Business Lessons From a Dia de los Muertos 5K Run

The video portion of this interview ran on on November 1, 2017. Why This Entrepreneur Hands Out Skulls Instead of Trophies: How Carlos Jaramillo started his annual race honoring the Day of the Dead.

Carlos Jaramillo is the founder and race director for Carrera de los Muertos.

What is Carrera de los Muertos?

CJ: Carrera de los Muertos started back in 2007 while I was working for the UNO Charter School network. A couple colleagues of mine and I were brainstorming fundraising ideas. At that time, I was a hardcore runner. I had ran the Chicago Marathon in '06. I remember how much energy I got running through 18th Street. The fact that we had a school in Pilsen, I said, "Why don't we do a 5K race?" Not really knowing anything at all as far as what went on behind the scenes to putting such a thing together. I always tell people that all the white hair that I have is from the race. There was a big learning curve, but that it really came to life how I envisioned it and it’s surpassed my expectations.


What are the challenges you faced and what's something you wish you would've known before you started?

CJ: I remember not really knowing the logistical factor of putting together such a running event. There's a number of permits that need to be filled out dealing with the city of Chicago in terms of police, OEMC, fire departments and CTA. If you're closing down major arterial streets in Chicago or in any major city, there's a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes for making something like that happen. I didn't know that. I said, "How hard can it be? Let's close down Halsted. Let's close down 18th Street. You guys can make that happen, right?" It turned out be a lot harder than I thought.

There are many business lessons that I've learned the hard way when it comes down to the organization of the race itself. I go back to those early years, right? You know, once again, being this young, naïve kid from the south side and saying, "Hey, how hard can it be to put together a race and raise money for afterschool programs?" I remember those first few years we would have to order shirts early and I’d say: "We have 1,000 people signed up. There's a month to go. I think there's definitely going to be 2,500 people that are going to sign up more between now and race day." Little did I know we didn't hit that mark. We had to order these shirts a month in advance. These are shirts that you're stuck with if the people don't show up. Obviously, shirts costs a lot of money.

That was a really, really hard lesson for me. It's learning analytics. It's examining trends and really having the curiosity to want to learn as much and everything you possibly can (when it comes down to things like that). I look back at those years, and I say, "Wow. We've come a long way." Now, we're at the point where we can really see what registration trends look like week by week, day by day. We know what days are the most popular in terms of registration. We can get a really, really good estimate of what our forecast looks like on race day. I think that's something that, you know as I mentioned, it comes with growth and wanting to know everything you possibly can about analytics and items like that.


Now in its 11th year, how has the race grown?

CJ: As a young, naïve, 25-year-old that had the silly idea for a 5K race. I said, "For this first year, we can get 3,000 runners. How hard can it be?" I knew little of marketing, social media, communications, PR and everything involved in wanting to achieve a goal like that. I learned the hard way. That first year, we had just over 500 runners, which in any case for our first year, 500 isn't bad at all. But I said we were going to get 3,000 runners. I quickly came to find out that that wasn't going to be the case.

One of the many reasons why we were able to grow year after year, is because of the uniqueness of the race. If you run in Chicago or across the United States, there's races everywhere. Everyone has a really cool concept, but you have to separate yourself from other races. If you look at the calendar on any given day on any given week of the year, there's always plenty of races that are taking place. How are you going to separate your race from the others?

How do you separate Carrera de los Muertos from other races?

CJ: Everyone says, "Hey, I want to put together this race, and it's to benefit my church, or benefit my school, or raise money for awareness." All great causes, but what are you going to do to give the runners something unique, something different compared to the next race down the block? Thinking outside the box, having silly ideas and thinking creatively is something I’ve always had a lot of pride in. Not every idea is going to stick, but some of them are going to be pretty unique.

I'm not big into medals. [For race winners] I wanted to give something unique as an award. I said, "Why don't we give a skull since we're honoring and celebrating Day of the Dead? Why don't we give those top runners, those top finishers a skull." We get some artists and local artists involved to decorate the skulls. It's been a tremendous hit, but that's only one thing. People love our logo. It's very colorful and designed to stand out. It’s something we take a lot of pride in that is reflective of our culture. That's something that I wanted to make sure stood out from other race logos.


We offer Mexican food and all these cool treats after the run. Some people might say, "But isn't the whole purpose to burn off some calories and not, you know, eat tacos, and churros, and tamales?" I say, "Hey, it's all for a good cause, right?" It's having fun. It's a festive day. There's no other race that takes place in Pilsen that goes through 18th Street, other than the Chicago Marathon. That's something that is quite unique.

We let folks customize their bibs so that if they're male, it'll start off by saying el. If they're female, it says la. I think that's really cool, right? It's not something that other races offer. Folks have a lot of fun with it. They get very creative and they have nicknames. Their name might be El Bob, or La Chilindrina, or something like that. It's really cool to see people have a lot of fun with things like that.


How big is the race now?

CJ: This [2017] year is our 11th race, which is crazy, the race has grown to almost 6,000 runners. It's something that we're super, super excited about. We want to continue to make it as affordable for our families because we don't want to just have one person from the family run. We want to make it a family day, where brothers, sisters, sons and daughters can all run together with their parents, grandparents, and so forth. The fact that people are coming from all over the surrounding states is something that is really exciting as well. People from Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan are all signed up, which is something that we take a lot of pride in. I think it really gives us that motivation to keep trying to separate ourselves from other races across Chicago and beyond.

Where do you get ideas from?

CJ: From a lot of places. Social media. When I'm on Instagram/Facebook/Twitter/Snapchat, I see what others are posting. You know, it's getting ideas from those, like, "Oh, I like what they did there. That's pretty funny. Can we do something similar or put a twist to it?" Or does that inspire to take it to another extreme or another level and incorporate it in another way.

There’s a lot of research as well. I love reading up on Día de los Muertos. It's something Latinos should be curious in terms of wanting to know more and more about our history and our culture. It's a lot of reading up on traditions and so forth.

What advice would you give your 18-year-old self?

CJ: I'd say, "You know what? Continue to have that curiosity to want to learn something that maybe perhaps you don't know too much about." With that comes a lot of growth, both personally and professionally.


Never lose that drive because if you don't have that drive, if you don't have that sense of curiosity to want to learn more, to want to push the envelope, then you're never going to achieve anything. You're never going to accomplish those goals that you set forth from the get-go.

Aim high. As much as I say I was a young, naïve kid, I had this vision. I remember people telling me that “Hey, this can't be done,” or "Hey, how about you don't do this race and join our race committee instead and help us build this race?" I had people tell me, "We don't want you to shut down these streets. Why don't you have your race in a park or celebrate it in the suburb or up along the lakefront?" I said, "No. I think so many other races take place up along the lakefront or in the suburbs. I want something that is going to be celebrating our neighborhood here in Chicago.” Which I feel is one of the most vibrant neighborhoods across the city. I want to do something different.

That came with a lot of determination and hearing “no” from a lot of people. You have to constantly have that drive and that sense of determination to achieve your goals.

To everyone that has participated, whether it be for one year, or anyone that has ran all 10, 11 years of the race, thank you wholeheartedly for supporting this concept that started off as ‘just a silly idea.’ Thank you for joining us along this ride, and seeing the vision, and seeing what I felt we could accomplish from day one. It's been an exciting ride, but I hope you guys can continue to join us as we continue to grow year after year.