(Ultra) Running for the Fun of It – Door County’s Fall 50

When I began running a little less than a year ago, I started to notice something right away about the sport – there is no middle ground. Things like anchovies, the movie Citizen Kane, running –whether sprints or long distances – people either supremely love or severely abhor these things. Those of us who love running, no matter how new a love it is, can’t imagine life without it. And if one can parlay this love into a career – like Sean Ryan, race director for Door County’s upcoming Fall 50 ultra marathon and ultra relay – that’s even better.

Ryan came at race directing from the participant’s side, having run several marathons and relay races.

“However, I never anticipated being a race director for a living,” he says. But he saw a need for race directors that had come at it from the runner’s side. “Many races are planned by people who have often never run long-distance races before. As a result, there are certain things that are often taken for granted – things as simple as not having enough volunteers at aid stations.”

In 2003, Ryan was hired as the Race Director of the Green Bay Cellcom Marathon.

“All of my friends from Northwestern thought I was absolutely crazy – they didn’t understand why a kid with an MBA would become a race director,” Ryan recalls. In planning his first major race, Ryan was blown away – both by the amount of work that went into planning a race of that magnitude – but also in his underestimation of how much more he would fall in love with the sport. “It was now more than me running a race – it was planning a race for thousands of people to run.”

The concept of the Fall 50 came out of plans for the Door County Triathlon. Ryan had befriended Jon Jarosh, then working as the Door County Visitors Bureau’s Marketing Director, and told him of his idea to have a triathlon or relay run in the county. Jarosh loved the idea, but wanted Ryan to schedule it for one of the shoulder seasons.

“I told him because of water temperatures, the triathlon needed to be in July, but that I would brainstorm for another event,” Ryan said. “I thought about doing a full marathon, but I knew there were a lot of popular spring and fall marathons in the Midwest. And, I wanted to do something that really showcased the fall beauty of Door County.”

He remembered a team relay called Hood to Coast that he had run in Oregon, one of the largest relay races in the country.

“After thinking back, I realized that a relay race was exactly what I wanted to do,” Ryan says.

So he got in his car and drove to Door County. He rode down the western shoreline of the county, taking scenic back roads from the Washington Island Ferry Dock at Gills Rock all the way down to Stone Harbor Resort in downtown Sturgeon Bay.

“When I looked down at my odometer in the Stone Harbor parking lot, it read exactly 50 miles,” Ryan says. “And I thought, ‘There has to be a race called the Fall 50 somewhere in the United States.’ To my surprise, there wasn’t.”

Ryan thought the 50-mile trek would be perfect for teams of two to five, and the Fall 50 was born.

Ryan’s next goal was to market the race. He held several meetings with runner’s groups from Wisconsin, and it was here that his seemingly simple idea of a team relay race took an unexpected turn while talking to the Badgerland Striders, Wisconsin’s largest running club.

“At that time, I had zero experience with the concept of ultra-marathoners (ultra marathons are usually categorized as any distance above a 26.2 mile marathon) and had no plans to market the race as a solo run,” Ryan says. “That was mostly because I couldn’t fathom someone actually wanting to run 50 miles by themselves. I finished up my presentation of the Fall 50 for the Striders, and they kept asking me all of these questions about running the race solo. Turns out the majority of them were ultra-marathoners who all wanted to run the race solo. It took me completely by surprise.”

The inaugural Fall 50 was held in 2006, with 25 solo runners and 35 relay teams (a total of 200 runners). Ryan says that after that first year, he knew the Fall 50 was a sure thing.

“I had so many positive comments after the race that I knew I had the right idea,” he says.

The race has doubled each year, with 400 runners (50 solo runners, 80 teams) in 2007 and close to 800 runners last year.

The Fall 50 operates on a “wave start,” which means solo runners of the race begin at 7 am, while teams start in waves each hour between 8 and 11 am. The teams are assigned a start time before the race based on their anticipated team pace, with the slowest teams starting earlier and the fastest teams, later. This approach to the race results in the arrival of most of the teams to the finish line between 4 and 6 pm on Saturday.

“It’s nice to have everyone finish around the same time and be able to be with other runners,” Ryan says.

A party on the north lawn of Stone Harbor resort celebrates the end of the race, with participants crossing the finish line and passing directly into a party tent over a red carpet on the dance floor. A DJ will be on hand to announce the names of the finishers, along with a finish line buffet of food and drinks.

“Whether you run the race alone or with a team, finishing a 50-mile race is kind of a big deal!” Ryan laughs.

As one can imagine, coordinating a 50-mile road race in Door County during the month of October requires an awful lot of help. Ryan credits a few organizations that he works with – namely TJ Walker Middle School in Sturgeon Bay, the Door County Silent Sports Alliance, and the Friends of the Door County Park System – in helping him with the majority of the volunteer staffing for the race.

“Between these groups, we’ve always had adequate volunteer help,” says Ryan, who says he’ll donate a significant portion of race proceeds to these groups.

While Ryan says it’s a lot of fun to coordinate the races, the best part is getting to know the runners.

“Teams will give themselves a name and coordinate running gear,” he says. “The hard-core ultra-marathoners will skip across the finish line and shout, ‘Hey everybody – where’s the party?’ Running 50 miles is crazy, yes – but it’s also a whole lot of fun.”

The 2008 Fall 50 takes place in Door County Saturday, October 25. For more information about the course, or to register or volunteer for the race, visit or call Sean Ryan at 920.606.2458.