Louisiana native and D.C. business owner Brandt Ricca is no stranger to athletic endeavors. In fact, the founder of local creative branding agency Nora Lee often searches for boundary-pushing experiments to challenge his physical and spiritual limits. Over the past year, Ricca has partaken in the ridiculously restrictive carnivore diet, accidentally given himself tennis elbow via resistance bands and begun an intense training regimen to run 100 miles nonstop. The latter is his newest self-imposed obstacle and represents more than a bout of man versus exercise.
“I’m optimistic,” Ricca says matter-of-factly.
On October 7 at 6 a.m., Ricca will begin a 100-mile run on a route designed by Pacers Running, the sponsor for the event. This might seem ludicrous to an outsider, but to hear Ricca explain it, the process is just another activity to embrace and another day at the office.
This isn’t just a macho achievement to tack on the resume either, as the event marks an opportunity to raise money for the Equality Chamber of Commerce D.C. Metro Area (ECCDC) in partnership with the Capital Pride Alliance. Money raised will directly benefit local LGBTQ-owned businesses and entrepreneurs like Ricca who have been affected by Covid-19.
“A lot of people in the gay community, especially from creative spheres such as performers and people in hospitality, are struggling to bounce back,” Ricca says.
Ricca soothes his mind and soul while running, lost in the repetition of his feet hitting the ground and music reverberating in his ears. And when he’s not zipping around the city, he’s sitting at a desk in his apartment conjuring up project proposals for local businesses in need of a branding facelift. Whether training or creating, Ricca is perpetually on the move.
For the first 10 minutes of our Zoom call, Ricca floats on and offscreen. He paces back and forth, each time holding something different in his hands — from protein powder to cups to pens. He tells me he’s planning to run after our chat, but not before another call he has scheduled.
In the thick of training, as the daily mileage climbs toward the 100-mile total, Ricca has less and less time for everything else. Multitasking is necessary to ensure he squeezes as much productivity as possible out of each passing day.
“I’ve obviously never done anything to this extent. I normally just do Tough Mudders — nothing crazy. My trainers know I’m crazy. I’m always trying to master a certain skill and then move on.”
He mentions gymnastics and jump roping as examples of previous fitness flings, but like all his previous sparks, they grew boring and repetitive. Brandt needed a new focus.
“I wanted to raise money, so I suggested running 100 miles in a week, and one of my colleagues said, ‘That’s really f–king stupid. I wouldn’t donate to that. That’s easy. 100 miles in two days? I would donate to that.’ So, I started researching and figured it was doable.”
Fitness entrepreneur Brain Mazza was an example of “doable,” as the endurance athlete completed a similar 50-mile challenge in 2020 to raise awareness of and money for male infertility. Upon reaching out on social media, the two discussed methodologies for preparation and all aspects of accomplishing the physical feat. Now Mazza is Ricca’s coach, overseeing day-to-day operations with fellow coach and nutritionist Jacob Zemer, who was brought on to fine-tune Ricca’s diet and help him maintain muscle mass while training.
“I don’t want to wither away and look like Matthew McConaughey in ‘Dallas Buyers Club,’” he says.
The training is strict and laid out month by month, day by day. At this stage, he is consuming 3,400 calories per day to maintain weight and eating a ton of steaks and sweet potatoes. Other people on the team are Joshua Hockemeyer from Equinox who helps with mobility, and Dario Mejia who performs deep tissue massages, stretches and cupping to aid in recovery.
Ricca is giving himself 48 hours to complete the distance but expects to finish within a day, specifically at about 10 p.m. that night. For every 10 miles, someone will provide him with nutrition and water.
Fitness has always been a part of his life, from lifting sand weights in the backyard as a child in Louisiana to captaining the cross-country team in high school. While meticulous, he’s generally approached the challenge with a sense of pragmatism.
“All of my coaches expect more of a reaction from me sometimes,” Ricca says. “They’ll give me training and say, ‘Brandt, this is going to be hard,’ and I just respond with, ‘Okay.’ I’m just like, ‘What do I need to do, and is this how I do it?’”
The opening days were taxing, as his mileage fluctuated from four to 10 miles. Now several months in, he’ll run 170 miles total in May, and as the distance continues to increase, he finds comfort in the routine.
“Once you mentally get wrapped around it, it doesn’t seem like anything. I treat it like a meditation. I’m more mentally sane from all this running. I think about things I wouldn’t normally think about.”
On the flip side, there are sacrifices like missing summer vacations with the family and whole days dedicated to the big 50- and 70-mile tune-up runs scheduled for later this year. However, Ricca says the charitable aspect makes the dedication easier to stomach.
“It helps [me] when I’m dying on the run, and I think of the people who have told me they’re applying to receive the grants.”
Local LBGTQ-led businesses are who Ricca immediately thought of when working through the charitable aspect of this challenge. Grants for 20 eligible small businesses will be awarded through the ECCDC following the run in October, and the online application for the funds opens this summer.
In addition to donations from followers of the run, District CoOp is selling branded merchandise and donating 50 percent of profits, and the Four Seasons Hotel Washington D.C. will donate a percentage of proceeds from its first Pride brunch in June.
“I am one of the people affected by it, but there’s always someone worse off,” he says. “I know people working in retail or as servers just to get by.”
Past the Pavement
Beyond athletic challenges, dietary restrictions and intense mileage, Ricca is still managing his creative branding agency Nora Lee, which seeks to produce Vanity Fair-esque visual campaigns for local D.C. companies.
The concepts are driven by the creative collaboration between Ricca and Jonathan Thorpe, a local photographer and videographer. After losing many of their clients during the pandemic, Ricca used the isolation to revisit all aspects of the business to investigate what he enjoyed and what he didn’t. This begat his passion for branding.
“Not many people are doing what I’m doing in D.C.,” Ricca says. “We’ve gotten new clients, but it’s still like digging yourself out of a hole because it’s been a year of curveballs.”
Before founding Nora Lee, Ricca was a college dropout who had jobs working in real estate, marketing, and parks and recreation, and at gyms. He jokingly says he was lost and mentions how he loathed going to his 9 to 5. In 2018, the business was birthed as an events company following the success of the inaugural Allison Gala, a fundraiser to honor a friend who died of triple-negative breast cancer.
Because of the pandemic halting all live events, the company now exclusively offers creative content for marketing and branding purposes and has completely shuttered all party-planning operations.
“We come up with out-of-the-box shoots,” Ricca says. “We really try to get to know our clients. I definitely try to steer clear of the cheesy-type stuff you see from more commercial agencies.”
He cites a “Mad Men”-meets-Norman Rockwell shoot with coffee mugs littering a table and a man pouring Cheerios all over his face, dressed in a full suit. All the photoshoots and videos are intended to feel unique and timeless, and Ricca says they’ve so far worked with businesses ranging from magazines to law firms.
“I created my own projects during the downtime to stay relevant and get in the media. I’ll create my own projects even if I’m not initially being paid for them, whether it’s to say something about what’s happening in the world or just give myself something to do because 2020 was a crazy year.”
Ricca lives and breathes the business, which is not-so-coincidentally named after his business-owning grandmother, who ran an accounting company in Louisiana.
“That was no grand plan,” he says laughing. “I suggested it because she was a badass.”
Another project with Louisiana roots he’s working on is “The Barris Books,” a series of children’s books about a kid living in 1952 New Orleans who drifts into a dream world every night to help navigate the problems in his life. Ricca says he first began writing the stories in 2016 and releasing chapters on a biweekly basis, which led to invitations to do live readings. He’s putting it together alongside Matt Miller, who is illustrating the books.
“I thought it was an escape,” Ricca says. “The first book of the series will be out this fall, and we’re just doing a final overview of it. It’s a little overwhelming.”
When Ricca says the last part, I’m surprised. How can he think anything is overwhelming? He’s managed to adapt his business during a pandemic and is launching a children’s book series, all while training daily to run 100 miles for charity in October.
“This whole thing has been a journey, and I’m going through it,” Ricca says.
Despite his busy days and long nights, Ricca still has visions of what’s next: the next run, the next project and the next book.
“I think honestly, it’s going to be something I look back on and say, ‘Damn, I did that.’ After one big thing happens, my vision goes to what’s next. We’ll see what happens. I’ll probably go to bed.”
To donate to Ricca’s 100-mile run, visit www.bit.ly/3bXo6Y6.To learn more about him and Nora Lee, follow him on Instagram @noraleeus and @brandtricca, and check out his website at www.noraleedc.com.
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