Two valley men plan runs for runners at all levels

Story by Wayne Epps Jr.

Photos courtesy of Virginia Momentum

It began as a bond over health and wellness. Now, a handful of years later, that bond has spawned a new business and helped raise over $40,000 for charity.

James Madison University alumni Kevin Gibson and Alan Maynard, the founders of VA Momentum, met in 2009 while working for JMU’s Alumni Association. They shared similar tales of breaking out of unhealthy habits to establish better ones. To help maintain their focus on fitness, they went to University Recreation together during lunch breaks and on runs with each other. “Running was the thing that we sort of latched onto, because it matched our sort of personal stories, and our personal journeys of how we got ourselves on the right path towards being a little bit more healthy,” Gibson says. This camaraderie spilled over into various running events, too, like the Monument Avenue 10K in Richmond. Eventually, the idea of organizing a running event in Harrisonburg was born.

“It really just started out as like, ‘Let’s plan one event and let’s give all the money back to charity,’” says Gibson says.

Thus, the Fourth of July Valley 4th RUN in Harrisonburg was established in 2012 as a way to raise moneyfor charity and also as to provide a running event that is welcoming to all skill levels. There were approximately 450 runners in the inaugural event, and people were hooked.

“People in the community were like, ‘We want more stuff like this, you guys should do more stuff,’” Gibson says. “And then, we also really enjoyed doing it, enjoyed planning it.” About a year later, VA Momentum was officially founded, and Gibson and Maynard haven’t looked back since. What started as that first Valley 4th RUN turned into a company with 15 individual events on the docket for this year. Through these events, thousands have been raised for local nonprofits. With VA Momentum continually growing, Gibson left his job at JMU last year to become the company’s first full-time, paid employee. Maynard will do the same and come on full-time in May.

As Gibson and Maynard have worked toward fulfilling their mission of energizing the community for good, they’ve also found their entrepreneurial passion. “It’s been easy in that it’s the thing that I wake up thinking about in the morning, I go to bed thinking about it before I go to sleep and I’m not tired of it yet,” Gibson says. “And that is sort of the proof that it’s what we should be spending our time on.” Gibson is primarily the ideas guy, dreaming up new possibilities, while Maynard primarily backs those ideas up with practicality to turn them into viable events. “Where I might lack, I think he makes up,” Maynard says. “And where he may lack, I make up.”

When creating events, Gibson and Maynard aim for the types of things that they personally would want to participate in. Maynard says that they’re typically able to pull off most of the ideas they have, albeit sometimes they’re held back. He says the craziest one they’ve made happen so far is their newest idea, Pound the Peak. This event is a roughly 2-mile run up Massanutten, and is a team event with mental challenges along the way. “That’s a good example of an outside-the-box kind of event that we kind of came up with and talked about, and I think with both of our skill sets, were able to implement,” Maynard says.

For its events, VA Momentum partners with local businesses through sponsorships and with nonprofits as a destination for the donations. For example, the Three Miler event is sponsored by Brothers Craft Brewing and proceeds go to On the Road Collaborative, which works to empower young people to succeed in their education.

When looking for business partnerships, one of the things Gibson and Maynard aim for when it comes to their goal of supporting good causes while providing accessible running events is mission alignment. They believe that the people who participate in their events are an engaged audience that businesses want to reach.

The sponsorships are more than just a name on an event T-shirt. The relationship can extend as far as using a business’ space for event activities. For instance, Clementine Cafe is one of the sponsors of the Thanksgiving Rocktown Turkey Trot and accompanying Gobble Gobble Kid Dash. Last year, runners were required to pick up their race packets at Ruby’s, Clementine’s basement space. There were 935 runners in the event, so that meant hundreds of people funneling through Clementine. The restaurant used the opportunity to have a lunch special available for people picking up their packets.

Rocktown Turkey Trot is VA Momentum’s largest event, and the number of participants in each race varies. Last year’s New Year’s Eve Glow Run 5K had 735 runners. Then, last year’s Valley 4th RUN had approximately 700 participants. The Run, Sweat & Beers events, which are the fourth Friday of every month from March through September, draw an average of 100 people each time. “These are the people that are spending money, doing stuff in Harrisonburg,” Gibson says. “And they can really get to them by way of sponsorship of our events.” Jim Kelly is one runners who has participated in several of VA Momentum’s events over the past few years. He met Gibson and Maynard while working at JMU, and his team won the Pound the Peak event last year.

Though he’s leaving to take a job in Nashville, Tennessee, Kelly said he would “absolutely” come back to Harrisonburg to do another one of the company’s events if it fit into his schedule. “I think they have amazing ideas, creative ideas that is just going to help their company and mission grow further and further,” Kelly said. VA Momentum itself is a for-profit company, but on average, 33 to 34 percent of the money raised from events goes to charity. “When we created VA Momentum, we decided to go the social enterprise, for-profit route because we really loved the entrepreneurial freedom that came along with that,” Gibson says. “And that was what excited us about this, was that we sort of got to take risks, test hypotheses, make decisions and sort of run it as a small business.”

Besides support from the community, VA Momentum is backed by families. Gibson and Maynard’s wives, Kristin Gibson and Emma Maynard, have been instrumental in helping VA Momentum grow. “This thing doesn’t happen without the support of our wives, because … it’s a hobby that went out of control,” Gibson says. “And we weren’t expecting it to be what it is now.” Both Kristin and Emma are also JMU alumni, and both work at JMU — Kristin as the assistant director for marketing and technology at UREC and Emma as the recruiting programs coordinator for Career & Academic Planning. But, away from her job at JMU, Kristin helps out with graphic design for VA Momentum, designing logos and posters. Emma helps with event registration and check-in. “I think what Kevin and Alan have been doing is really special, and I think they’ve been creating these new traditions for, especially families,” Kristin says. “And offering an alternative to the regular. Everything they do is not just a plain old run, there’s always some special aspect to it.”

Both Kristin and Emma also try to run in VA Momentum’s events when possible, and give input to help improve them. “Kevin and Alan always make sure that they kind of tap into us as a resource too as far as, ‘What do you think?’ Or having us — because we want to also — participate in the events,” Emma says. “It’s a unique perspective for them to hear from someone actually doing an event and being able to provide that feedback to them.”

Aside from the money they’ve been able to donate to charity, hearing personal success stories from the event participants has been one of the most rewarding results from VA Momentum for Gibson and Maynard. One story was from the Pound the Peak race. Maynard says, there was a team that was taking a while to finish, but one of VA Momentum’s rules is that every participant cheers on every other runner who crosses the finish line, no matter how long it takes them to finish. The team included a husband and wife, and the wife emailed VA Momentum six months later to thank it for waiting and to share their fitness journey.

The race was she and her husband’s first, and she since she had participated in 10 to 12 races and lost over 60 pounds. “The person who crossed the finish line last, their story is really important to us and why we do what we do,” Gibson says. “So that’s really, at the end of the day, why we’re excited about it.”

As VA Momentum continues to grow, particularly with Gibson now working on it full-time, the company is generating more ideas, working to increase the participation in races and receiving more partnership proposals from other organizations. The company is also looking at expanding to areas like Roanoke and Northern Virginia. Gibson says the community and familial backing is what has helped the company transform into what it has, not any kind of miraculous work by one individual.

“We haven’t walked two miles in the snow uphill kind of a thing to get this done,” Gibson says. “We’ve had a blast doing it.”