Porter Bratten and Orca Running want you to witness the beauty of Eastside trails
The Eastside is a rich environment for trail runners. You can opt for a scenic valley jog between Bothell and Marymoor Park along the 11-mile Sammamish River Trail, or maybe you prefer a dash through Bellevue neighborhoods and parks that dot the 10-mile Lake to Lake Trail between Lake Sammamish and Lake Washington. If you’re in the mood for a challenging workout, there’s the leg-burning climb up the hilly and wooded switchbacks of the 4-mile, 3,100-foot-elevation Mount Si Trail in North Bend.
Orca Running race director Porter Bratten is familiar with the Eastside’s trail bounty, and he has made a point of staging most of his company’s races on the area’s most beautiful routes. The move has turned Orca Running, which has three part-time employees and scores of volunteers, into a mainstay for runners, both locally and from as far away as Eastern Washington and the coast.
Eight races will be staged by Orca Running this year, and half of those will occur on the Eastside: Snoqualmie Valley Half Marathon on June 10; Iron Horse Half Marathon on Aug. 27; and Captain Jack’s Treasure Run in Woodinville on Oct. 29. The Kirkland Shamrock Run in downtown Kirkland was held in March.
On average, 1,200 people attend each Orca Running event and pay between $30 and $85, depending on the race. The organization’s biggest race this year, the Iron Horse Half Marathon (starting in the Cascade foothills and finishing in North Bend), will draw approximately 1,800 runners.
Bratten grew up in Normandy Park and moved to the East Coast after high school to attend the Webb Institute, a naval architecture and marine engineering school in Glen Cove, New York. He moved back to Washington after college and lived in Bellevue, Newcastle, and on Mercer Island. He created BTO Multisports, a company that produced local swim-run biathlon events, such as the Islander Aquathon on Mercer Island, while he earned his living as an oceanic engineer at The Glosten Associates in downtown Seattle. In 2014, he created Blackfish Ventures (Orca Running’s parent company) and eventually left his day job to become a full-time race director.
Bratten recently spoke with 425 Business and discussed the history of Orca Running and his experience staging races.
Q: How did you get started as a race director?
A: During my sophomore year in college, I started training for a triathlon and really got into it. A year later, a friend said, “You should put on a triathlon at our school.” It was a great venue because my college was on the north shore of Long Island. It was on the water (for swimming), next to a forest preserve with trails (for running), and the roads were quiet and back country roads (for cycling). I listed the race on some free online race calendars, and 230 people signed up. The mayor came out and started the race over a loudspeaker. By the time I graduated, I knew that I wanted to do this for a living. But I got a job as a naval architect, did that for two years, and then decided I wanted to put on triathlons full time. I did that for a couple of years, and then gradually transitioned into running events.
Q:What are some of the biggest gaffes that happened during These early races?
A: The first triathlon I directed after I left college, I was ordering medallions to give out to participants. The medallion was a thick coin that had this cool design on it, and I had been working with a particular company for weeks, and the medallions didn’t arrive on time. I had to get up there on that podium and say, “The medallions are on their way. Sorry!” Of course, that didn’t mean anything to the triathletes. They wanted their medallions. Ultimately, they were mailed out to people. They got them. But you have to own it. Just like in any organization, if things screw up below you, you need to own it and not try to hide from it.
Once or twice, we ran out of cups. There was one time we thought we had run out of safety pins for the bibs, but they were in a box behind some jackets. We didn’t know that, so we were taping people’s bibs on. It was a big race with 1,800 people. We sent volunteers to Bartell’s to buy all the safety pins they could. All the (stores) within a six-mile radius, we were just clearing out all their safety pins.
Q: Do you feel comfortable on race day now that you’ve staged so many races?
A: Oh, yeah! I feel comfortable. I mean, there are some things that could happen that we are not prepared for, like if a bear comes out of the woods. We don’t have a plan for that. But I feel like in the bell curve of statistical probabilities, we’ve got most of it covered, and we know what to do.
A huge part of it is hiring the right people and having an attention to detail. If you can just keep track and stay organized, it’s not rocket science. You are not balancing chemistry equations or anything. Ashley Lee, who is my lieutenant and main person, sometimes I feel like she cares more than I do about certain things. She is just incredibly attentive to all the details, and she has been a huge asset to the company.
Q: How would you describe the racing industry?
A: I would describe it as a pyramid with a narrow top and a really wide base. At the base, you have tons of races, such as short races and 5Ks organized by schools, food banks, nonprofits, neighborhood associations, or Rotaries. Maybe one or two of them are huge, but for the most part they are not large. In the middle, you have small businesses, such as Orca Running. We are a full-time, for-profit business operating events in a variety of areas, and there are a handful of us. At the top, you have the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon or the Iron Man triathlon, with 20,000 runners or 2,000 triathletes, (respectively). These brands are well-recognized across the country.
Q: Is the industry competitive?
A: There are races literally on every weekend. No matter what, you are competing with somebody. It’s more an issue of, “How large are they? Are they five miles away or 30 miles away? Are they attracting a similar kind of runner to you?” That kind of thing. So, yeah, you are always in competition.
I’ve been told you can divide the world into two different kinds of people: those with a scarcity mindset, and those with a growth mindset. The scarcity mindset people see that there is a finite supply of races and runners, and if you put this race on two weeks before their race, you are going to hurt their race because people are going to do your race and not do their race. I think situations like that are inevitable, because there are only 52 weeks in a year. That scarcity mindset comes from fear and not from a good place.
On the other hand, people with a growth mindset say, “My race is close to your race, but maybe by doing so we can attract new runners or encourage people to take up the sport of running.”
I think there will always be more runners, and you will always be in competition. But do the best job you can. If one race is a better experience for this particular runner or that particular runner, then they are going to come back to your race. If they didn’t have a good time, they are going to go back to this other race.
Q: Are there signature elements that define Orca Running events?
A: I like to think that we offer good customer service. We respond to emails, which not everybody does. Wherever possible, we try to meet everybody’s requests. We provide free race photos. It’s a nice way to capture the day and the race experience. At all our races, we partner with a local nonprofit to publicize them, donate money to them, and also direct donations from race participants to them. We are trying to gradually roll out some more sustainable and environmentally friendly practices. Most Porta Potties have a lot of chemicals. This year, we switched to a company called Green Latrine that is not harmful to the environment when it’s disposed. It’s a small change. It’s not earth-shattering. Also, starting this year, we are buying carbon offsets for all the race-day travel, and then some.
Q: Do you enjoy your job?
A: I enjoy it a lot. Every once in a while, when the alarm goes off at 3 in the morning, I’m like, “Oh, this sucks.” Once I wake up and have some coffee, it’s enjoyable. Even when we are carrying heavy things around and it’s raining, it’s not drudgery by any means.
Q: What do you enjoy most about it?
A: We are not selling a product. We are not selling a tangible thing. There is the shirt and the medal, and those are tangible things. But we are selling an experience that is challenging, and anything that you do that is challenging, whether it is running a half-marathon or having a child or climbing a mountain, those are all very satisfying things. People, when they finish, they are happy. They are proud of what they have done. Being a part of that and facilitating in helping people to do that is really satisfying.
The other thing I like about it is that, it’s not a game, but I never expected that I would be a small-business owner, and so taking something and growing it to the point of where it is, and now thinking about where we can go from here, is very exciting and stimulating. My job before (as an engineer), it was a good job but it was, you know, I work these hours, I do these things, and I get paid this much. Whereas this is something where I have the opportunity and the privilege of interacting with thousands of people at each race, either directly or indirectly, through their race experience, and I can shape the future of my career and of my staff’s careers, and that is very gratifying.
Q: What does the future look like for Orca Running?
A: I want to strengthen our relationship with nonprofits. I want to be able to give more money to them. I would like to be better at helping to direct donations from participants and the general public to that nonprofit. Ultimately, I would like to do more for nonprofits and charities. I would like to be better at being environmentally friendly, as well. I would like to add more races, and make our races experiences where people know they are going to be well-treated, have a positive experience, and they can trust us with their money and their bodies.
Q: You started this career as a triathlete. Do you feel like you are more of a race organizer than an athlete these days? Do you still run?
A: I used to run a ton. I like to think I could still bust out a half-marathon in a week if I had to. But I still run, occasionally. I used to run a lot more in my races, but I don’t do that as much anymore. I ran a 5K in December in Anacortes. I pushed a stroller. My son, Jamie, slept the whole time.