Bourbon Chase the Perfect Mix for Runners

Sunset in Wild Turkey country.

MORE THAN 3,300 RUNNING WEEKEND RELAY THAT STOPS AT 6 HISTORIC DISTILLERIES

Bourbon and running – two interests not often mentioned in the same breath, but that is exactly what will be happening this Friday and Saturday across central Kentucky.

The third running of The Bourbon Chase will kick off at 8:00 a.m. on October 7th, from the Jim Beam distillery in Clermont, and finish 200 miles later on October 8th around 3:00 p.m., as thousands of runners cross the finish line in Lexington’s Triangle Park by Rupp Arena.

This event is an overnight relay that covers 12 counties and follows the Kentucky Bourbon Trail experience, which features six historic distilleries, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Makers Mark, Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve.

To participate, friends, runners and corporate groups convince twelve of their intrepid buddies that forming a team to run 200 miles over 36 hours sounds like a good idea. Teams then adopt a name, often something colorful to go along with the bourbon theme, such as Menace to Sobriety, Guzzlin Gobblers or SuhBourboNites, with each member paying a $100 entry fee to join a team.

The brash names and liquor-centric theme makes it sound like this is a drinking event, and while bourbon is the tie that binds, any drinking festivities are reserved for after crossing the finish line.

The Runner Behind The Chase

“When I first pitched this idea the tourism people got it immediately, the bourbon people not so much,” said Mike Kuntz, founder of The Bourbon Chase and race director.

Whisky Creek | Maker's Mark Distillery | Loretto, KY.

Whisky Creek | Maker’s Mark Distillery | Loretto, KY

Kuntz endured people joking about runners receiving bourbon instead of water at water stops, or taking shots of bourbon at every mile marker. Bill Samuels, Jr. (the former president at Maker’s Mark and brand marketing guru), was the only industry guy in the room shaking his head “yes” to the concept behind The Bourbon Chase.

“They looked at me like I had lost my mind,” said Kuntz. “There’s the athleticism, but it’s the hospitality of Kentucky that makes this event.”

Kuntz, 47, was born in Cincinnati, but moved to Kentucky when he was 4 years old, and was a runner at Southern High School and then the University of Louisville.

He went on to coach running at Bellarmine University, and then U of L, where he led the women’s distance team to their first conference championship.

The competition and wear and tear associated with constant recruiting was hard on his family life, so Kuntz earned a masters degree in health behavior counseling at U of L. This led to a successful career in government relations with the American Lung Association.

Kuntz remains on a regional advisory council with the American Lung Association, but The Bourbon Chase is his full time job.

It was out of his pursuits as a runner, coach and health professional that the idea of The Bourbon Chase came about. Some of his former student athletes formed a team to compete in the “Hood to Coast” relay race along the Oregon coastline, and asked Kuntz to run the anchor leg.

The competition and camaraderie between the team members was such a good time that Kuntz looked at importing a similar type event to Kentucky. The Bourbon Chase grew out of a marriage of three things Kuntz holds dear; running and fitness in general, the state of Kentucky and bourbon.

Reception BannerKuntz felt that with the natural beauty and hospitality found in Kentucky, combined with bourbon and horse country, there was something for everyone, and he could build a boutique event that specifically catered to runners and enhanced their experience throughout the event.

It starts with a welcome reception for runners in Lexington and at Jim Beam on Thursday, the participation of all the distilleries, the use of Kentucky-centric vendors and the lavish finish line celebration, where bourbon and Kentucky Ale will be available to all.

“This is unique to any event in America,” says Kuntz. “It’s part road race, part road trip and a whole lot of fun.”

Logistics

Each team member will run three times, with several hours down time in between each leg. The distance varies on every run, but averages 5.5 miles, with one leg as short as 3 miles and one almost 9 miles. Distance, elevation and time of the run are all contributing factors into the difficulty rating of each of the 36 legs covering the 200 miles.

course-map

Teams are broken into two vans, one active and one inactive, with six members in each. Only one team member is ever on the course at any one time. The active van delivers a runner to the start of a leg, and then leaps ahead to get to the end point, where the next runner can warm up and wait for the exchange of the relay wristband from the incoming runner.

This continues until all six members in the active van have run. In the meantime, members in the inactive van sleep, eat, go on distillery tours and make their way to the super-exchange points where the active van will handoff to the inactive van, thus reversing roles so the second six team members can run their legs.

While The Bourbon Chase is not catering to only elite runners, this is a challenging event physically, and there are several teams that will be vying to win by posting times that are below 6 minutes per mile. There also are a few ultra-teams, comprised of only six members, with each running six legs.

Division winners get a large “bourbon” basket with a bottle of premium bourbon from each of the six distilleries, signed by the master distiller and filled with other goodies such as distillery branded mugs and shirts. They also receive a barrelhead with “Champ” and all the details burnt into the wood.

Growing Popularity

“Bourbon in general has skyrocketed with its popularity, and tourism of the distilleries has increased along with that,” said Niki Heichelbech, media communications manager with the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau. “This race is just another way to experience bourbon culture.”

DSCN1152With Kentucky being the home of this native spirit and with bourbon’s increased popularity, it’s easy to confuse the idea of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail as being a geographic region, when in fact the trail is an adjective describing a tour.

In 1999, the Kentucky Distillers’ Association formed the Kentucky Bourbon Trail tour, with its six member distilleries, to give visitors the chance to observe the art and science that goes into crafting Kentucky’s signature spirit.

According to the KDA, about 400,000 people visited at least one of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail distilleries in 2010, a 14 percent increase in attendance from 2009. More than 1.8 million people from all 50 states and 25 countries have visited the member distilleries in the last five years alone.

In 2007, the KDA introduced its souvenir “Passport” program that rewards visitors with a complimentary T-shirt upon completing tours of all six Kentucky Bourbon Trail distilleries. More than 9,000 people received t-shirts in 2010.

This increased level of recognition and popularity surrounding bourbon has seamlessly merged with a rise in adventure tourism, and benefited The Bourbon Chase by allowing it to exceed its cap for registered teams in each of the first three years.

A Full Field

The cap for teams this year is 250, and 262 will begin the race Friday.

Maker's Mark Distillery | Loretto, KY

Maker’s Mark Distillery | Loretto, KY

This level of participation is also reaping financial gains on the communities where The Bourbon Chase passes through. Towns like Danville and Midway are keeping their communities open late, and people are lining the streets to cheer on the runners.

With over 3,500 hungry and thirsty people, along with 500 vans needing gas, vendors and communities have quickly sensed the economic opportunity this event offers, and are embracing the chance to showcase their towns to runners from 44 different states and three countries this year.

“What makes The Bourbon Chase special is 12 really charming communities and six amazing distilleries,” said Kuntz, the race director.

Even with numerous costs that must be covered, like overtime for police, port-o-potty rentals to cover the 200-mile course, along with $30,000 for the post-race festivities, Kuntz remains committed to being a good corporate citizen.

A number nearing $140,000 will be split between three signature charities, the American Lung Association, the Leukemia Society and the Hospice Foundation.

Corporate sponsorship has taken on a more personal role at several of the distilleries along the course, including Wild Turkey. The venerable brand has assembled team “Give ‘em the Bird” to compete for the first time in The Bourbon Chase (of which this reporter is one of the team members).

This is a post-race photo of my van-mates from Wild Turkey's Team Give 'Em The Bird: (from left) Urban Llama, Cameron Talley, Ben Coleman, Daniel Williams, David Gold, Jonathan Jewel, Sheila Fint.

This is a post-race photo of my van-mates from Wild Turkey’s Team Give ‘Em The Bird: (from left) Urban Llama, Cameron Talley, Ben Coleman, Daniel Williams, David Gold, Jonathan Jewel and Sheila Fint.

Three team members are coming from the San Francisco office of Skyy vodka, which is a division of the Campari Group, along with Wild Turkey. The rest of the team is associated with the distillery in Lawrenceburg.

“The beauty is all the distilleries are selling products, but this is about the spirit of friendship and camaraderie,” said Umberto Luchini, group marketing director of American Whiskey and Tequila (a division of the Compari Group). “This is about the culture of Kentucky, and how all the distilleries come from the same land and the same history.”

As race day nears, many runners are still looking for teams to join. Kuntz knows he could increase the number of teams allowed to enter in future races, but he’s not expecting to grow the participation in this race much beyond its current level.

“Coordination of the course is a bear already – it’s a full-time job,” said Kuntz. We’re constantly finessing the course to keep it from getting blocked up, like at Four Roses, there is construction and vans can’t park on the property – that’s 530 vans and 4,000 people that have to go somewhere.”

Instead of making the race bigger and going for a money grab, Kuntz is looking to stay true to the vision and mission of The Bourbon Chase, to work the customer service and deliver a good product that takes care of its runners.

The sex appeal on this race is pretty high, bourbon, adventure tourism, scenic horse country – there’s something for everyone,” said Kuntz.

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Published by:  The State Journal | Frankfort, KY | 10-06-11

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