Off and Running
Coastal Race Productions may be a tiny operation but they’ve helped tens of thousands of people run around the streets of southeastern North Carolina.
A stampede of runners is underway on our local streets, and it has gotten so big there is seemingly no finish line. It started on May 18, 2014, at the inaugural Run Sunset Beach Half Marathon. And now there are recreational marathons or half-marathons, 5Ks and mile fun runs throughout South Brunswick’s towns, totaling more than 50,000 runners since their inception. The events have made a pleasing impact on the economy and physical fitness, and it’s all thanks to a company named Coastal Race Productions (CRP).
It must be a noticeably big company with many employees to be able to pull off these major logistical events, right? There are government negotiations to contract, roads to close, thousands of runners to stay on course over many miles, the safety of volunteers and participants at stake, race publicity, registrations, scoring and awards, just to name a few of the duties of race directors. Well, the irony surrounding all this organized running madness is that CRP is comprised of only a couple of grandparents, two young parents and their little girl. “Race Central” is two houses, one in Sunset Beach and one in Calabash. What were they thinking?
Johnna (JoJo) Terragna (aka Mimi to her granddaughter), jokes that she and son-in-law David Hutnik are the CCO and CEO, respectively, which means she is the “Chief Chaos Organizer” and David’s the “Chief Extrapolating Officer.”
“It’s so hard to guesstimate the numbers of medals and shirts months in advance, and nobody could have foreseen COVID-19,” Terragna says. “There are so many things we have had to learn, which can come only from experience, such as there is no such thing as putting too many directional signs along a racecourse and checking them last minute. Otherwise, they seem to find their ways up ended, and arrows somehow pointing off course. In other words, you don’t know what you don’t know, unfortunately, until you know it. You fix it and it gets better and better.”
The family moved here 10 years ago from a rural Indiana farm community and took jobs locally in hair dressing and website marketing.
But their love of running and embracing one of Hutnik’s mantras refocused the entire family on the creation of this hugely different business idea. Hutnik proclaims that people should devote themselves to three things they love: One relates to making a living, one for a hobby and one toward staying mentally and bodily fit. For the Terragna/Hutnik family, “That makes running, times three,” Terragna says, so the family voted to give it a try.
Terragna was particularly in favor because of her past. There was a time in her life when she says she lived “fairly defeated,” and then at age 40 a breast cancer diagnosis added to her doldrums. During that period, she read the book The Courage to Start by John Bingham, which inspired her to consider running as a fitness hobby. Even as she battled cancer, Terragna took Bingham’s advice and “started” by researching running shoes, training plans and racing.
“You see, running got me through before I even really took a step,” she says. “I decided that if I could survive the cancer, I really could do anything, and running was at the top of my list. I often say that while cancer changed my life – running saved it.”
Terragna not only became a runner, but also a marathoner, having completed the Chicago and Paris marathons. She was more than ready to tackle this new business venture.
It became “real” immediately after she completed a race outside of the county. She and Hutnik, along with his wife, Jackie, and their daughter, Addie, stopped at a McDonald’s for a bite. They did not have high words of praise for the event, and it was like the old song – “anything you can do, I can do better.” Over their burgers and fries, they scratched out a business plan and division of labor for a Sunset Beach race.
“David and I share the day-to-day tasks of planning, promoting and priding ourselves in good customer care,” Terragna says. “And on race weekend, it is all hands on deck. My husband, Terry, manages our finish line area, my daughter, Jackie, oversees packet pick-up and the awards. Even Addie is out at the crack of dawn handling any situation like a pro.”
None of the family members have been to race-director school (and there is such a thing). However, Terragna says her extensive racing experience, plus her lack of fear in asking people in the industry how they do it, helped them immensely in figuring it out. Another plus, she says, is that she and Hutnik had been self-employed and are not afraid of working around the clock.
One of the most important elements for success, she and Hutnik discovered, is the engaging and training of volunteers. A marathon, for instance, needs dozens of helpers at intersections, water tables, handing out awards and so on. CRP incentivizes its volunteers with free t-shirts and $25 per person donations to their favorite charities. In 2019 alone CRP donated $24,000 to organizations across the county.
The inaugural Run Sunset Beach came off like a dream on race day. “It was almost as wonderful as a runner’s high,” Terragna says, adding that she couldn’t sleep for a day or two afterwards. The family had overcome a few moments of terror, and “I just kept thinking about all of those smiling faces as they crossed the finish line. It’s the best kind of exhaustion,” she says with her very own wide smile.
The positive reviews spread quickly, and in addition to the Sunset Beach event, the family now produces several more local races: Run Holden Beach, Run Ocean Isle Beach, Run Oak Island and The Calabash Turkey Trot.
Their new 3.1-mile race will stage July 3, 2021 – the Freedom 5K and Firecracker Fun Run in Shallotte. They also fire the starting gun for CRP events in Wilmington and North Myrtle Beach.
The year 2020 is one that small business owners will never forget.
“With three weeks until Run Sunset Beach, the country began shutting down from the COVID pandemic,” Terragna says. “We scheduled a meeting with the town, and we decided to postpone the event and reschedule for a few months later on May 1. We all thought we would be back to normal by then. Wow, did we get that wrong. As event planners, we had no idea what to plan for. Plan after plan resulted in cancelation after cancelation.”
However, any group of people that can figure a way to organize such complicated and large events can find alternatives in the face of adverse surprises. The family created virtual running events! CRP challenged runners to get out every day and run a set number of miles which, when totaled, would be the equivalent of running from Boone to the Outer Banks and Myrtle Beach to the Carolina mountains.
Runners paid a registration fee to participate, and to earn t-shirts and CRP’s magnificent medals.
“Our medals set us apart from other companies,” Terragna says. “They are big and beautiful.” (Actually, they are so big you can hang them in the house as wall art.)
For the virtual runs, the medals were the shape of the states, and a runner/slider moves across the route. Participants could log their miles online and see their progress on an interactive map.
“We had over 1,500 runners register,” Terragna says. “We also launched the Great American Race with the same concept, but the route took you from Sunset Beach, North Carolina, to Sunset Beach, California. The charm that slides across the medals was fully customizable from gender and skin tone to hair color. We also offered a dog charm if you ran with your four-legged friend.”
Finally, with the most stringent restrictions being adjusted, CRP offered in-person races again last fall, complete with runner requirements for mask-wearing and social distancing along the race routes. The Calabash race on Thanksgiving Day was evidence of that, and runners were truly thankful to be able to gather and celebrate the holiday as a community, she says.
CRP isn’t all about the footraces, though. Terragna knows the significance of running in people’s lives first-hand, and the company promotes it by having created three running groups that meet every weekend.
“We strongly desire to build a running community, and they get together in Oak Island, Ocean Isle and Sunset Beach,” she says. “It’s slow growing, but we plan to stick with it.”
Aside from CRP, it does not appear that there are any other running clubs in South Brunswick currently. They are also planning to establish formal training for runners and walkers in the future.
Making a living out of running and races is a work in progress, Terragna says.
“We’ve hit several bumps along the way from hurricanes to COVID, but we love it and tend to make it work,” she says. “The running community here includes some of the most encouraging and supportive human beings I have ever met. I could give the rest of my life giving back to the sport of running, and it would never begin to match what I have received. Everyone in the family feels the same way.”
As a final word to those who are thinking of beginning a running regimen, Terragna concludes, “Running changes lives, and you can do it from anywhere and on any budget. And if anyone has ever told you that you can’t, I’m here to tell you that you can!”
Want to run?
Learn more about all the fun Coastal Race Productions races and register for any of them at coastalraceproductions.com.
Photography by Ed Beckley