More than 15 years ago, Beth Shluger managed to do what few people are able to accomplish. She turned her avocation — running and participating in triathlons — into a vocation.
Shluger has been an avid runner, biker and swimmer since she was a teenager growing up in Manchester, "but I was never going to pay any bills from athletics," she said. Instead, she forged a career based on another of her passions — food. For a number of years, she worked as a wine steward, a sous chef, and a restaurant manager, eventually becoming executive director of the Hartford Restaurant Association, a post she held for eight years.
In the early 1990s, Hartford hosted its first triathlon and the out-of-town promoter hired Shluger to manage the event.
"Hundreds of healthy, fit people came to town to participate and it was just a wonderful thing for the community," she said. When the entity that promoted the event went out of business a couple of years later, Shluger picked up the ball, founding the Glastonbury-based Hartford Marathon Foundation and organizing its first marathon in 1994.
She chose the marathon component of the triathlon because it seemed to be the best fit for the local community.
"Being in the middle between Boston and New York, people here understood what a marathon was more than a triathlon," which typically includes endurance swimming and bicycling events in addition to a 26-mile run.
The first year drew 352 runners. Last year, 14,000 people ran in the marathon — now called the ING Hartford Marathon in recognition of its primary sponsor — and other shorter races for people of all ages held on a single fall weekend.
In addition to the organization's signature event that takes place in October, the Hartford Marathon Foundation has grown to include some 50 different programs for adults and children, including about 30 athletic events held in every corner of Connecticut throughout the year. Currently, the menu of activities includes several duathlons and triathlons, a wide variety of 5K and 10K races, and a growing number of training programs for both children and adults. The organization is now beginning to organize events in Rhode Island also.
Shluger is particularly proud of the impact the foundation is having on Connecticut's children. One school-based program, the ING Run for Something Better, enables children to gradually accumulate the number of running miles in a half or full marathon, then run their final mile in an event held at Bushnell Park on the day before the annual marathon.
"Many young people start out this way, going a mile at a time, and now they're runners," Shluger said.
Although the foundation does not donate directly to other entities, the organization has built a significant charitable component by adopting official charities and encouraging its runners to raise funds for them as part of their participation in the foundation's events. As an incentive, the foundation offers some perks including refreshments, massages, and private portalets — "the most coveted thing for runners on race day," Shluger said. The foundation also produces events for several charities, including smaller, lesser-known entities that need to raise awareness as well as funds.
It's likely that the organization will continue to grow because Shluger admits to a passion for creating new events.
"I see a beautiful venue or ride my bike on a great route and I want to create a new event around it," she said. "My staff groans when I say, 'I have a new idea.'"
Shluger has found that the skills she gained from her food services career translate well into running the Hartford Marathon Foundation.
"This job is primarily about event production, and in a restaurant you produce an event every night, so it's the same skills set," she said. She also spends a considerable amount of time on what she considers her biggest challenge — raising the money to pay for the foundation's programs. "I wish I could say it gets easier as time goes on, but it's always hard. We're fortunate though, because we've had some sponsors who have been with us since the beginning and continue to be very supportive."
Although she's too busy running the foundation's events to participate in them, Shluger is still a competitive athlete. "Whenever I have a weekend off, I go somewhere to race. I usually do triathlons in Massachusetts and Vermont during the summer, and I do a bunch of 5Ks here and there."
Shluger's husband, Ken, a state Supreme Court judge, shares her passion for athletics.
"It's been a part of our life from the beginning, so I'm lucky that I've always had a training partner," she said. Not surprisingly, the couple's son, David, 25, and daughter, Olivia, 21, have also developed active, athletic lifestyles.
In her free time, Shluger relieves stress by cooking. Although she enjoys experimenting with Asian and other food styles, she often opts for French.
"Because I'm trained in French cooking, that's easy for me so I don't have to cook off a recipe," she said. "But it's changed a lot since I started. There's not so much butter and cream these days. Now it's all chicken broth and cooking spray."
The marathon and its related events have been good for the community, according to Brie Barash, senior associate with the Kotchen Group. "The marathon brings in so much in terms of visitors, attention and promoting a healthy lifestyle," she said. "The people who work for the foundation truly love what they do. They put so much passion into everything they do, and Beth leads that."