Often only a thin line separates a dream from reality. Crossing that channel is rarely easy and requires equal parts courage and the right attitude to make the crossover.
So ask yourself this. What kind of person could successfully co-found and direct a triathlon (and land the cover of Triathlete magazine to boot) with no race management experience and having never competed in a triathlon?
Someone like Lindsey Kurhajetz.
Kurhajetz (pronounced Ker-HIGH-yetz), a student in St. Thomas’ Master of Business Communication certificate program, said, “I’ve always been pretty fearless. I think always waiting until you’re ready holds a lot of people back from doing what they dream of doing.”
She chose St. Thomas’ MBC certificate program over traditional MBA programs because “my passion is building relationships through strong communication, and the collection of classes offered at St. Thomas perfectly suited the topics I wanted to explore,” she said.
The dauntless visionary behind the Maple Grove “Dare to Tri” Triathlon (since renamed Life Time Tri Maple Grove in 2013), Kurhajetz, with no race management or race experience outside of spectating, shepherded the event from a sold-out roster of 500 participants in 2010, its inaugural year, to 1,700 at its fifth annual race, held Aug. 23. Weaver Lake Park in Maple Grove, Minn., is the bucolic home base for the event, where participants choose between two courses: International distance (1.5K swim/40K bike/5K run) or Sprint distance (.8K swim/24K bike/ 5K run).
From dream to race-day reality
At the end of 2009, Kurhajetz, 33, began brainstorming ways to put Maple Grove, Minn., her hometown, on the map. A former Mrs. Maple Grove (2007) and longtime ambassador for the city, “I wanted to do something healthy for my community,” she said. Initially, that “something” took only the shape of “an abounding energy to contribute.” Very soon, however, a triathlon emerged as her clear choice. Though she had never competed in a triathlon, she had spectated at a handful of local races and recognized the sport’s ability to energize and bring together the community of the host city.
“What’s so odd to me, still, is how I could go from being a spectator and knowing nothing about the behind-the-scenes to saying, ‘I’m going to do this.’ Because I was definitely not an expert in race management! I remember going to Google and typing, ‘How to start a triathlon.’ I had no idea where to start. There was just nothing out there,” she said.
Kurhajetz built momentum by tapping a skill she had plenty of: the ability to galvanize a community. Though she admitted that trying to convince the city was the hardest part because of multifaceted nature of triathlon development: “There were so many things that had to be done … reaching out to neighborhood organizations to make sure they would connect with it. Then the police. Figuring out volunteers and sponsors. Even designing the course. Numerous details had to be strategized prior to gaining the city’s approval. It was a long process. It was also ground-breaking because at the time Maple Grove didn’t have events on open roads. They didn’t really know what a triathlon was, so there was an education component as well.”
She spent months researching Minnesota triathlons in an effort to pinpoint the perfect location for hers. “I wanted a space that offered everything,” she said. Her search led her to 80-acre Weaver Lake Park, which provides a large beach, rural roads and smooth footpaths for athletes, as well as a raised deck above the beach, a playground and a long run to the finish that glides past the transition area, offering exciting views for spectators to watch racers sprint to the finish.
With equal and ample parts commitment from herself, her co-founder (Jeanette Neumann), and community organizations and businesses, nine months later – on Aug. 28, 2010 – she had herself a bona fide triathlon.
“I remember race morning, the sun coming out,” she said. “More athletes would come as the morning wore on, and the park kept getting busier and busier. I remember looking out at the lake and saying a little prayer. I told myself, ‘It’s out of my control now. All this planning is going to pay off. It’s all going to come together.’ And it did. Up to then it had all been in theory.”
In the aftermath, the success of the triathlon would exceed her expectations. “Certain things rise above others. Because generally I’m very happy and I appreciate a lot of things in life but apparently there’s something about this race in particular. This one took on a life of its own. After that first year, just the feedback from the athletes … it was exactly what I had hoped would happen. It drew out neighbors, and they would see Neighbor Joe who just decided to do a triathlon, and they said ‘Well, if Joe can do then I’m going to do it.’ So the next year you get the other neighbors out there doing it. And the community started to feel like it was their race and that was the whole goal.”
Writer and longtime triathlon announcer Jerry MacNeil agreed. He called the Maple Grove Triathlon “the most ambitious triathlon to be added to Minnesota’s racing calendar in the last decade.” MacNeil, who runs the blog Minnesotatrinews, also said, “Lindsey’s plan was to create an instantly ‘Epic’ event, and she has done just that. An extraordinary venue, grand staging, flawless execution and abundant amenities are what participants can expect when they sign up for this world-class event.”
Life by design
Kurhajetz’s ambitious, and ultimately successful, idea, however, wasn’t a stretch of the imagination considering her history. A self-described shy kid, Kurhajetz credits, in part, a sudden spur to become a cheerleader in seventh grade for chipping away at her insecurity. “I didn’t have friends in cheerleading. I just thought, ‘I think I’ll try this.’ My mom would always say to me, ‘You’ll never know until you try.'” Performing in front of crowds opened her up to trying other new things, too, like the student newspaper.
Those choices in her youth reverberated into later years. She majored in English and communication at St. Olaf College, where she was editor-in-chief of the school’s student-run newspaper, the Manitou Messenger, and during which time the Universal Cheerleaders Association recruited her to host camps for high schoolers across the country. From 2008 to 2011, she served as staff director for the United Performing Association, the nation’s leading dance and cheer event producer, all while upholding a full-time career and organizing the Maple Grove Triathlon on the side as an unpaid “labor of love.”
Kurhajetz said she wasn’t passionate about her first job out of college – a communications manager for a technology company – and soon left. She hasn’t made the same mistake since. Immediately she took a position at a Maple Grove marketing firm, which aligned with her passions and strengths and afforded her opportunities to collaborate with local businesses and the city council. From there she directed the Maple Grove Ambassador Scholarship Program.
“The mantra I always use is ‘design a life you love,'” she said. “Everything I do is part of a design. Because if I waited for everything to perfectly align, it’s likely I wouldn’t have done any of it.”
Her work with the Maple Grove Triathlon garnered interest in expanding her event experience overseas and locally. Her role as media coordinator for the 2010 UCI Road World Championships in Melbourne, Australia, to team-host for the annual North Star Bicycle Festival brought skills she now applies in her dream job: national brand director of Life Time Fitness’ Athleta Esprit de She – The Spirit of Her Race Series, for which she was recruited in 2012. The series, which encompasses running and cycling races as well as duathlons and triathlons, will be held in 14 cities across the United States this year. Kurhajetz travels to all of them.
In a spirit similar to how she approached creating a triathlon from scratch, Kurhajetz began her most recent job with plenty of experience, just not of the textbook variety: “I started Esprit de She from the ground up. I had no formal training in branding. But what I did have was strong communication skills and also the ability to take a vision and understand the pieces that have to come together to bring that vision to life. That’s my strength: pulling things together from so many places to create.”
Life Time Fitness acquired the Maple Grove Triathlon in 2013 and she remains involved in its planning.
“It was a tough decision for me [to explore an acquisition with Life Time],” she said. “It’s hard to give up something you feel like you gave birth to! It’s been overwhelming to see the feeling and energy this race arouses from participants, and I wanted to continue to be able to operate at a high level. But as it has grown, it became harder to manage. Life Time desired for the event to round out its new Minnesota Tri Series, joining two other premium triathlons, Trinona and Minneapolis Triathlon, and as a result, I felt entirely comfortable and excited to offer this expansion.”
When asked how long she has been athletic, her initial response was a gusty “huh!” followed closely by a chuckle.
Self-deprecation aside, her athletic resume today reveals the same trial-by-fire trajectory as her career.
In April 2013, Kurhajetz completed her first race – a half marathon through Central Park in New York City, which she followed up with a duathlon that August and a full marathon in Cape Cod on her birthday in October. Then, this summer she finished, in 12 hours 55 minutes, the Silver Rush 50, a 50-mile trail race in the Leadville Race Series, which includes the legendary Leadville 100 (mile) mountain bike race and a trail run of the same distance. Starting in Leadville, Colo., participants begin at 10,200 feet and climb to 12,000 feet.
This winter she plans to tackle yet another new sport: cross-country skiing – a 50K at the world-renowned, notoriously hilly American Birkebeiner in Hayward, Wis., no less.