Leader of the Pork

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Illustration by Gluekit

Iris Simpson Bush was working a booth at the pre-race expo for the Twin Cities Marathon in Minneapolis years ago, trying to lure runners to Cincinnati for the Flying Pig, when she spotted two women zigging and zagging through the crowd with a definite purpose. The closer they got, the more she began to suspect they were coming for her. They were. The two stormed up, came to a jolting stop, turned around, pulled up their shirt tails, and proudly showed her the Flying Pig logos they had tattooed on their lower backs.

Simpson Bush laughs at the memory. “I thought they were going to moon me,” she says. The executive director of the Flying Pig Marathon is, at the moment, sitting in her Queensgate office recalling a variety of stories related to the race. She is surrounded by a wall-sized window with an eye-catching view of downtown and bookshelves filled with every pig-themed tchotchke imaginable. The two women turned out to be a mother and daughter who made the Flying Pig their first marathon.

While Simpson Bush delights in telling the story, the one thing she leaves out is that the women actually recognized her, a fact that is both fitting and surprising. The energetic 64-year-old is responsible for the city’s largest annual sporting event over the course of a single weekend with 36,000 participants and another 150,000 spectators lining the streets, including visitors from all 50 states and nearly 40 different countries who regularly generate over $10 million in economic impact. She holds a respectable amount of influence with the Powers That Be in the region and makes an exhausting list of speaking engagements and luncheons around town. “I have been called the face and personality of the Pig,” she says, “although I’m not entirely sure that’s a compliment.”

Still, despite the level of achievement, she toils in near-anonymity compared to her sports management peers in the area. Sure, she may get recognized occasionally by strangers in the supermarket or tattoo-flashing runners at an expo, but not to the degree one would expect for someone who holds such an influential role in the region’s cultural and economic identity.

Simpson Bush shrugs. She’s not seeking attention or stature or a seat at some power table. That’s not her style, she says. Her goal is simply to put on a good show once a year and give people a chance to get healthy while having a good time.

It’s hard to argue that she doesn’t do just that. In the 12 years she’s been leading the Pig, she’s added seven events and more than quadrupled the number of participants, all with the intent of giving more people the chance to participate (and she’s done it with a full-time staff of six). This year, she’s pushing her borders beyond the Pig weekend to include a three-race “Beer Series” throughout the year, as well as this month’s Queen Bee Half Marathon, a race created specifically for women, who make up 70 percent of the Pig’s half-marathon. “We’re trying to make the Pig an integral part of the community year-round,” she says.

With events now extending from March to October, her level of recognition may grow whether she wants it to or not. What it will mean, she says, is more people will have the chance to discover fun and fitness. Oh, and it will probably generate more letters. Each May, in the weeks following the Pig, letters pour in.

“And it’s not just the marathon,” she says, leaning forward for emphasis. “The marathon provides the sizzle. But you would be amazed at the number of people who take the time to write a letter of thanks because they did the 5K. Sometimes they’re doing it in memory of someone and it helps keep them in better health. Sometimes they’re raising money for a cause. Sometimes their goal is just to cross the finish line. It reduces you to tears.”

She pauses.

“Except for one woman. She sent us a letter just berating us. She insisted that we stop sending her our e-mail newsletter because she wasn’t the one who wanted to receive it—it was her no-good, cheating husband and his marathon-running mistress. She went on like this for two pages. Your heart went out to her, but really, it was hysterical.”

 After finishing a conference call with a potential sponsor, Simpson Bush pulls on a Queen Bee shirt, capri-length compression pants, and multicolored shoes so bright they look like they got caught in an explosion at a paint factory. She’s heading out for a midday run. The saying among runners is: “The brighter the shoes the faster the runner.” But she shakes her head no. “Not any more,” she says. A torn ACL playing soccer and five foot surgeries—three on her left foot, two on her right—have left her at the back of the pack.

The shoes are a gift from Asics. The running shoe giant became a sponsor of the Pig from the get-go in 1999. It’s actually against Asics policy to sponsor inaugural races, but they took a chance with the Pig and were justly rewarded. The Pig sells more gear for Asics than any other race it sponsors except the New York and Los Angeles Marathons. “I’m telling you, you put this pig logo on anything and it will sell like crazy,” says Simpson Bush.

Because of the success, Asics has again broken its policy and is a sponsor for the Queen Bee. It has also rewarded Simpson Bush and her staff with an ample supply of shirts and shorts and explosively colored shoes. “I literally wear Asics clothing most of the year,” she says. “For a person who had to wear suits and panty hose for 30 years in sales, it’s nice. I only have a couple of pairs of high heels in the closet anymore, and I only wear them to weddings and funerals.”

She hits the start button on her running watch and begins, briefly heading east before turning south toward the river. The pace is slow and steady. She’s unnecessarily apologetic. “I used to run 8-minute miles,” she says. “Not that that’s any land speed record, but today it’s more like 12- or 13-minute miles.”

Long before the Pig was even dreamed of, a few people on the front end of the 1970s running craze decided to hold a marathon in Northern Kentucky—an out-and-back along Route 8 called the Pacesetters Marathon. Simpson Bush was one of the few who ran. “I remember when I did decide to start running in my 20s it surprised me that I could because I’m not particularly athletic,” she says. “I never played sports, but running came pretty easily. Then I got it in my mind that I wanted to run a marathon before I was 30, so I entered. It was booooring. Not one spectator. Nothing. The Thanksgiving Day race has always been my race. I’ve done it 31 years. My first race was in 1976. I have a picture of me running in it. I was wearing sweatpants, a T-shirt, and headband.”

It is, she admits, a bit ironic that the person in charge of the city’s largest single sporting event doesn’t come from a hardcore sports background. But her job isn’t to run the races; it’s to run the business. Which is why she was hired in 2002. For a variety of reasons, the Pig had four different executive directors in its first four years, and the turnover created a volatile blend of inconsistency and instability. At the time she was a member of the Pig’s board of directors—a byproduct of her being general sales manager at WCPO and getting the Pig television coverage—as well as on the search committee for a new director. They interviewed diehard runners and lawyers and corporate types, but none brought the blend of what the organization needed: a fundamental knowledge of running races with a creative mind for running a nonprofit business. So she took herself off the search committee and threw her own hat in the ring.

“In hindsight, did they take a chance hiring me?” she asks. “Yes. But the coffers were pretty low, and my background was in sales, so I could help in that way. We also needed to build our reputation in the city. I remember my very first meeting was with the police department. They came in and read me the riot act. They said we weren’t adhering to what we said we were going to do, and they weren’t sure why they were even talking to me because I wouldn’t be at the table the next year, and that if we didn’t get our act together they might not renew our permit. We had to set about turning all that around.”

 One mile into her run, she finds herself on Mehring Way directly in front of Paul Brown Stadium. It’s familiar territory. It’s here, on the first Sunday of each May, some 17,000 runners congregate in gated-off corrals known as “pig pens” waiting for her to grab her starter’s gun at 6:30 a.m. and send them off on a 26.2-mile tour of the city.

“I usually get down here around 3 a.m. Three years ago my husband and I moved to Newport, so now I walk or ride my bike over. Even he says, ‘Why do you have to get there so early?’ But I think of it as my time. It’s really peaceful. Quiet. The calm before the storm.”

In recent years, the time has become less calm. Because of the terrorist attacks at the Boston Marathon, the morning preparations now include tactical units and bomb-sniffing dogs to sweep the area before the runners and spectators arrive. Even though she sends thousands of runners into the sea of spectators who party and scream and hold up creative signs—“I like Pig butts and I cannot lie,” “The end is nowhere near,” “Chuck Norris never ran a marathon”—Simpson Bush has never fully gotten to enjoy the fruits of her labors. When she started as a board member, she would run the first leg of a relay and then scoot back to the finish line to assume her role as official greeter and overall chaos coordinator. She was going to run the race on its 10th anniversary, but the year before a runner had crossed the finish line after completing the half-marathon, collapsed into the arms of a medical technician, and died. It was later discovered he had an undetected heart condition. “That made me realize that as long as I’m doing this job, running the race is a luxury I’m not entitled to,” she says. “I need to be wherever I’m needed.”

It was also a reminder that distance running has its hazards. This year, a runner collapsed from dehydration, had to be evacuated by helicopter, and spent several days in the hospital recovering. Another year a fireman from Florida was running in full gear with a group of local firefighters when someone directly in front of them collapsed. They stopped and kept the man alive until the medical team arrived. The Florida fireman then got up, put his helmet back on, and finished the race. Every year there’s something.

“Going to the hospital after the race is the toughest part of my job,” Simpson Bush says. “As soon as the last person crosses the line, the medical director and I go. If [the person in the hospital is] OK and you give them their medal, it’s rewarding. But in cases like the man who died—what can I say to his wife? You don’t know if she’s going to hit you or scream at you. I just walked in the room. She stood up. I don’t think we spoke for moments, we just cried. What can you do?”

 Two bridges and a brief tour of Northern Kentucky later, Simpson Bush heads up Walnut Street. She turns left and heads west on Seventh, opposite the direction the Pig takes when it cuts through downtown.

Setting up a road course through three cities, two states, and a half-dozen neighborhoods is a lot more difficult than people think, she says. The Queen Bee course took nearly a year to plan and looks nothing like they hoped it would. It begins and ends at the casino, but won’t go into Northern Kentucky because there’s another event going on at the same time; even though the Pig has enough clout that it could have bullied its way through the approval process, Simpson Bush didn’t want to interfere. “We always try to be courteous,” she says. “If we can help it, we don’t plan an event on the same weekend as someone else.”

As she turns onto Seventh she notes that it’s here that the Pig’s future may change. The streetcar slices through the Pig’s path at both Walnut and Main. It’s unclear what effect the streetcar will have on the marathon, but Simpson Bush is keeping her antennae up. In addition to helping with sales calls, she spends part of her days walking through City Hall, making sure the relationship she’s built with the city remains solid. “Now they are wonderfully supportive,” she says. “They are invested in the event. Plus it helps that we pay our way. We don’t get any money from the city. I think they respect that.”

The city, she says, also appreciates that the Pig gives more than $1 million annually to local charities. But she knows the game. Even though the Pig has become what she calls a city icon, it may have to reroute itself once the streetcar starts rolling.

She shrugs. “You can’t always get what you want, as the Stones say.”

It won’t be the first time. Despite her growing influence, Simpson Bush still hasn’t convinced some in City Hall that the Pig could be even more iconic. The Boston Marathon paints its start and finish lines on the street. The city of Akron paints a purple line down the streets where its marathon runs. She’s lobbied to have a pink line or possibly hoof prints painted on Cincinnati’s streets. So far the answer has been no.

It may come in time. Being the executive director of the Flying Pig, she says, is a lot like running a marathon. You just keep going, one step at a time. And if you can’t get the starting line painted on the street, at least you can be satisfied with the occasional back tattoo.

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