Hard To Believe

by Mike Byrnes

He sits back in his chair, his shoulders ache and his eyes are burning a little. He glances at the clock, 2:26am. He stretches, yawns and checks his "task" list one more time. Done. Time for bed. "HE" is JIM SPIER, the Meet Director for all NSSF-administered competitions; the GREAT AMERICAN XC FESTIVAL, THE NIKE INDOOR NATIONALS, THE NIKE OUTDOOR NATIONALS and the NIKE TEAM XC NATIONALS. It's Spier's job to assemble a superlative team, assign a myriad of tasks to literally dozens of people and make sure that everything that's needed to be done…is done and done well. Few of you reading this will have any idea how much work goes into organizing and presenting the four of the most important running events in the country. "I start preparing for the indoor meet in December (for those of you who don't know, the NIKE INDOOR NATIONALS is held in mid-March) usually going over the critiques from last year's meet, trying to figure ways to do things better, new ideas…all that sort of thing."

Over the year's, Spier has developed a "task book." It has some 33 categories ranging from "Order medals/other awards" to "Call the bagel place." He explains, "It's the little things you forget, ordering bagels for the officials and staff, finding a good florist to get the flowers we give to the winners, same or the little American flags; you forget one and it can cause big problems." Hence, the "Task" book. It weighs somewhere in the range of 5-6 pounds and is NEVER far from Spier's side.

One of the toughest tasks is arranging the flight plans for the 51, that's right, 51 staff members that have to be flown into the meet site. But it's not quite that simple. "I check several different travel/airline sites to try and get the best price and the best flight times for everyone." Once that's done an e-mail is sent to all 51 with the proposed flight arrangements asking if they are OK. Of course, there are many that must be changed. Thus, the process has to be repeated until all are satisfied. Then, the tickets are ordered.

In the few days before the meet Spier is constantly on the phone making sure things are progressing as they should. Have all the signs necessary, the MEDICAL, CLERKING AREA, PACKET PICKUP, and about 20 or so others have to be found and put up in the proper place?

Fortunately, Spier has assembled a staff that handles a much of the work. JOHN BLACKBURN takes care of the officials, no small task as there are 104 persons who work the meet! Not only does Blackburn need to contact almost all of them but he also has to make sure they are the best in their respective fields. With an event of the magnitude of the NIKE NATIONALS series, you don't just bring people in off the street. Speaking of the officials, all pay their own way to the meet as well as their housing. Some "meals" are provided if you can call 75 pizzas a "meal." But they put up with these inconveniencies just to be a part of the finest competitions in the nation.

Perhaps the two most important staff members are the recruiters, JOY KAMANI and AJ HOLZHERR. They contact literally dozens of the nation's finest athletes requesting them to attend the meet. In order to insure every athlete who should be in attendance can be there, the National Scholastic Sports Foundation provides travel/housing grants to many. All such grants must be in strict compliance with the rules set by the National Federation of High School Athletics as well as the NCAA.

The recruiting is a monumental job. I can attest to that since I handled this task by myself for many years. Today, Kamani handles the Girls while Holzherr is responsible for the Boys so the work is split up. To do the job properly, the two travel to many smaller events throughout the country to speak personally with the athletes, their coaches and more importantly, the parents. This means giving up several weekends to be on the road. But while this may sound like a fairly straightforward task it's not. The athlete who leads the nations in January may rank eighth in March. I can recall one year when I recruited the top 11 hurdlers in the nation. That's quite impressive until you realize of the 11 only eight will make the final. I brought in three kids who never advanced out of the trials. So? Well, Mr. Spier, who also oversees the monetary end of things, was not too pleased that we provided financial assistance to three kids who never got out of the trials. The recruiters must carefully weigh the future prospects of every athlete to whom they speak. Of course, some are obvious and there is little or no doubt of their invitation. But that's usually only 2-3 per event. How do you select the rest of the field? It's a lot harder than you think.

Besides their visits to various meets, they work the phones. Believe it or not, when asked, Kamani thought a few moments and then said, "I probably make some where around 500-600 calls and approximately 1500 or so e-mails." Holzherr, who loves the phone second only to his children, reports calls ranging, "…somewhere around a thousand, may be more." Knowing Holzherr, I'd put money on a figure closer to 2000. FRED STEIER handles virtually all the incoming calls asking questions about the meet. "I get about 4000 calls per event, " he states. These calls range from the sublime to the ridiculous. How about this gem, "I'm going to buy my son shorts and I'd like to know the color of the arena's walls so he'll match?" Now you don't believe that! Well, that's a call I took when this job was mine and I KNOW it's real.

Then there's registration. Approximately 2200 kids along with coaches, many with parents have to pick up their packet which contains their number, a coaches pass, a questionnaire (for the announcers) and their gift from NIKE. So, starting Wednesday,

20 — 30 youngsters from a local high school arrive and begin the job of stuffing the packets. Someone has to bring in 175-200 large boxes filled with the NIKE gifts, usually a very nice bag or backpack. The packets must be organized so the process will go smoothly. These same kids are responsible for handing out the packets. They are always smiling, cooperative, pleasant, efficient and… hungry. They can go through 20 large pizzas quicker than Parris Hilton can get her picture taken.

Every year there will be 50-60 coaches who will beg for an extra coach's pass or a NIKE bag for at least three kids who had to be left home since they were sick with diphtheria, tuberculosis, rickets…you name it and one of the kids has it thus they couldn't make the trip. None succeed.

Of course, the NIKE meet would never happen without…NIKE! They provide several thousand athlete's bags, a gift to every competitor. A few hundred shirts and caps for the officials and staff, I'm wearing one as I write this. A few years ago NIKE shipped us several thousand pairs of shoes to be given away to coaches representing various regions of the country. It can honestly be said, no other athletic company in the world does as much for our young athletes as NIKE. They cannot be thanked enough.

And then there's the…BUNTING! Over 300m of red, white and blue bunting must be hung to dress the area up and make it look worthy of hosting the competition. It gets hung EVERYWHERE! There's not an empty space within 6 miles. When you, the spectator arrive, you see a beautiful looking arena and you KNOW you're at a national championship event. It only took about 20 people armed with duct tape, plastic fasteners, hammer and nails, rope…whatever gets the job done, 10 or so hours to make the place look the way you see it.

But wait, there's more. THE LAST MINUTE BLUES. A superb athlete calls to report she turned her ankle on her final tune up run and can't make the meet. Three kids missed their flights, what should we do? "I'm at the airport, my flight was four hours late. Can someone pick me up?" No big deal? BIG DEAL, it's 2:30AM! And one of the staff has to get out of bed and go pick the youngster up.

BUT, this staff is so good that EVERY problem gets solved and to you, the spectator, nothing wrong has happened, everything has gone smoothly and you sit back and enjoy the competition.

So the next time you go to a meet, remember, some very dedicated people went to a lot of trouble and did a lot of work so you could enjoy an event where there are no problems and everything runs smoothly. Yeah, right.

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