There’s more to a marathon than running — Porta-Potties, for instance. That’s where race organizer Joyce Forier comes in
It’s late February 2007, and then-32-year-old Joyce Forier is running along the Red Rock Scenic Drive. The 13-mile loop is a gorgeous training spot for the five-year marathon enthusiast. Something occurs to her as she runs: Huh, I wonder what it takes to put on a race here? That day, she makes some calls, cuts through some red tape, and makes a few more calls. On March 1, the Red Rock Canyon Marathon, and Calico Racing alongside it, are born.
“Las Vegas had very few races back in 2007, and none that served runners in natural settings,” says Forier, who has lived in Las Vegas since 2001. “The Las Vegas Marathon was the only marathon-distance race, and they focused on the typical Las Vegas experience of the Las Vegas Strip, casinos, and neon lights. I wanted to show people the gorgeous natural side of Las Vegas where I trained as an athlete myself.”
Forier’s efforts to organize these kinds of landscape races — from Running With the Devil at Lake Mead to the ET Full Moon marathon on the Extraterrestrial Highway — have made her a sort of founder of the modern Las Vegas running scene. Prior to her races, such events in Las Vegas were primarily short charity runs, like the Great Santa Run, the Race for the Cure, or Turkey Trots around Thanksgiving.
It didn’t happen overnight. The avid marathoner had to quickly learn the art of jumping through hoops. Operating races required a new set of skills and knowledge that have nothing to do with running races: LLCs, insurance, renting portable toilets, site permits, website building, traffic plans, and on-site ambulances. She must coordinate with different agencies and governments to set up races on public land. Establishing the Red Rock Canyon Marathon taught her not just about the race-organizing process, but about creating the process.
“There really wasn’t a process in place for running events, and I worked together with the permitting agency to develop that process going forward,” she says. “From there, I developed eight other races in other jurisdictions within the greater Las Vegas Valley.”
Her first race was Running with the Devil at Lake Mead on June 30, 2007, with 92 participants — and a pounding heart.
“I’m nervous every race, even today,” Forier says. “What’s that expression? Whoever is angered by nothing cares about nothing. If I didn’t worry, it would mean I didn’t necessarily care. Even 96 races later, I’m still nervous. The minute that you stop being nervous, that’s when things start to fall apart, because there are going to be things that are completely outside of your control, like a potential government shutdown.”
That August, she held her first ET Full Moon midnight race on the Extraterrestrial Highway next to the tiny town of Rachel, which has one of the highest participation rates of any of her races, and is certainly the one that has gotten the most press in the running world.
Forier will celebrate her 100th race with the Calico Centennial on May 26, which will include both trail and road options. Getting to that number wasn’t easy. She’s putting on two races this month alone, and organizes nine to 11 annually.
“Joyce is probably the hardest-working person I’ve ever met,” says Steve Delaney, who has been helping with her events for eight years, and has yet to miss a race since he started. “She’s the sole owner. She does it all herself, except for volunteers. But she is it. She is the backbone of Calico. And it really inspired me to see how hard she worked.”
Doing it all herself is how Forier makes Calico Racing a full-time job — though perhaps she’s temperamentally suited for it, too. “It takes a certain person to work with her,” Delaney says. “You have to understand that she’s in charge. It’s got to go her way, and her way only. She’s not looking for opinions from anybody. She’ll ask ‘What’s your opinion?’ but your opinion will be whatever you say, and she doesn’t really want it.”
When it came to running races herself, Forier didn’t start small — her first race was a full marathon in 2002. “I’ve still never run a 5k or 10k, and only ran my first half-marathon a month after running my 100th marathon,” she says.
Running a marathon was on her bucket list, and she trained by herself for 18 weeks under the clearly false pretense that she would retire from running races afterward. When she finished the race successfully, she came to lament the loss of such a large end goal for her training. So she signed up for a second marathon. She quickly found herself drawn in to the sport, and has competed in more than 120 marathons, ultramarathons (running any distance greater than the traditional 26.2 miles of a marathon), and Ironman-style triathlons over the past 16 years. She’s also three states from becoming the first Nevada woman to run a marathon in under four hours in all 50 states, a group that includes only 84 men and 19 women throughout the United States, according to the 50Sub4 Marathon Club. (Those states are Wyoming, Idaho, and Michigan.)
As an organizer, she trades the solitude of running for a flurry of administrative duties. She gets the runners, with their timer chips fastened somehow to their person, in position to start, leads a 10-second countdown shout, and sends them on their way. (Her races typically have multiple distances, leading to staggered start times.) Then she immediately meets with others to ensure that proper race protocols are being followed.
She makes sure that aid stations (water and food tables dotting the course) are supplied and that proper instructions have been delivered to her many volunteers who work the aid stations. Given that many of her races include marathon and ultramarathon distances, this can last most of the day.
“She invites runners to be in places where they normally wouldn’t think of for running,” says Ernie Rambo, who has been running and volunteering at Forier’s races since the first Running With the Devil. “Joyce started directing events in this area when others believed that it couldn’t be done.” She says that a decade ago, few believed there was enough interest in longer races to sustain a business like Forier’s. Many marathoners believed you needed to rest one day for every mile in a grueling race. “Joyce is part of the generation that thought, You know, we can go out and do those longer distances and not have to rest for the next three months ’til we could run again.”
Beginning in January 2013, Forier noticed a drop in her participation numbers. For a few races the trend continued, and it took time before she realized why.
“Some of it was just the number of competitors,” she says, “but in 2013 (it) was the large prevalence of races advertising on Groupon and Livingsocial.” She says “money-grabbing, unethical” organizations came to town, putting on subpar events. “They didn’t have a sustainable business model. So it’s a $50 entry, and then with Groupon it has to be 50 percent of the retail price. So if it’s $50, they’re gonna put it out there for $25 as the Groupon price, and then from that, you get half. So the organizers get $12.50 for what they’re saying is the retail price. So a lot of them in the beginning were playing exactly that game. Well, our race legitimately is $40, so now it’s $20 for the sale, and I get $10 with the split. So obviously that’s not sustainable. You’re barely even covering your most basic of costs. But then a lot of companies canceled. A lot of companies then started catching on and artificially inflating. ‘Oh yeah, it’s normally $100.’ Really? Your 5k is normally $100? And that’s their way to ultimately only get $25 which, honestly, even $25 isn’t that sustainable. So they started delivering these very inferior products, the product being the race.”
Rambo has had her own experiences with poor race structures. “Sometimes it’s not a safe course,” she says. “Sometimes maybe a low-key race, let’s say. Where they have running with traffic, and it’s not coned. To me that’s not safe.” Other issues ranged from accessible water for runners to all participant T-shirts being the same size. “These are just assumptions that you make when you pay money to register for a race,” she says.
After runners and government agencies alike got burned by the organizers, new permits and permissions were put in place, making life harder for Forier and other companies that follow procedures. Though it did weed out some that didn’t.
“From a racer’s point of view, I return to Joyce’s races because I can depend on her putting on a legitimate race, with proper permits, insurance, and safety considerations,” Rambo says.
Forier was tempted to join the Groupon train, but opted not to, knowing that once runners pay a smaller amount, it would be difficult to get them to pay normal rates going forward. “She won’t do it because it devalues what she’s worked at,” Delaney says. “It completely devalues it.”
Forier has a saying, “Not my fault, still my problem.” Here’s an example: One year, a bus Forier set up to ferry participants to Rachel for the ET race had its windshield smashed by an unknown projectile. That left it inoperable on the side of Route 93 with 56 runners aboard. Forier was on a bus behind it, and when she learned of the problem, she immediately began trying to wave down passenger cars, in the hope that they were headed toward the race and might have room for a single runner. (The other buses were too full to help.) By some miracle, she got everyone to the starting line on time.
Running with the Devil, at Lake Mead, hit its own snag in 2013 due to heat warnings less than two weeks before the start of the race. Because the warning was for locations below 4,000 feet, which includes Lake Mead, Forier scrambled to find a higher location, so she could at least offer the runners something. Then the heat warning was raised to include locations below 6,000 feet, effectively removing most possibilities. An effort was made to secure private land, but to no avail. She had to cancel.
“I’ve never worked harder to not put on a race,” she recalls.
Although her terms of agreement protected her from the necessity of it, she opted to send emails to all 430 runners, with a list of options for reimbursement; she met with five international runners on the Strip to hand them their cash back. It took her three years, but everyone was taken care of.
If Forier’s participant numbers haven’t returned to their peak — such as her 995-person ET race in 2010 — the smaller scale (which she says has stabilized) has some upsides. Smaller races can be more social, and Forier enjoys the “Calico family” created by her races, and her direct involvement in them. And in 2014, Forier gained a deeper understanding of how much she appreciates that.
That Christmas Eve, she received a call from a company that bought races from a friend of hers. They offered to buy Calico outright. Forier thought about it.
“Through those days, it gave me a chance to think about, Am I willing to sell? And if so, how much? It was a really interesting barometer for my life,” she says. “Because if I wanted to, I could have just cashed out, and all ties are gone. I could have sold my business, sold my house, and I could have left Las Vegas and created what I want my life to be. Which was a really weird position. Well, it’s not enough to not have to work, so where do I wanna live? What do I wanna do? And ultimately I came back to, I wanna do exactly this, exactly here. And it was such a marvelous revelation to realize I’m living the right life for myself.”