketing.
Lawson also partnered with RunTheBluegrass, a half marathon in Lexington, to create the Kentucky Half Classic, challenging runners to complete both races — in April.
While the race is still 70 percent locals, the other 30 percent hail from across the state and country.
Chad Waggoner, the race committee’s elite athlete chair, commended Lawson’s ability to manage the desires of both groups.
“Deja is constantly working to showcase our great city with a course that highlights our town to the out of town guest as well as honoring the history of the race for the continuing local,” he said.
Lawson said she thinks the biggest niche, especially for visitors, is running through Churchill Downs — while Derby contenders are getting in their workouts right around you.
Plus, visitors have a great “runcation” opportunity, with the Hot Air Balloon Festival and Fest-a-ville at Waterfront Park — and all the bourbon attractions downtown.
It doesn’t matter to Lawson where a participant is from, or how fast they are, Waggoner said.
“Deja is driven to make Derby Festival miniMarathon and Marathon an amazing experience for everyone who toes the line,” he said.
It is truly a team effort, Lawson said. From her committee — currently comprised of more than 60 people who are “dedicated to working on this event and making sure it is successful” — to her own family, including her boyfriend, sister and parents.
“I call it Voluntold!” Lawson said. “My dad, Tim, is our route operations coordinator, my mom Kathy works on the race and fashion show.”
Meanwhile, committee members say it’s a two-way street.
“It is an honor to work with Deja because she is inspiring,” Waggoner said. “She challenges us that work the race to be at our best so our runners have an opportunity to run their best. From her tenacity and resilience as a leader to her humor and pleasant personality as a colleague, she makes working the race a true joy and honor.”
This story was later published in the Running Journal (July 2016).