The Door County Fall 50 was created launched in 2006 by Sean Ryan, an athletic event organizer in northeast Wisconsin. Ryan had successfully launched the Door County Triathlon in 2005. He immediately realized that the tourism appeal of Door County made it the ideal venue for staging serious athletic events. The scenic beauty and wide array of dining, shopping and other tourism amenities made it a perfect location for destination athletes and their families.
Shortly before the inaugural Door County Triathlon took place, Jon Jarosh, marketing director for the Door County Chamber of Commerce and a member of the triathlon’s board of directors, approached Ryan. Jarosh said that while the tourism impact of the triathlon was appreciated, the County would benefit more greatly from an event positioned outside of the peak Memorial Day to Labor Day tourism season.
Ryan began to brainstorm ideas for an event that could take place in the late Fall, after the annual Fall festivals in Door County had taken place. Offering a marathon or half marathon did not appeal to him. There was already a glut of Fall marathons and half marathons in the Midwest. In addition, Ryan felt that the 26.2 miles of a marathon could not adequately showcase the scenic beauty Door County had to offer.
Ryan had twice participated in the Hood-To-Coast Relay, a 195-mile 24-hour 12-person team relay in Oregon from the top of Mt. Hood to the town of Seaside on the coast. Unfortunately, the narrow shoulders and unlit county highways of Door County eliminated consideration of a 24-hour relay. Instead, Ryan came up with the idea for a one-day relay that would take participants from the tip of the peninsula down the western shoreline along the bay of Green Bay through the quaint villages and parks and finish in the population center of Sturgeon Bay.
CHARTING A COURSE
On a June morning in 2005, Ryan drove to Gills Rock on the tip of the peninsula. After turning around in front of the Shoreline Restaurant, he reset his odometer and began to head south down the western shoreline. As he drove, Ryan made a point of taking every right turn that was not a dead end or a private driveway. The route took him along scenic backroads and occasionally along Hwy. 42. It passed through Gills Rock, Ellison Bay, Sister Bay, Ephraim, Peninsula Park, Fish Creek, Juddville, Egg Harbor, and Sturgeon Bay. When he arrived in Sturgeon Bay, Ryan’s odometer read precisely 50.0 miles.
Ryan felt that 50 miles was a perfect distance for a one-day relay. He decided to break the route into 10 legs and assign them to 5 runners per team. He reasoned that if he defined the legs carefully, each runner would have approximately 10 miles to traverse. In addition, 5 seemed like a number that could fit into a single vehicle (sports utility or minivan) quite easily.
A SIMPLE NAME
Now Ryan just needed a name for the event. As he drove home, he pondered what would be an appropriate name for a 50-mile relay that would take place in the Fall in Door County. The name “Fall 50″ seemed too obvious and he assumed that certainly someone somewhere must already put on an event by that name. When he arrived home and did a Google search on the web, he was amazed to find out that there was no event by the name “Fall 50″ and variations of the name (both fall50.com and fallfifty.com) were available for domain registration. He immediately purchased the domain name.
A BOLD SLOGAN
As he began designing promotional materials and a website for the Fall 50, Ryan decided the event needed a catchy slogan. Since the event had no history, he had a blank sheet of paper to come up with something. Reflecting on the natural beauty of Door County and the wonderful vistas the course offered, Ryan decided to declare it “The Most Scenic Distance Run in the Midwest®.” Most participants who have experienced the event agree with the slogan.
ADDING A SOLO DIVISION
The Fall 50 was originally intended to be strictly a team relay event. When Ryan presented to the Badgerland Striders running club in Milwaukee, however, many of the inquiries from the audience concerned whether people could run the event solo. Not an ultra-runner himself, Ryan was surprised at the level of interest in offering the event as both a team relay and a solo event. He immediately decided to offer a solo division with the event.
Ryan realized that by positioning the event in late Fall, the event would inevitably appeal to many distance runners and their training partners. Since it was to take place after most of the Fall marathons and half marathons, it would be a “last hurrah of the season” to many Midwestern runners. To promote this view of the event, Ryan decided that the party at the finish should be somewhat raucous and no-holds-barred. To achieve this effect and differentiate the Fall 50, he decided that the registration fee would include access to a post-race party tent with unlimited pizza, beer and wine.
LAUNCHING THE EVENT
Ryan tried unsuccessfully to launch the Fall 50 in 2005. Unfortunately, he had begun marketing the idea much too late in the year and attracted only a handful of interested solo runners. To avoid a financial loss, Ryan cancelled the 2005 edition of the race. He had not given up on the concept, however, and vowed to launch it in October 2006 regardless of turnout.
The inaugural Fall 50 took place on October 21, 2006. The event attracted 55 teams and 22 solo runners, or 186 people total, its first year. Stuart Kolb, a local distance runner in northeast Wisconsin, won the solo division with a time of 6 hours 20 minutes. The team relay was decided by less than one minute with the winner being a team from Green Bay named “What the Birds Left” and included Mike Servais, Michael Dorsey, Gary Wondrash, Russ Retterath and Dan Johanski.
GROWTH, A WONDERFUL PROBLEM
The event doubled in size during the next two years with approximately 400 participants (77 teams, 52 solo runners) in 2007, and 800 participants (159 teams, 58 solo runners) in 2008. Facing such large growth for an event that traveled shoulders of open road, Ryan was concerned about the safety and enjoyment of the participants. He had committed to the Sheriff’s Department that the runners would not shut down or disrupt the segments of Hwy. 42 that it traveled along. He was concerned about safely getting participants and spectators in and out the rest stations. In addition, the post-race party had already outgrown its traditional host location.
A NEW FINISH LINE
During the first three years of the Fall 50, the event had finished on the north lawn of Stone Harbor Resort along the shipping channel. As it had grown, the ability of the organizers to adequately contain the crowd size became a challenge. The largest tent that would fit on the lawn was a single 60′ x 120′ tent which was overflowing in 2007. The event’s rowdy crowd had also tested the patience of Stone Harbor management. Ryan made the decision to relocate the finish line for the 2009 season to Sunset Park. The second leg of the course was adjusted slightly to allow the event to finish at Sunset Park while still maintaining the 50-mile distance.
ESTABLISHING A CAP
Beginning in 2009, Ryan imposed a cap of 200 teams in order to control the rapid growth of the event. The 200 team cap was reached roughly one month prior to the October 2009 event. The event continued to have huge appeal and solid execution but there were several congestion issues that raised concerns.
Several of the rest stations had difficulty getting team vehicles safely in and out of the designated parking areas. In its first year hosting the finish line, Sunset Park more than adequately handled the parking demand and provided ample space. Unfortunately, the post-race party tent–despite offering more than 11,000 square feet of space–was extremely congested.
In 2010, Ryan adapted to the significant interest in the event by redesigning the logistics and exchange zone locations for several of the rest stations. To address the post-race party congestion, he increased the number and size of post-race party tents to more than 19,000 square feet. Confident that these changes would address the majority of the problems, Ryan cautiously inched the capacity up to 240 teams in 2010.
The changes to the 2010 event helped address most of the congestion issues that had created problems in 2009. Disappointingly, the event experienced foul weather for the first time as it rained most of the day. Despite this, most of the participants still had a wonderful day as 238 teams and 88 solo runners crossed the finish line and celebrated for several hours. One of the solo runners was Ryan himself, celebrating his 40th birthday by running his own event and his first ultramarathon while his staff conducted the event without his oversight.
CONTINUING TO SURGE
In 2012, the Fall 50 saw surges in both the solo event and the relay. The solo event broke 100 for the first time with 123 finishers. The team relay event sold out to its capacity of 400 teams in just two weeks. The high number of teams created congestion issues in Fish Creek, Carlsville and at the post-race party. To address these problems, Ryan lowered the capacity to 360 teams in 2013. The announcement of a lower cap and the event’s continued popularity caused the relay to sell out in less than four hours in 2013. Ryan took several steps to address the problems experienced in 2012. He added more Sheriff’s deputies on the course to help with traffic control, established a different support vehicle route in Fish Creek, expanded parking in Juddville, rerouted the course in Carlsville to accommodate a new rest station location, and tripled the number of bartenders. These changes helped streamline the experience for the participants and the volunteers.
USATF – USA 50 MILE ROAD NATIONALS
In December 2013, USA Track & Field’s Mountain/Ultra/Trail Council awarded the Fall 50 with the rights to host the USA 50 Mile Road Championships in 2014 and 2015.
HOSTING THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS
In 2014 and 2015, the Fall 50 hosted the USA Track & Field 50 Mile Road Championships. In 2015, despite windy, rainy conditions, the overall male and female champions turned in stellar times. Zach Bitter of Davis, California set a new male course record, cruising through the course in 5 hours 17 minutes. At the same time, Camille Herron of Warr Acres, Oklahoma, set an unofficial 50 mile female world record by finishing in 5 hours 38 minutes.
After the success of Fall 50 Door County, the race announced four locations where organizers plan to launch Fall 50 events over the next few years. The first additional location was to be Fall 50 Cape Cod in September 2017. Ryan and his team launched the inaugural Fall 50 Cape Cod but the event drew less than 30 teams and 10 solo runners. The production costs of hosting the event on Cape Cod were significantly higher than its Midwest counterpart, resulting in significant financial losses. Worst of all, Ryan and his fellow organizers realized two things they did not count on. First, Cape Cod held little appeal to New Englanders as a fall destination as it was primarily a summer tourism location. New Englanders preferred to travel “upstate” in Autumn to see fall colors. Second, the year round population of Cape Cod coupled with narrow New England roads made the route dangerous in many locations. If the event did grow like the Door County one did, it would be a dangerous endeavor for the participants. Disappointed, Ryan announced that there would not be a second annual Fall 50 Cape Cod.