You might not know Paul Vanderheiden but you are definitely a fan of his work. His company, Timberline Events LLC, organizes long distance races such as the Colorado’s Wild West Relay and Vermont’s Green Mountain Relay. Paul escaped a cubicle, in 2004 to organize relay races full time. Since then he has designed some of the most scenic and runner focused relay courses in the United States. I recently chatted with Paul to learn about the man behind the relay and what makes his races different from all the other relay races.
New England Outside (NEO): What did you do before starting Timberline Events?
Paul: I have done a lot of different things. One of the most influential was shortly after college when I was a commercial river guide running river trips in California, Oregon, Idaho and the Grand Canyon. I enjoyed the multi day trips in real wilderness. I carried that philosophy over to relays. My relay philosophy is the scenery and the lack of traffic on the route is a primary focus.
NEO: Can you tell us about Timberline Events and what inspired you to create it?
Paul: I started running relays back in 2000. My fist relay was the Colorado Relay and I fell in love. I ran 7 Colorado Relays, 1 Hood to Coast, 1 Reach the Beach and The Relay once in California. I was not very impressed with Hood to Coast. Customer service and maps were bad and they nickel and dimed runners. I thought I could do better.
I had a cubicle job at the time and began driving around to plan out a relay course that would end in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Eventually I knew I was going to get downsized at work and decided to organize relays full time. My goal was to organize my first relay in 2005. I spent 2004 working on the permit process, route planning and anything else that needed to be done. I even taught myself Dreamweaver to build my website. My mission was to build scenic and rural courses and to also give back to the community.
NEO: How do your races give back to the community?
Paul: I was inspired by an idea the late Erik Sten had (author of "24 Feet 36 Legs; the Unofficial Guide to Hood to Coast") to involve the local communities with staffing the exchanges. So the first year of the Wild West Relay, I offered teams the option to either supply their own runners or to make a donation and have volunteers supplied for them. We worked with local non-profit groups to staff the exchanges as a fund-raising opportunity. I formed a non-profit, Volunteers with a Purpose, to separate the donations from the race registrations, and so the donations could be tax-deductible. All donations minus our low operational costs go directly to the local non profits. So far over $186,000 has been raised in Colorado and Vermont.
NEO: How many people work for Timberline Events?
Paul: Just myself and 1 part time person who manages Volunteers with a Purpose.
NEO: You are based out of Colorado. How did you end up starting the Green Mountain Relay in Vermont?
Paul: In 2005 I was visiting a friend in Boston, and went to VT. The trip reminded me of previous visits and how beautiful Vermont was, and how perfect it would be for a relay race. I started planning and pretty much knew that the rout would be along Route 100.
NEO: How is the Green Mountain Relay or Wild West Relay different from the growing number of other relay races?
Paul: A lot of relay races raise the numbers on teams on the course to make more money. I design relays that have a realistic route without traffic jams. I also don’t want to impose on the residents. I try to keep sizes manageable. For example, the Wild West Relay is capped at 140-150 teams. I don’t want to overwhelm locals with numbers. I am more concerned with the quality of the event, the route, safety and customer service. I design races for runners, not for people who want to party and then run.
NEO: What challenges do you face as an event organizer?
Paul: Having enough hours in a day! I love what I am doing even though the Green Mountain Relay has never been a money maker. I essentially did it for free this past year because I love the race. If I was a smart
businessman I would give up the ghost. I keep trying to find a 3rd relay route that would handle 100 teams so my financial worries would lessen.
NEO: You have mentioned starting a 3rd relay somewhere. Would you like to let New England Outside readers know where that might take place?
Paul: On the west coast, that is all I will say.
NEO: Are you onsite for all of your events?
Paul: Yes, they are my baby.
NEO: How much fun do you have running timberline events?
Paul: I am having a great time! I love what I am doing except for the long hours. I can’t imagine working for someone else again. I have to make this work .Hopefully the Wild West will survive. If I can create a 3rd relay I might be able to hire some help part time so I can have a life again. I have not got burned out but I am afraid I may someday. However, when people tell me they have fun at my events it recharges my batteries. If I didn’t love it there is no way I could do it, it is too hard.
NEO: How did you feel when you saw Vermont damaged from hurricane Irene and how will this impact the Green Mountain Relay?
Paul: I was surveying a new route during Irene. I started getting some emails about how hard Vermont was hit. A friend sent me a link to aerial photos and I was blown away by the amount of damage. Vermont got hit harder than other New England states.
I was more blown away by the progress they have made in a short amount of time. The section of relay hit the hardest was the Killington and Pittsfield areas. I was sensitive when I reached out to land owners and locals in VT about this year’s race. I heard back from people who said yes we are good to go. None of the bridges were destroyed. Only the warren Covered bridge might not be ok.
NEO: You recently sent out a letter stating that Ragnar was stealing relay routes. How was the response to your letter?
Paul: I got emails from people that did my races and the response has been very positive and very supportive. Ragnar deleted my two posts and banned me from their Facebook. There are 2 - 3 races that they do where they took someone else’s ideas and created their own race.
NEO: Is there anything else you would like to share?
Paul: The only way the Green Mountain Relay will make it is if people want to do something a little more unique than what is out there. When I started the Green Mountain Relay there was only 1 relay in New England (Reach the Beach), now there are 6 to choose from.