Derby — Phil White is a busy man. As the director of Kingdom Games LLC, he has organized 38 days of activities covering 1,450 miles of running, biking, swimming and triathlon courses in Vermont’s scenic Northeast Kingdom.
A lifelong swimmer, White, 65, became involved in outdoor events in the NEK when he signed on as chairman of the board of the former Indoor Recreation of Orleans County (IROC). When the facility closed its doors this past year after operating for seven years, it appeared that the popular spring and summer events usually scheduled through IROC would be canceled as well.
But White stepped in to keep the races running under his new company, Kingdom Games. Since then, the well-organized event series has earned praise from athletes and media groups alike. Yankee Magazine selected the Dandelion Run as one of the 20 best races in New England and Open Water Swimming Magazine has featured his events prominently. Vermont Sports readers selected the Dandelion Run as one of the five most scenic races in the state. (A list of what the 2014 Kingdom Games schedule has in store for athletes this spring and summer accompanies this story on these pages.)
Vermont Sports talked with White about his transition from attorney to race organizer, the upcoming spread of races this spring, and what makes Vermont – specifically the Northeast Kingdom – a top destination for racing.
VS: What made you decide to keep the events series going after IROC folded this past year?
PW: Well, I love them. Some of them are recognized as world-class events and I had invested a lot of my time to build them up. I think it’s good to reinvent yourself every now and then and I figured for the next phase of my life, it would be a great investment. It certainly has risk associated with it, which I think is a good thing. They’re great events and the community of support for them is significant. I was testing the support when I held the events this summer and I found that for every sponsor or volunteer that I lost, I gained two more. It appreciated the value of the games and there was no way we could not keep holding them.
VS: Did you have much experience organizing and holding events like this before? Did you have any help?
PW: [Laughs] I thought we’d have maybe 10 people swim the lake for the first year of Kingdom Swim, but I stumbled into Ned Dennison, from Cork, Ireland, who lives in Vermont. He trains open water swimmers to cross the English Channel and I also linked up with Leslie Thomas, from San Francisco, who organizes and hosts swims in the San Francisco Bay, including an Alcatraz swim. I think they took pity on me because they knew I was determined to do these events and if they didn’t help me, I could probably kill some people because I didn’t know what I was doing.
As a result, they gave me a lot of information in a very short period of time as to how to run a safe, well-supported swim. That helped me plot out the first courses of Kingdom Swim. We set up websites for the events and the first year we had 100 swimmers. The next year we had 200, including an 11-year-old from Mumbai, India. I’ve never been afraid to ask for help and I’ve never been afraid to listen to what people have to say about what works and what doesn’t.
VS: You entered the field after a career practicing law. Did your experience as an attorney help you in any way when you began organizing races?
PW: When you’re preparing a trial, you have to present your case through witnesses and you have to prepare. It’s time consuming and you have to be very patient as you’re building your presentation. But you also have to visualize how that’s going to play-out when you put the pieces together.
When you’re sitting there planning, you start foreseeing problems – like stray dogs on the course, for example. This past year, we had a nurse go out about a half-hour ahead of the run and acted as the magnet for any dogs that were out on the road. She made sure the owners put them back in the house.
The trial work helped me visualize the whole and be patient in working with the individual pieces as I was building an event. That means that if I know I have X-number of support boats out on the lake, I know we can handle Y-number of swimmers and no more. Then again, it couldn’t happen without a community, which has really rallied in support of the races. You can’t do it alone. You have to have good, solid support.
VS: You’ve got a very busy calendar ahead of you for this coming race season. Could you describe your work schedule leading up to the starting gun? How far in advance are you working?
PW: The planning starts the minute an event ends and I like to know before an event ends, what the date for next year will be. We’re working year-round. Winter was supposed to be my slow time, but this past winter we ended up doing a Santa Run as part of the Christmas festival in downtown Newport. I thought we’d get 10 Santas, but we ended up with 82. The next thing I knew, I got involved with doing a pond hockey tournament and then Nordic skating. Those were all low-key and with small numbers to test the waters whether they would be good events, but they were great. Those kinds of things happen spontaneously, but now they’re in the system.
I keep a file on each event with each of the different partners, volunteers and contacts I have to make with each event. Computers are wonderful things as long as they’re working. I had my computer crash the night before the Dandelion Run last year, which was a scramble. But email has been a real lifesaver instead of playing telephone tag. It’s a lot, but it’s a fulltime job. That’s why I knew if I was going to do this, I really needed to do it as a fulltime commitment in the next phase of my life. I’m doing probably half a day to a day per week of practicing law. As the games grow, eventually I’d like to see a lieutenant involved with running each of the events because it’s getting too big for one person to be running every part of the events.
VS: What was it that originally drew you to the outdoor event lifestyle in the Northeast Kingdom? Is there any other previous involvement in athletics or organizing that compelled you?
PW: I run two miles every day. I used to swim with flippers, ditched them two years ago and have set a goal of swimming 1 to 3 miles this year in the open water. I have a slot in the 2018 Boston Light Swim, an 8-mile ocean swim. That’s my swimming goal. And I love to downhill ski. Jay is my mountain, although I have spent winters at Mad River Glen, Sugarbush and Stowe.
How I got into this business? It was a happy accident. My only experience in organizing anything like this was coaching my kids’ soccer teams for 10 years.
I never made a varsity team in my life. But, I’ve always loved pickup, intramural, low-key recreational sports. Just for the fun of it — skiing, running, swimming, softball, sail boarding, hiking. And I love being outdoors in any kind of weather. I’m not afraid of the weather. I embrace it.
I was appointed Orleans County State’s Attorney in May of 1980. I had been working in St. Johnsbury. When I first drove over Sheffield Heights and came down into Barton, Brownington, Derby and Newport I felt I was home. This is one of the most beautiful places in the world. It is no accident that this area was one of the very first geo-tourism areas specially designated by National Geographic.
VS: What makes the Northeast Kingdom a great location to hold these events?
PW: When I started at IROC and we were looking at the problems they were having, people said, “We can’t get people in the summertime.” And I said, “Summers are miracles in Vermont and you’re never going to get people going into a building unless they absolutely have to. We have to be an indoor and outdoor recreation center.”
And the minute I said that, I realized that’s what the Northeast Kingdom is and always has been – a Mecca for outdoor activities year-round. And it’s not just for our events, there are plenty of other runs and rides. We have the roads with low traffic and the pristine lakes with very little boat traffic. Plus, it’s as easy a drive as you could ever ask for.
VS: You spend a lot of time every year organizing and running these events. What’s the most satisfying part?
PW: The most exciting thing is to help people stretch themselves and to be part of that stretching process. You can see they’re taking on a challenge, they’re afraid and they know it’s filled with risk for them, but they train for it and they grab it. When they finally achieve it, the excitement is incredible.
I’ve watched people use our events to launch them to bigger things. This one woman by the name of Bethany Bosch did the 10-mile swim a few years ago and she was the last one back to the barn. We were in the middle of the award ceremony when she showed up and everyone stood up and applauded her as she came out of the water. She said it was at that moment that she knew she was a swimmer. She was the highest fundraiser for that year and she won a trip to Ned Dennison’s swim camp in Cork, Ireland. She went to the camp, came back the next year and chopped an hour and a half off her time. Last year she swam the 25-mile length of Memphremagog and this year she’s swimming the English Channel. To see that progression is the most gratifying feeling.
VS: Do you have any tips for participants considering their first open-water swim or marathon in the Northeast Kingdom?
PW: Once you visualize the completion, dedication to training is really the key to it all. I would suggest getting a training buddy because having those partners helps tremendously with your motivation each day. There’s a woman in Barre named April Rodgers Farnham. She signed up for all of our running events and she got all of her buddies to sign up as well. They’re doing the whole series, training for the marathon, but they’re out running every day for maybe five days a week. They inspire each other and that’s a great way to prepare for your first marathon or first half marathon.
Here’s a list of upcoming races connected to the Kingdom Games:
Run The Kingdom www.dandelionrun.org
- July 5 – The Harry Corrow Freedom Run,
- October 5 – Kingdom Marathon Run, Bike, and Hike
- October 25 – Halloween Hustle,
- December 5 – Newport Santa Run,
Tour De Kingdom – www.tourdekingdom.org
- June 4 thru June 8 – June Tour,
- June 7 & 8 – Double Century Challenge
- September 12 thru 14 ‑ Connecticut River Camping Tour
- September 24 thru 28- Fall Foliage Tour,
- October 5 – Doin’ the Dirt,
Swim The Kingdom – www.kingdomswim.org
- June 14, 2014 – Sixth Annual Son of a Swim
- July 12, 2014 – Sixth Annual Kingdom Swim
- August 2, 2014 – Fourth Annual Seymour Swim
- August 9, 2014 – Crystal Swim
- August 10, 2014 – Island Pond Swim
- August 11, 2014 – Green River Reservoir
- August 12, 2014 – Lake Seymour
- August 13, 2014 – Lake Massawippi
- August 14, 2014 – Lake Memphremagog
- August 16, 2014 – Fifth Annual Willoughby Swim
- August 17, 2014 – Caspian Swim
- September 6, 2014 – In Search of Memphre IV
October 4, 2014 – Georgeville or Bust