Race Director Chronicles: Michael Owen and Southeastern Ohio Trail Runners

An interview with race director Michael Owen of Southeastern Ohio Trail Runners.

By on December 1, 2023 | Comments

AJW's Taproom[Author’s Note: This is the final article in an eight-part series in AJW’s Taproom called Race Director Chronicles, where we profile the unsung heroes who make our sport’s racing possible.]

Michael Owen ran his first ultramarathon at the ripe old age of 21 at The North Face 50 Mile Championships in 2010, finishing 10th. Now 34, Owen continues to compete at a high level in ultras across the country. However, in recent years he has also established himself as one of the most successful event directors in the U.S. as the mastermind behind Southeastern Ohio Trail Runners (now SEOTR Events). In his role as director, Owen presides over six wildly successful trail runs in this special little corner of Ohio. Recently, I sat down with Owen to ask him a few questions.

Michael Owen - race director chronicles

Michael Owen in race director mode. Photo: Stu Siegfried

AJW: How long have you been directing ultrarunning and trail running events in Ohio?

Michael Owen: The first race I directed was during graduate school in 2014, when I was 24 years old. It was a group project for an event management course I was taking. This first race was a trail half marathon on some of the most rugged trails in the region, and we had 82 runners!

This was the same time I was establishing a trail running “club” for the area, called Southeastern Ohio Trail Runners, which aimed to promote the sport of trail running and to foster a trail running community in the region. I was so fortunate the professor of that event management class urged my group to put on an event for SEOTR, and that’s what kickstarted all my events! That first event was my only race for two years, but it grew to 180 runners in year two, and that showed me there was some potential in putting on trail races, and it was also a great way to grow the trail running community.

SEOTR as a “club” morphed more into a race management organization in 2016, and is now branded as “SEOTR Events.” We currently host seven annual events with 15 race distances ranging from one-mile fun runs to 50 miles, with a backyard ultra format event that has reached 229 miles.

The year 2023 was the 10th year of directing trail races, and it’s hard to believe next year will kick off a second decade!

AJW: What is the most satisfying aspect of your work as a race director?

Owen: I’ve really loved being part of the growth of trail running in southeastern Ohio and the wider region. A lot of my best friends are from this sport, and I would have never met them without being a race director.

On an event planning level, I’m really drawn to details and organization. Event directing is like a giant puzzle where there are numerous pieces that need to be done, some at specific times and in a specific way, all needing to come together for a final product. I enjoy the satisfaction of seeing all those pieces come together on race day. The goal is for runners to have an amazing experience at your event, so if all those behind-the-scenes tasks were done well it’s nice to know you helped provide that memorable experience for them.

Michael Owen - hugging a finisher

Michael Owen hugs a finisher at one of his events. Photo: John Dolovacky

AJW: What makes running in Ohio so unique and special?

Owen: I really like to advocate for Ohio trail running! I think a lot of people that have never been to Ohio view it as a flat flyover state with a lot of cornfields and farms. There’s a lot of that type of land, but Ohio also has a vast amount of land shaped by glacial outwash that carved deep and steep ravines. I was born, raised, and still live in the far southeast portion of Ohio, where the land is part of the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. We don’t have long uphills, but there are steep, rugged, and very frequent uphills.

In southeast Ohio we have a great network of trail systems at dozens of state parks, state forests, and the state’s only National Forest. Without a large metropolitan area in southeastern Ohio. These trails will put you in some remote and far out areas, and that is what I’m drawn to the most. There’s a sense of freedom, ownership, and wilderness in these areas, which can really shape who you are as a runner. I think this ruggedness is a great example of the mentality of Ohio trail runners, and it’s evident by the people from Ohio who do some pretty amazing things in this sport!

AJW: What are the three biggest challenges you face as a race director?

Owen: Being a race director requires problem solving, quickly adapting to changing situations, and thinking fast when obstacles come up. Facing the COVID-19 pandemic as a race director was the most challenging moment in my career, but I like to think it gave me more tools and perspective to face future challenges!

I am so fortunate to have a dedicated base of volunteers at our events, as well as a couple key staff members who work on larger tasks, but volunteer coordination and planning is one of the most important parts of my race directing. Without having a major city populus to draw from, we have limited resource pools, plus most of the trail runners in the area will be running the races! Volunteer recruitment, training, planning, and execution is one of the biggest areas that I am focused on while planning an event, because it’s so crucial in providing a good experience to runners. My longer distance races have single-loop courses that require more aid stations — which is the experience I want to give our runners — but it provides logistical hurdles to get the permitting, the number of people signed up, and the equipment to those locations.

Weather has been challenging at some of my events. Weather can make or break the turnout of the event, add safety concerns, or create tough situations with regards to canceling, postponing, or delaying an event. I’m usually glued to weather forecasts as my events approach and adjust or enact plans based on what the weather will be.

Lastly, I have found it hard over the years to manage my personal run training during race directing. During the busy times of race directing, I often end up not running as much as I hope. People sometimes comment to me that I am lucky as a runner that I get to be involved in running for my job, but sometimes it’s hard to separate personal running from race directing, and at the end of the day I just want to not think about running. During the backyard ultra I direct, I end up not sleeping for several days straight, and those types of events are hard to physically bounce back from. Luckily, these are challenges that can be worked through, and I wouldn’t want to do it differently!

AJW: What changes have you seen in the sport since you began directing events? Positive? Negative? Both?

Owen: The sport has grown so much worldwide in the past decade, which I am thankful to benefit from, but that has created changes that can potentially be negative. However, I like to think that growth is always a net positive. One of the changes I’ve recognized is a shift away from “club-based” events to events being part of a business structure. I got into the sport by running grassroots events put on by clubs like West Virginia Mountain Trail Runners (WVMTR), so I will always have an affinity toward those types of events.

But with the growth of trail running, I believe having individuals directing races as a career is the new normal. To produce top-level races, there almost needs to be someone dedicated to it full-time. At the same time, I think there needs to be a community-focused approach to events still, where the race director is a local person who understands and is part of that community. I could not imagine directing a race in a place I wasn’t from or familiar with.

AJW: What are you looking forward to most in the 2024 event season?

Owen: I look forward to growing our existing events and getting them closer and closer to the vision that I have for them. I like to look at our lineup of events as each serving a unique purpose. Some of our events are more advanced and offer a big challenge to veteran trail runners and ultrarunners, but other events are more suited for first-time runners and youth. For the community to grow, I think it’s important to focus on all those areas, and not just the big, long, and hard races — as grandiose and appealing as those types of events are. I think our events are to the point in 2024 where we can start focusing on those areas of growth more, and I look forward to greeting all those new runners at the finish line!

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Wooly Pig Farm Brewery logoThis week’s Beer of the Week comes, appropriately enough, from Ohio. Wooly Pig Farm Brewery in Fresno, Ohio, is home to 1899 Old Pils, a fantastic, classic, old school German pilsner that is light and crisp. A wonderfully smooth pilsner, 1899 goes well with just about anything but especially classic U.S. Midwestern barbecue.

Call for Comments

  • Have you attended any SEOTR events?
  • If so, what one was your favorite?
Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.