Kelly Arnott has been putting on races for 23 years as vice president of VR Pro and this week she was named the recipient of the Tourism Ambassador award from Tourism Burlington. Known for their Santa runs and the Chilly Half, hosted in Burlington in early March since 1994, Arnott and her team are bucking running trends with races and bringing in more than $1-million to Burlington every year. For Arnott, who opened her first running shop in Burlington, the Village Runner, in 1992, the award means everything. “I love living in Burlington,” said Arnott, “and I love putting on terrific events and sharing Burlington with runners.” Ben Kaplan caught up with Arnott soon after she received her award.
Q) Congratulations, sincerely. After all these years in running, what does the Tourism Ambassador award mean to you?
A) All these years bringing people to Burlington, it just really means so much. A lot of these runners are first-time Chilly finishers and we’re introducing people to Burlington while we’re also introducing people, with the help of the Running Room, to our sport.
Q) What’s been the perception of Burlington from the uptight runners from Toronto?
A) Oh, they love Burlington. We’ve had several runners from Toronto buy houses in Burlington after discovering it at the Chilly Half.
Q) How has the Chilly changed through the years?
A) We used to have a different route, but it upset residents because we’d have 2,500 people running a big rectangle and residents would be sort of blocked in, so we moved it to the Lakeshore.
Q) That must’ve been a trying experience.
A) That was seven years ago, and yes, there was some fighting and politicians got involved and things, you know—everyone’s passionate—but we never let it take us down. We believed in the event and believed in the city and knew we could find a way to make everything work.
Q) And then what happened?
A) Everything did.
Q) How so?
A) I just went crazy the last couple of years to get our numbers back. I go to the different Running Rooms and try and bring as many people as I can to Burlington.
Q) What’s your formula for putting on a successful event?
A) You have to cover your experiences, but we go above and beyond to make the best race we can. We spend a lot of money on the shirt, the medal, the chilli, the beer. I mean tons of marketing dollars, but you have to in order to put on a great event.
Q) It’s funny that an event in Burlington in the chilly days of early March has become so popular.
A) Well, it’s three weeks before Around the Bay, and that’s perfect timing if you’re doing that event, or any spring race and there’s about 100,000 people in our area doing spring races, whether it’s Ottawa, Buffalo, Toronto, Mississauga, so, you know, there’s a lot of people we can attract. You train all winter, it’s great to test it out in the beginning of March.
Q) Are races losing their numbers? Have we passed the third great running boom?
A) Some races definitely are and it’s been tough. We dropped recently when we had two bad years with the ice and the snow and we had to fight to get the numbers back. But our partnership with Running Room has been great. From their Learn to Run and half marathon clinics, we have an automatic 1,000 come to the Chilly Half. And hopefully after they race with us, they go on and have good experiences at other races. In running, we all work together—we all work as one.
Q) What’s been your recipe for success?
A) Giving a bagel at the finish line doesn’t work anymore. We have to keep making it better and I know we can and we will.
Q) Could you share a few favourite memories over the years?
A) There was one year we had firefighters from Brantford trying to raise money for a firefighter who died and they were starting this fund. We had 35 of them with their gear and oxygen tanks and it was touching to be involved. Another year, Reid Coolsaet came out and he broke the record and that same year Krista DuChene broke the record, too. Her race was really special because it was her first run back after breaking her femur in Montreal and she was so happy to get out and do well, and then she ran Dusseldorf and that got her to the Olympics. Such an incredible time.
Q) You should feel proud.
I do. And some of these people who have just gotten off the couch and they’re crying and laughing at our finish line—it makes their day, their life, their year, it’s everything they’ve worked on. It’s so much more than the actual race, it’s all the stories. I’m very proud to be part of it.