Son and grandson of founder Ken Zirk now operate Oregon-based race bib printer with focus on environmental sustainability
The running industry has embraced technology with a passion, but some things never change, and the ubiquity of race bibs is one. Chip timing has made timer’s lives infinitely easier, but race organizers still need a way to know who is a paid participant on race day, and who isn’t.
The Zirk family of Gresham, Oregon has a long tradition in the race bib printing business that goes back nearly 30 years (that milestone is just around the corner, in 2019). Founder Ken Zirk, a printer by trade, bought out the bib-printing portion of his previous employer to start Marathon Printing Inc. in 1989. Son Don followed him into the business, and now grandson Ryan is the small company’s Chief Operations Officer.
“We are still a fairly small business, but I like to say we’re lean and mean,” says Ryan Zirk. “We like that we’re small. It gives us a lot of flexibility to meet our customers’ needs and react and respond quickly to projects or challenges that may come up.” Staff size hovers around 10 employees. More than 80 percent of Marathon Printing’s business is running industry focused. The company can also handle just about any standard print job, using its existing equipment.
One of the biggest changes in the last three decades has been the effort and time involved in producing a final batch of bibs. It’s much faster and easier to produce elaborate and customized designs than ever before. That’s the greatest change in his grandfather’s lifetime, notes Ryan.
“It absolutely blows his mind when he looks at what used to take multiple styles of printing presses to produce, and 3-4 steps carried out over several weeks, that we can now usually produce in a matter of minutes or hours.”
That shorter time frame to final product has also enabled the industry to get more creative in its design options. Once upon a time, it would have been unheard of to pick up a race bib with your name or nickname on it. Today, it’s fairly common, as long as you aren’t entering at the last minute. Unusual and creative shapes are now possible, such as bibs shaped like states where the race takes place. Though the running industry hasn’t come up with a way to get away from race bibs, they have found a lot of ways to innovate, customize and even sell them. It’s a rare job that doesn’t include a sponsor logo on it, if not several, says Ryan.
Marathon Printing likes clients to allow at least one week for production and another week for shipping, but there are occasional rush jobs. And with customization comes the need for increased editorial scrutiny – both on the client and the printer side.
“We have three to four people looking at every proof and our early production run to make sure our jobs are as accurate as they can be,” notes Ryan. “There’s always that small chance of human error.”
An early innovator in sustainability, Marathon Printing uses solvent-free ink and minimizes leftover Tyvek® - the material that bibs are printed on. Recyclers are now starting to be able to reuse the material, which could increase sustainability in the industry as a whole. Accoring to DuPont, Tyvek can have a second life as underground cable protection piping, automotive parts, blown film, packaging cores and trays.
Zirk is a realist – he won’t rule out the possibility that race bibs won’t always be with us, But for now, they’re hanging on and keeping up with new trends. Among Marathon Printing’s clients is the U.S. and international Color Runs, which doesn’t go overboard with their bib design.
“They want a pretty basic bib because they want the art to come from the event itself,” explained Ryan. Yet another example of something his grandfather might never have anticipated. Imagine where we’ll be as an industry in another 30 years!