Fast Company

Newly arrived from Aruba in 1991, Andréa Sisino volunteered to help at the finish line of the fledgling Key Bank Vermont City Marathon. Nearly freezing as sleet pelted her and the runners, she vowed never to do it again. By fall, she was the organization's first executive director.

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Andréa Sisino has grown the Vermont City Marathon into a multi-faceted operation with year-round youth and adult programs, connections to a host of Vermont products and a race dubbed one of the top 20 in the country by Running World magazine.

Give Vermont a year: It'll either wrap its arms around you or it'll chew you up or spit you out." That's Andréa Sisino, executive director of Vermont City Marathon, expressing her affection for the place she calls home.

She wasn't so sure about everything 11 years ago. That was the year she volunteered to help at the finish line of the Key Bank Vermont City Marathon, then in its third year. "That weekend, we had sleet," she says, "and being from Aruba, I froze."

Although a Detroit native, Sisino was a denizen of warmer climates. She attended college at the University of Arizona and the University of South Florida in Tampa, where she was on a softball and tennis scholarship. "I was a sociology major, and when I graduated, I said, 'OK, what do you do with a sociology major other than teach or become a sociologist?'" Her favorite professor advised her to go out and live, to see the world and experience it, before making that decision.

After a time working at the Tampa YMCA and teaching in an international school in Aruba, Sisino decided to send out resumes and see what bubbled up.

She received offers from New York and Vermont. "I said, 'Wow! I've never been to New England; I'll go.'"

Once here, Sisino realized she did not really enjoy teaching in the public school system, which she found quite different from teaching overseas. "One of my friends said, 'If you want to get connected with the community, get involved in the marathon.'"

After freezing at the finish line that day, Sisino vowed she would never do it again. "Little did I know that in the fall they would be looking for an administrator for the race." Until that time, the marathon had been an all-volunteer organization. "They were getting more phone calls, more mail; and they paid $6,000," says Sisino with a laugh. She was interviewed and got the job.

"I had such interest in the event," she says. "It was like finding a diamond in the rough. I thought this could be such a great running event in the country."

The idea for the marathon came from Gordon MacFarland, now the manager of finance for SmartWood, a program of the Rainforest Alliance, in Richmond. Newly arrived from Boston, he organized a group to get acquainted with people in the running community. "I had all that Boston energy with me and said, 'Let's start a marathon!'"

It took MacFarland a year and a half to bring the first one together. "It happened to be the right time for the Bank of Vermont, which had been purchased by the Bank of Boston [now the Key Bank] and had some sponsorship money to put into it. Things happened like magic at times," he says.

MacFarland directed the race for four years, although he has run in the race only once, in 1999, when he came in second in his age group. "Overall, I am very delighted at how the event has gone," he says. After the '92 race, he turned the reins over to John Scheer, a local CPA, who was race director for the 1993 and 1994 races. Sisino, hired just before the 1992 event, was the event administrator. She was named executive director before the '95 race.

From its inception, the race has been run on Memorial Day weekend, chosen because it was a slow time for area hotels. The first year, the event attracted just over 1,000 runners, and it took off from there, Sisino says.

Now, Sisino directs a staff of six; a race committee of 85; 1,600 volunteers; and 6,000 competitors. The race was named one of the top 20 marathons in the country and one the 10 most scenic marathons by Running World magazine.

The number of entrants has been capped at 6,000. "There's stress on the city, the capacity and the course," says MacFarland. "The race committee and Andréa have worked to come to some balance on the quality and quantity, because they could get 10,000 people there if they opened up the gates, but then it wouldn't be as good a race."

According to Vermont Convention Bureau figures, the runners and their supporters spend an estimated $1.8 million over Memorial Day weekend. About 20,000 people come to Burlington to watch the event.

While that alone is good news for the region, Sisino stresses the fact that Vermont City Marathon is now much more than just a race. "Originally there was just the marathon event," she says. "Now, we're multi-faceted. We've got a two-day sports and fitness expo that brings about 15,000 people through here we did a count last year. We've got a kids' event, which is on Saturday [of race weekend], called Y.A.M. (Youth Advocacy Month) Scram. Then we do year-long programs with youth and adult education in the schools and elsewhere."

Joining Y.A.M. Scram under the Youth Running Program are the Many Milers program and a youth training program. Now in its fifth year, Many Milers was initiated to introduce children to the sport of running, says Miriam Street, assistant director of the marathon, who directs the youth running programs. Many Milers challenges youths to run 26.2 miles or more through the months of October to May and has grown from 50 participants to 637 this year. Several community schools and youth organizations have incorporated it into their programs. Awards are given out on Saturday of race weekend.

Miriam Street is the organization's assistant director and director of the youth running programs. She is one of six paid staffers who help keep the organization on track.

Last year, an 11-week youth training program was started in conjunction with area youth service providers such as the Boys and Girls Club, YMCA, King Street Youth Center and the New North End Youth Center. "Men and women from St. Michael's College cross country teams mentor the kids, Skirack donates shoes, and Key Bank contributes uniforms," Street says. The goal is to provide a healthy environment for young people to experience a consistent fitness program as well as learn goal-setting and team-building skills through running.

As the marathon has grown and programs have been added under Sisino's leadership, outreach to the community has grown. A Vermont gifts package is put together each year for race entrants. "We're trying to promote Vermont," Sisino says. The runners' bag has a race bib, all running materials, free scoop coupons from Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc., coffee from Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, bottles of mineral water from Health Science of Vermont, Vermont Sports magazine and a Craftsbury Running Camp brochure. "The Burlington Free Press does a pull-out section called "Monday Marathon, and Dakin Farm is working on maple syrup," says Sisino.

Over the years, the marathon has worked with Vermont Teddy Bear Co., which designed an official Vermont City Marathon bear. This year, the folks at Vermont Teddy Bear were out straight trying to fill orders for Mother's Day. "World Wide Monkey contacted us," says Sisino, referring to Teddy Bear founder John Sortino's new venture based in Plattsburgh, N.Y., "and we teamed up with them. They're doing an official Vermont City Marathon monkey that we'll sell at our merchandise booth."

Runners' bags also include a chip an electronic tracking device to be laced onto each runner's shoe. This assures accurate timing of the runners.

The race has become so popular, strict attention has had to be given to identifying runners and checking identification. This was necessitated by an incident involving a woman who ran in place of a legitimate registrant. "So many people want to get into this event any way they can," says Sisino, so the policy is to require a photo ID. "It's mandatory to pick up your race information." The organization also works with copy services such as Kinko's and Hard Copy to make sure nobody can photocopy race information or ID.

Sisino is the perfect person to run this organization. A runner herself, she has the high energy and enthusiasm needed to face the challenges that arise. "It becomes more complicated every year," she says. "Not only is there a staff, but you have a volunteer race committee of 85 people, and each of them takes a specific piece of the event like medical or communications or baggage. Underneath them you have 1,600 volunteers, and all of them have needs in order to make this work. Then there's just making sure they're aware of any changes in the flow of information."

Because the race is a city-wide event, Sisino must work closely with city departments such as police, parks and recreation, public works and the Church Street Marketplace. "There are policy changes every year. Even this year, already. We had our post-race awards ceremony and party planned for Church Street, but this year, there's a new policy: no large tents on Church Street. That came down the wire [four weeks before race day]. So here we have all of our publications, which go into print in September or October, and they all say 'Church Street block party,' and we had to move it to a different site, because it is a policy change for the city." The party was moved to the site of the organization's new offices at 1 Main St.

When she's not at the helm of Vermont City Marathon, Sisino runs for her own enjoyment and has discovered the joys of gardening at her home in North Ferrisburgh, where she lives with her husband, Mike, and their cat, Boo Kitty.

Sisino tells the story of how she met Mike with the same good humor and rapid-fire speech she applies to her work. "He's a Vermont state trooper," she says. "I met him when I was out on a bike ride. We both wound up in Hancock at the same time. He was on his Harley motorcycle, and I was on a bicycle."

Sisino reviews plans for this year's racers' restaurant guide with Vickie Crocker (seated), operations assistant.

Pressed for details, she groans and says, "I'll give you the very, very short version. I had basically crashed on my bike, and I was in Hancock recovering, sitting there drinking a Gatorade. Mike drove up on his Harley and looked down at me and said, 'Man, looks like you've had a rough day.' I said, 'Well, you're right.'

We talked about 45 minutes, and he tells me that when he was leaving, he said to himself, 'Wow! That's the kind of woman I could spend the rest of my life with.' And I had said to myself, 'Wow! That was a nice man.'

"When he got home, he looked me up and left a message on my home phone. I came home and heard the message and thought, 'This is great, but the timing is all wrong.' My dad had just died, and I needed some alone time."

Two years later, in 1996, she called him back and left a message. "I said, 'Is there a limit to how much time can go by and not return a phone call?' He called me the next day; we set a date for the following week. We got married in 1999," she says.

Sisino continues to run her organization the way she runs her life with loads of energy and a can-do attitude. New this year is a look into event management consulting, a way to put the experience reaped from years of running marathons and related programs to profitable use.

"We're a nonprofit, run like a small business," Sisino says. "Everything we do our vision for the future, our budgeting, our goals everything revolves around smart growth."

Originally published in June 2002 Business People-Vermont