Staying Vertical with Jean Knaack
Road Runners Club of America's Executive Director Jean Knaack sits down for the High Five Events' Staying Vertical interview series.
High Five Events, Staying Vertical, Road Runners Club of America, RRCA, Jean Knaack, Olympic Trial, Kids Run the Nation, Roads Scholars Program, Run for the Water, Austin
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Staying Vertical with Jean Knaack

Staying Vertical with Jean Knaack

On Saturday, November 5th, William Dyson, of High Five Events, sat down with Jean Knaack, Road Runners Club of America Executive Director, and chatted about the RRCA’s holistic approach to supporting the running community, where the future of running is headed, and why it’s imperative we take a stand against doping in our sport.

Follow Jean and the RRCA on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram as they continue to positively impact the sport of running.

William Dyson – You were in Austin for the 10th anniversary of Run for the Water. What brings you to this event?

John Conley, Knaack, and Dyson

John Conley, Knaack, and Dyson.

Jean Knaack – Run for the Water 10 Mile race served as the RRCA’s National 10 Mile Championship. Since 1958, the RRCA has worked with top-quality events to host the RRCA Championship events. It is one of the oldest traditions in running and the largest grassroots series of events with nearly 250 annual events that attract more than 300,000 runners.

WD – Who was your inspiration/role model growing up?

JK – I don’t think I had one person really. But as a kid, I was always really interested in the Olympics and admired the athletes that competed in the Games. From a sports perspective the Olympics really kept me motivated as a swimmer. As a professional, understanding how to tap into personal drive and how to stay focused and motivated is something that I gained from participating in sports.

WD – Congrats on being named one of Runner’s World’s 50 Most Influential People in Running. What does this recognition mean to you?

JK – I really loved the Runner’s World’s 50 Most Influential People in Running article. Not to sound self-serving, but I think the article did a great job shining a national spotlight on the many great people working in the sport from shoe company executives to race directors to athlete agents and of course our well-known elite athletes such as Meb Keflezighi. Then there is the lesser known person on the list, me. It was such a great honor to be included and it definitely validates a decade’s worth of hard work re-establishing the RRCA as a major contributor in our sport. It is also a testament to the great people that have supported me at the RRCA over the years including board members, volunteers, and staff members. The list also highlights the need to continue to engage young executives and women into the leadership of our sport. I believe I was one of the few people working on the administrative side of the sport that was under 50 years of age.

WD – You’ve made numerous improvements during your tenure as the RRCA’s ED. What is your proudest accomplishment?

Kids Run the Nation.

Kids Run the Nation.

JK – This is a really hard one as there are so many things that I’m proud of. When I started at the RRCA they were just coming out of a six-figure deficit. Today we have a very healthy reserve fund to ensure the long-term sustainability of the organization. I’m very proud of the work we’ve done to build that. I’m also very proud of the work we’ve done with the Kids Run the Nation program and the grant fund. In 2016, we were able to grant $40,000 to forty-seven programs serving nearly 28,000 youth. This is a 100% increase in grant making compared to 2015. I’m really proud of that.

WD – You recently added a huge name in the running world to your board, Joan Benoit Samuelson. How do you envision this impacting the RRCA’s efforts?

Benoit Samuelson, '84 gold medal marathoner; RRCA board member.

Benoit Samuelson, ’84 gold medal marathoner; RRCA board member.

JK – It is great to have another Olympian serving on the RRCA Board of Directors. Having Joan join our board shows that the RRCA is still a very important and relevant organization that serves our sport. We hope to see more Olympic athletes serving on the RRCA board in future years as we continue to grow our efforts to support emerging elite athletes.

WD – The RRCA fully supports the running community by supporting clubs and events, protecting runners, awarding and recognizing individuals, groups, and cities, and fostering a love of running in our youth through Kids Run the Nation and the Roads Scholars Program. What’s next?

JK – This year we announced our partnership with Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI). BMI is a performing rights group that licenses the use of music to be played at events. Music licensing is definitely a little understood requirement for many event directors. By working with BMI our goal is to help members comply with music licensing requirements if music is played at an event. While this isn’t your classic or cool sexy running activity, I do believe our group music license service will be a great asset for the running industry.

WD – How impactful have the Roads Scholars Program and the RunPro Camps been?

Laura Kleppin - 2016 Olympic Trials (marathon); 2012 Roads Scholars

Lauren Kleppin – 2016 Olympic Trials (marathon); 2012 Roads Scholars

JK – The 2016 Olympic Trials were a testament to the Roads Scholar and RunPro programs. On a brutally hot day, fourteen male recipients of the RRCA’s Roads Scholar grants gritted it out to complete the 2016 U.S.A. Olympic Trials Marathon. Finishing 4th, 5th, and 6th were Roads Scholars Luke Puskedra (’15 grantee), Tyler Pennel (’13 grantee), and Matt Llano (’14 grantee). On the women’s side, seven Roads Scholars finished the race along with three RunPro Campers. Esther Atkins was the highest Roads Scholar finisher with 12th overall.

For 2016, we had two RunPro Camp attendees that had actually run the Olympic Track Trials, and they wished they knew some of the information we provide in camp before they ran in the Trials. This is a great testament to the importance RunPro Camp in helping emerging elites successful transition from collegiate running into the professional world.

WD – What are your thoughts on the measures being taken to eliminate doping in our sport (so far) and where do you see this same situation in one year?

JK – I find it incredibly frustrating the USA Track & Field (USATF) is not more of a leading voice on this front. Efforts to develop a licensing program for elite athletes seeking to win prize money similar to what USA Triathlon has implemented has seemingly stalled out for eternity in “the legal department” at USATF. With that said, I applaud efforts by events, and now the RRCA, to take a stand and promote the adoption of Fair Competition Policies with Athlete Disclosure requirements to protect the events and the clean athletes racing for money. I think events that have a strong stance against doping and agents that have a history of representing athletes that fail drug tests or have been suspended is a positive step for the sport.

WD – Where do you see the future of amateur and elite running in the United States on one year, five years, 10 years?

JK – I think running will continue to be strong over the next 10 years. While some events are not in a position to grow larger because of participation caps for their permits, I truly believe demand to run these events will remain high over the next decade. As a running community, we need to work to keep registration fees for events affordable so future generations can afford to participate in the sport. Event registration costs are going to be a factor that will impact participation over the next decade. We need to work collectively to engage the half-million kids running high school Cross Country to take up road racing. That is where the future lies for the sport at both the elite and recreational level.

WD – You can choose one (race) distance to run the rest of your life. What’s the distance?

2016 Kerrville Triathlon Festival.

2016 Kerrville Triathlon Festival.

JK – I really like the 10 mile distance – not quite a half marathon but longer than a 5K.  But honestly, my background is rooted in swimming and triathlon, so doing sprints, Olympic distance, and Ironman distance tri’s would be good for me.

WD – How do you balance your family life, work life, and active life?

JK – It sure is a lot easier these days now that my kids are teens and are far more self-sufficient compared to when I started working in the running industry. There were only two and three when I started working at the RRCA. They’ve basically spent their whole life around the sport and they understand that running is part of our family life. They both ran Cross Country for their school this year and loved it. My husband is very supportive of my work and it helps that he is also an endurance athlete so we work well together to balance training, kids, and busy careers.  

WD – What advice do you have for mothers who want to become active or are just starting to be active?

JK – Being active is part of the positive experience of raising kids. When a mom has the opportunity to get exercise, she will be better able to cope with the natural stresses that come with being a parent. For new or newer moms, the goal needs to get to just carve out 30-60 minutes a day to run or walk. Utilize the jogging stroller while the kids are little. Then when they get too big to push in the stroller get creative. Work with family and friends to carve out time so you can run. Perhaps trade babysitting time with a fellow mom-runner. Running with a group can help with motivation and friendship if you are getting started or returning to running after a break.

WD – How often to your kids run with you?

JK – I can’t keep up with them anymore. They are much better runners than me these days. They are both involved in their own sports besides running as well. My daughter swims and my son plays hockey. I think encouraging kids to participate in a variety of sports is extremely important. Running isn’t the only sport they do.

WD – What has running given you?

JK – Great friends and a sense of purpose from a professional standpoint. Runners are generally great people and I’ve met so many great people in our sport and I’m proud to call many of them my friends.  

Butler Trail.

Butler Trail.

WD – Favorite place to run when visiting Austin?

JK – I stayed at the Hyatt and ran the trail to Barton Springs Pool, then crossed over the water to run back to the hotel. The Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail is an amazing asset for the City of Austin.

WD – Favorite non-running activity?

JK – Sleeping! Seriously, I’m a huge fan and advocate of the importance of getting quality sleep. Quality sleep helps you perform better at work, in school, in sports, in relationships, etc. My life is pretty non-stop most days so sleeping a little extra in a day is definitely a guilty pleasure for me. Getting to sleep in late on a weekend when I’m not traveling is fantastic.

WD – Favorite Austin restaurant to visit?

JK – I wasn’t in town long enough to really get the full Austin restaurant experience, but Shady Grove was delicious and I enjoyed drinking an Austin Beerworks’ Pearl Snap.

WD – Jean, it was great catching up while you were in town. It was a pleasure to interview you and talk about all the exciting things going on with the RRCA. Glad you’re enjoying your stay so far in Austin. See you at the start line tomorrow morning!

JK – William, I enjoyed catching up as well. Thanks for the Shady Grove and Pearl Snap recommendations. Good luck tomorrow. We’ll see you then!

Staying Vertical is an interview session with various individuals within the endurance community hosted by William Dyson, High Five Events Communications Manager. Staying Vertical will showcase the perspective of runners, triathletes, sponsors, partners, event producers, and volunteers to understand what makes them tick. We will highlight their involvement and give the endurance community an inside look into the individuals that are just like you and me.

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