Joseph (Joe) Moreno, Race Director for the Quad Cities Marathon, will be the guest speaker at our Annual SRRC Banquet on January 27, 2018, at Erin’s Pavilion. Joe founded the Quad Cities Marathon in 1997, and he directs two other area races: the Freedom Run and the Firecracker Run. He served on the East Moline City Council from 1989 to 2001, and served as Mayor from 2001 to 2005. SRRC member Megan Styles interviewed Joe this week to learn a little more about his life in running, race directing, and local politics.
A Conversation with Joe Moreno, Race Director for the Quad Cities Marathon
MS: When did you first become a runner?
JM: I was a troubled teenager. I was the last one that anyone would guess would end up successful in life. Back in the early 1970s, it was uncommon for a Hispanic Catholic couple to get divorced, but my parents did. I really struggled with it. My mom couldn’t control me, and I was in trouble at home and in trouble with the law.
One day, two young guys came to my door and asked me to come out with them. They were from an organization called the Youth Service Bureau, and they had volunteered to mentor troubled teens. They took me to the movies and for ice cream, and they just happened to be runners. I kept doing the bad stuff for a while longer because I enjoyed it so much [laughs], but they sort of weaned me away from it. I joined them on some runs and they took me to some races, and I found that I was pretty good at it.
I’ve seen them both since. One became a judge and one became a professor at St. Ambrose University, but at the time, they were just two twenty-something guys looking after a fourteen-year old kid. They were part one of pulling me away from the bad elements. Part two was my wife, Lorna. We were high school sweethearts, and we’ve been married now for almost 41 years. She was a great influence on me, and I’m very fortunate to have that. We have four children, and seven grandchildren now.
MS: How and when did you get started directing races in the Quad Cities?
JM: Since I started running, I’ve been a very active and very consistent runner. I started volunteering at local races, and when you start volunteering, you get a better view of what it takes to put something on. You have an appreciation for what it takes behind-the-scenes. I have four kids, and when they were little, our local park was really in disarray. I would ask the alderman to fix things, and they would just come and remove the playground equipment instead of repairing or replacing it.
I thought I would start a race and give the proceeds to the local parks department so they could afford to make improvements. I went to talk to a good friend who started the Firecracker Run to ask for advice, and wouldn’t you know it, I walked out a few hours later with his race! [laughs] It’s a great run. We do it every year on the Fourth of July, and we just celebrated our 35th anniversary. I’ve been the Race Director for 25 years, and we’ve grown participation from around 700 people to more than 3,000 runners.
MS: That’s impressive! What did you do to promote the race and make it so successful?
JM: I was an active and very competitive runner, and I had been volunteering all the time with other races. That gave me great insight. Going to other races and seeing how other people do stuff has been my biggest asset and my sharpest and best tool for being a Race Director. I’ve always said that this is true of any situation. If you watch and learn from others and apply the lessons to your situation, then your situation is always going to improve.
I also have great appreciation and respect for the volunteers, the race committee, and the community members that work to put together the run. The Firecracker Run committee has really been together since day one. I’ve always said that my goal was never just to get bigger. It was to get better. Everyone who runs the race should walk away with a great experience, and we let them do the marketing and be the ambassadors for the run the next year.
MS: What inspired you to start the Quad Cities Marathon?
JM: I have run 30 marathons in all four corners of the U.S. and in Mexico and Frankfurt, Germany. I was traveling to all of these places to run marathons, and I thought, ‘You know what? This area needs our own marathon.’ If you look at the Quad Cities, we’re right smack in the center of several major urban areas – Chicago, Madison, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Des Moines. People could travel from all these places to run a marathon here.
I really wanted to start a community marathon – not just one in East Moline or any one city, but a marathon that would involve all of the communities. Being on the East Moline City Council and being able to network and be in constant contact with council members from the other cities really helped. I did my homework first and went around and made connections with the mayors, the legislators, the chambers of commerce, the visitor and convention bureaus, everyone that would need to agree to make this happen. Then I called a special meeting with all these entities, and everyone walked away with a sense of, ‘We can do this. Let’s do this!’ The city councils made a really important commitment to cover all of the expenses associated with having the police out on the course. This is really our biggest expense, and they’ve honored that commitment for twenty years! Each municipality covers thousands of dollars in expenses, and it’s pretty cool they’ve all upheld that commitment for so long.
Our marathon is also very unique because we run across the I-74 Bridge. I’m pretty sure that we’re still the only marathon in the U.S. with permission to run on a federal highway. The bridge is only two lanes, and we get one for the runners. We were very blessed that our representatives in Congress got involved and negotiated with the federal Department of Transportation to allow us to legally run on the bridge.
MS: You have had a long and successful career in local politics. As former city council person and mayor, what do you think races like this contribute to a community?
JM: This is a really important point. Races are not just about the runners and the participants; they’re not just about people being selfish and wanting a run and tying up city streets. Races like this bring people into downtown for the day, and they spend money in local businesses. They also bring people together. Races are about engaging with volunteers, local officials, and local businesses. They are about building connections that bring so much to the community. I always tell our sponsors, ‘We don’t just want your money. We want your enthusiasm too.’
I’ll give you an example that really illustrates why these races are so valuable for communities like ours. We just celebrated the fifth anniversary of the Freedom Run, which is a military-themed run that benefits military families in our community that need support. One Saturday five years ago, a guy in my running group heard that his friend’s neighbor had a broken water heater. The woman’s husband was deployed overseas, she was new to the community and didn’t really know anyone, and she was taking care of two kids alone in a house with no hot water. We all pitched in to raise the money to repair her water heater, but it made me think, ‘How many other people in our local military community are dealing with issues like this and need help?’
So what started out as an effort by strangers to aid another stranger turned into a run that benefits the United Service Organizations (USO) and Association of the United States Army (AUSA). We have twenty military vehicles parked at the start line, and a general from Arsenal Island starts the race by firing a Civil War cannon. We have 100 volunteers with full-size American flags stationed on the sidelines throughout the race, and at the finish line, runners get special edition dog tags with our symbol embossed on it. It’s more than a run. It’s a celebration in honor of our service members, and the proceeds go directly to these great organizations.
MS: You had a small stroke in 2013. Can you talk a little bit about what you learned from your health scare?
JM: Absolutely. I’ve got something to tell the world. Just because we run and we’re able to keep the weight off and we look physically fit, doesn’t mean we’re healthy. I never really put that together until my minor stroke. I love the fat on prime rib. I used to eat all of that, and I learned that you really can’t do that. My plumbing was completely plugged up. I learned a lot, and it really changed my thinking about how I eat. I would eat everything and eat a lot. [laughs] I’m still struggling with this because I was a big eater my whole life, but I’m making changes. It also taught me how blessed I am, and how many friends I have in the community. There was just an out-pouring of support.
MS: I heard you’ve been a long-time SRRC member, and you competed in the Abraham Lincoln Half Marathon several times?
JM: Yes! I belong to six or seven running clubs, including the SRRC. These are all clubs that really make you feel welcome. You feel good when you go to their races. Yours is really one of those clubs. I’ve run the Abe Lincoln half about a dozen times. When I see Bryan Glass and Dave Drennan and other runners from Springfield at races as far away as Florida, we’re all on a first-name basis. Your club makes everyone feel comfortable, welcome, and appreciated.
I come every year and set up a booth at the half marathon expo here in Springfield and advertise the Quad Cities Marathon at no cost, and I’d love for you all to come do the same at our expo. There is a brand new market in the Quad Cities waiting for you. Come get that exposure at no cost, and we will make you feel welcome. The goal is to build friendship and camaraderie. You all do that really well, and I’d like to reciprocate!
Thanks, Joe. We’re looking forward to meeting you and hearing more of your stories at our annual banquet!