The Marathon Man:
How Les Smith Made the Portland Marathon 'a People's Race'
By Cliff Collins
By the time of the 1981 Portland Marathon, Les Smith had run in 13 marathons, including New York City. He was shocked at how the Portland race had deteriorated since he first ran in it in 1976.
The number of participants had dropped from the fourth-largest marathon in the country with over 1,200 runners to only 457. The start was nearly a half-hour late, the mile markers and aid stations weren’t ready, and volunteers were in short supply. As the newly elected president that year of the Oregon Road Runners Club, the marathon’s sponsor, he became determined to bring the event up to speed.
“It was a disaster,” Smith says. “Obviously, there was my agenda.”
Leading the Portland Marathon back to form as a volunteer — and making it better each succeeding year — became his focus, and he has stayed with the event ever since. The Oct. 7, 2012, running was his 32nd year as director of a spectacle that now boasts 4,500 local volunteers, attracts over 13,000 runners and walkers, and donates more than $200,000 each year to charities, service clubs and school athletics.
“I’m proud that it’s a community, nonprofit event, a destination-maker,” says Smith, a founding partner of Bullard Smith Jernstedt Wilson. “It’s the largest three-day convention in Portland. We fill the hotels with our people, bringing in over $200,000 in room tax, which is four times the actual cost to the city” of hosting the marathon.
Heading a committee that now numbers 65 individuals, Smith serves in what he describes as the center of a wagon wheel with multiple spokes. He delegates responsibility for different aspects of each year’s marathon, and has added and modified new elements gradually over time. These include a half-marathon, a 10K family walk, a kids’ run, live entertainment playing along the route and, beginning in 1989, a marathon walk, which was unique at the time, he says.
In 1990, Smith established an annual Event Directors’ College, in which his race-director peers from around the country meet in Portland for a three-day conference the week of the Portland Marathon to share ideas and discuss the details of how best to stage such events.
The local, nonprofit, everyperson’s aspect of the Portland Marathon stands in sharp contrast to most others in the nation, he points out. “This is an entirely different model from what’s developing in the running world,” which is coming to be dominated by for-profit companies that operate solely to sponsor races, then take the money out of the state. “It didn’t make sense here to compete with the big events” that attract elite runners, he says. Instead, the event is designed it to be “friendly” to everyone, he says, adding that the percentage of women who participate is the highest of any other marathon in the nation: 58 percent.
Smith has inspired loyalty among his many volunteers, some of whom have stayed with him and the marathon for 20 years or more. One of those is Portland lawyer Christopher R. Hardman, who has served as course co-director (he shares that duty with Richard Busby) for 29 years. At least four members of the event committee have been on it for between 26 and 29 years, Hardman notes.
He says Smith has a remarkable talent for designating responsibility to people he has established confidence in over time, and as a result, producing each year’s event is a team effort. “Delegating is a skill set that is hard to come by,” Hardman says. “He’s brilliant at it. It’s a labor of love, the way his leadership style has developed.”
Hardman says Smith possesses “the energy of eight human beings,” is one of the smartest and most generous individuals he’s ever met, and Smith listens when Hardman or anyone else offers suggestions, even ones that don’t necessarily line up with Smith’s own thinking. “I respect everything he is.”
In 2008, Smith devised a “remodel process” for the Portland Marathon, outlining 108 projects that needed to be done to keep building on its reputation as “a people’s event, for the average runner or walker. We call it an event, not a race.” The veteran attorney still practices law — “I take the cases I enjoy,” he says — but since 2008 has devoted additional time to the marathon.
“It’s a passion,” Smith explains. “This is fun; this is people. This is my way to give back to the community and to running.” At 6 feet, 190 pounds, he is only 12 or 13 pounds over his former running weight, his last marathon being in 1999. He played on a softball team until last year, and still enjoys golf. He has run or walked 83 marathons — each is 26.2 miles in length — all over the world, including in Japan, Germany, Belgium and 10 times in London.
Many older runners and walkers have graced the Portland Marathon over the years, a point of pride to the apparently ageless Smith. “I have great genes,” he explains: His father lived to be 98, his mother 95, his grandparents into their late 90s, and an uncle made it to the almost biblical-sounding 108.
Taking Early to Labor Law
Lester V. Smith Jr. was born and raised outside Pittsburgh, in a small, working-class town, which was controlled by the Mafia, he says. Smith’s father was with a local utility company, and when it faced a labor strike marred by violence, Smith acquired an early interest in the ins and outs of labor relations, from the point of view of the employer.
When he was attending Duke University, he wrote a paper about the strike, and he began wondering if the impact of labor unions on business was something he could study in law school. Smith found out once he got to the University of North Carolina School of Law, where he took four courses taught by an eminent labor-relations attorney, Dan Pollitt, who became a mentor to him.
Pollitt advised him not to go straight into practice in a business or large firm, but to do what Pollitt referred to as “post-grad” work at the National Labor Relations Board. Smith took that advice, and went to a newly opened NLRB office in Peoria, Ill., where he had the opportunity to work as a “semi-prosecutor,” he calls it, handling a mix of cases and trials, some against labor and some against management.
His stint there got interrupted by Uncle Sam, the Vietnam War and the draft. He ended up serving three years as a JAG officer and troop commander in the U.S. Army, in Germany and later back in the United States. “It was one of the greatest experiences of my life,” he says, noting that points from the military’s “Table of Organization and Equipment” he learned in the Army came in handy later, when he was able to apply them to organizing marathons. He returned to work at the NLRB and then moved to Portland in 1973, accepting an associate position with the firm that is now Stoel Rives.
In 1977, Smith and two partners at the firm, Garry R. Bullard and Jim D. Korshoj, left in what Smith describes as “an amicable parting” to form a boutique firm specializing in labor law, now known as Bullard Smith Jernstedt Wilson, or shortened to Bullard Law.
“I’ve done the same kind of practice since our firm was established,” he notes: representing public- and private-sector employers in matter such as labor contract administration, grievance and arbitration procedures, union organizing issues and NLRB proceedings.
Smith has taught labor law at the University of Maryland and at Lewis & Clark Law School. In 2009, The Best Lawyers in America honored him as one of only 1,397 attorneys who have been listed in the publication every year since it began rating lawyers in 1983. He also has been listed several years in Oregon Super Lawyers .
Another of Smith’s volunteer jobs was to serve as president of the Multnomah Athletic Club in the mid-1980s. He says the club is organized around committees and subcommittees, so leading it was second nature to him, the role he learned in the Army, operating at the center of the wagon wheel.
As for the Portland Marathon, 20 or 30 projects still remain from Smith’s ’08 to-do list, a prospect he relishes. “It’s a constant, fun challenge to improve and add to something that’s good for the community.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cliff Collins is a Portland-area freelance writer and since 1991 has been a frequent contributor to the Bulletin. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.