When the 15th annual Run Through History is held Sunday, it will be more than a 5-kilometer jaunt through historic Metairie Cemetery. It also will mark a historic moment for race director Chuck George.
The Run Through History will be the 1,000th race George has directed in his career — a remarkable accomplishment given the amount of behind-the-scenes work it takes to get even one road race running.
Though no statistics are kept on such milestones, it’s certainly rare, said Andy Smith, programs director for the Road Runners Club of America.
“Directing so many races certainly tells you a lot about the qualities Chuck has brought to racing,” Smith said. “Particularly so, when you think about how the sport has grown so much in the past 30 years. There was nowhere near the number of races even 10 or 20 years ago that there are today. That speaks volumes. To get that kind of longevity, you have to be good at what you do. And you have to be unique.”
Like the Run Through History, for instance. The idea of having a run through a graveyard came to George years ago while at Gettysburg National Cemetery. So when operators of Metairie Cemetery approached George about hosting a fundraising race for local charity Save Our Cemeteries, the self-described history buff jumped at the chance. George, 62, made sure to make the event as “classy” as possible, hoping to avoid offending anyone while holding a race on hallowed ground.
The day after the first race, he received a phone call from a woman whose family has a tomb in Metairie Cemetery. George feared the worst.
“I was worried she’d be upset,” he said. “But she wanted to know if we could change the route in the next race so it would pass by her family’s tomb. We’ve had a bunch of requests like that through the years.”
Such is life as a race director in New Orleans. The city has some of the most unique races in the country, and George’s fingerprints are on almost all of them.
He hosts races in swamps (NOLA Trail Run Series), over lakes (Louisiana Paradise Bridge Run) and at historic plantations (Reveille at Oak Alley). For more than 30 years, he has been on committees that helped produce the Gulf South’s biggest annual race (the Allstate Sugar Bowl Crescent City Classic) and, earlier this year, he drove the lead truck in the Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans Marathon, the city’s second-largest race.
“For my generation, he’s the godfather,” CCC race director Eric Stuart said. “We all base a lot of stuff off what Chuck has done. ... Since I took this job in 2011, he has been a wealth of knowledge. And he’s always willing to help. He’s the bridge that ties all of us together.”
George moved to New Orleans 38 years ago. A South Dakota native, he came to town for a job as a marine electrician, and he worked on ships and nuclear submarines for a few years. When the bottom fell out of the oil industry locally in the early 1980s, George created New Orleans Running Systems Inc., which he still operates. In 1986, he became executive director of the New Orleans Track Club, a job he held for 25 years.
Now he directs approximately 30 races a year, and he estimates that at least a third are private events for conventioneers in the city.
All of George’s races benefit some charitable cause. In 2014 and ’15, races he directed or assisted with combined to raise more than $2 million for nonprofit causes.
“When I first started, they all were racing events,” he said. “Now most of them are participatory events. Most people in those races can care less about how fast they finish, or whether they walk or run. But they took part in it for a reason: for a cause.”
George said the people are the most satisfying part of being a race director.
“Especially at the marathon level; people get into that for a personal reason,” he said. “The look on their faces when they finish, that emotion ... and knowing I got to help provide that — that’s why I do it.”
And he doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon.
“I don’t think I’ll ever retire,” he said. “If I did, I’d be doing the same thing I’m doing right now. I’d be out on the course. ... There is no perfect race for me. There’s always a way to get better. You’re always looking for the next big thing.
“And I couldn’t do any of this without a team of volunteers and staff who are just fantastic. Many of them have been with me from the beginning. Especially my wife, Martha. This is her 1,000th race, too.”