Thursday, March 24, 2011

Race Management 101: Learning from the Best

We recently sat down to chat with three of the busiest race directors on the East Coast to find out more about just what a race director does and does not do, and to get a look at the part of a race that most runners rarely see. We spoke with Dave McGillivray, race director for the Boston Marathon and Beach to Beacon Race in Maine, Linda Toretsky of Lin-Mark Computer Sports, and Les Marella of L & M Computer Sports.

Jack Heath: What is the name/web address of your company?
Dave: Dave McGillivray of Sports Enterprises Inc (aka DMSE, Inc.;

Linda Toretsky: LIN-MARK Computer Sports, Inc.;

Les: L & M Computer Sports; is our url.

Linda Toretsky Giving Pre-Race Instructions

JH: How long have you been putting on races?
Dave: 26 years

Linda: 20+ years.

Les: Or to express it more accurately, “how long have you been timing races” since we don’t actually put races on, that task is left to the race director who in turn hires us to take care of entrant data, timing all finishers, and producing results at the end of an event, and eventually displaying those results on the Web site. All of the timers you know Jack rarely act as race directors. Gene and Jane Hoopes of Athletes Korner Timing Systems have a couple events they oversee the entire works for, like the Turkey Day 5K at Cooper River. And it’s interesting you phrase your question that way, because most entrants tend to think race timers handle the whole kit and kaboodle--from drumming up race sponsors, ordering awards and T-shirts, seeking volunteers, and touching base with township officials and police to be granted permission to hold an event in their town. It's just about impossible to take care of all these tasks when handling an average of three races a weekend during the season for us.

JH: What got you started?
Dave McGillivray Hard at Work
Dave: I owned a store, and started out producing a few events to promote the store.

Linda: We were challenged to utilize the computer to score races. No one was really doing it. We were among the first to do it.

Les: Another fellow high school teacher who came from the running community said that there’s room for a faster and more accurate way to record results at races. I thought about it and said, “you’re right, I’m tired of waiting around for incorrect results. I’m ready.”

JH: What influenced you to become a race director/timer?
Dave: I found I became more passionate about producing events than putting shoes on people’s feet.

Linda: We were one of the first to implement computers in the scoring of races. This was at the time when just about all races were being scored by pulling tags and stapling them to boards, then getting results with clipboards. We started with barcoding the tags, scanning them into a computer, then sorting the tags/finishers in the scoring program known as “Runscore.”

Les: See my answer above.

JH: Do you also do course measurement?
Dave: No, we don’t.

Linda: We do not do “official” certified course measurements. We call on the certified state USATF persons to handle it.

Les: We don’t. But course measurements, to be exact, are done by a few USATF certified individuals who will meet with a race director and go over a proposed course. They measure it out by wheel or a Jones counter on a bike and record Start/Finish and Mile Markers on the course and present the map to the governing USATF body and then a printout is provided for the race director. The cost is usually less than $200. for this service. This feature is a plus for the race director who is interested in developing a course that’s exact, knowing runners will appreciate a certified course. If it’s certified, the race director will usually be sure to mention that on their race application.

JH: What are the biggest races you’ve put on?
Dave: B.A.A. Boston Marathon, 2004 Women’s Olympic Trials, Triathlon World Championship, TD Banknorth Beach to Beacon 10K.

Linda: This past September we timed the 5K Run & Walk Tunnel to Towers, in NYC with over 18,000 participants. Competitively, the largest would be the Shamrock Sports Festival in VA Beach. Last year there were over 13,000 finishers in the events. Multi-Events would be the Timberman Triathlon (New Hampshire) with over 3,000 triathletes, all getting five splits.

Les: The biggest races we’ve timed (or lent a hand in co-race directing) have been the Ben Franklin Bridge Run, or the Sea Isle City 10 Miler, both over a thousand entrants. We tend to gravitate to the smaller races, where things have a chance to run smoothly. Nothing beats the feeling of having results correct and presented in a timely fashion.


JH: How long did it take you to recoup your initial investment?
Dave: I didn’t have an initial investment.

Linda: Because of the technology we utilize, we are always investing back into the company, both on the level of equipment, Web-page services, our own entry online service; to make a profit on our initial investment of equipment: about five years.”

Les: I’m not aware or have even thought about this element of the business. Sure there were a few thousand dollars spent on a vehicle, timing equipment, etc., but I sensed things would pan out. Remember, this was a side business, almost a hobby. Teaching occupied five days of the week, race timing two days between March and November.

JH: Do you think timing chips are a good thing?
Dave: Well, the technology is definitely a good thing.

Linda: It’s the only way to go for any event with over 300 finishers.

Les: They can be a great feature for the bigger races, (over a thousand runners in a 5K course), but no matter how you cut it, there’s going to be front-end work or back-end work for a timer in preparing for a race. The chip includes a lot of back-end work--making sure all have been returned, if not, contacting the race director, sending a bill for those unreturned chips. Thinking about that caused us to keep the stress and potential aggravation level low; the reason why we didn’t invest.

JH: Typically how many races do you put on in a year?
Dave: We put on about 20 races.

Linda: 50+ for us.

Les: We’ve averaged 65 events each year, from mid-March to mid-November; eight months.

JH: Can you name three of the strangest things that have happened in your races?
Dave: Someone drained the lake we were permitted to swim in before a triathlon; horse manure on the course at Boston; and I once got locked in a port-o-john by accident at the start in Boston.

Linda: Nude finishers (or nearly nude)! After all these years, what’s strange? Some of the people themselves!

JH: Can you describe a race where something went wrong?
Dave: In the Goodwill Games Triathlon--almost everything went wrong!

Linda: I think the worst is death at an event. Can never get over it. During a triathlon, swim, running events. Very traumatic.

Les: There’s always one event a year where something seems to go wrong, whether it’s the Time Machine, (which records the finishing times for each runner) wants to stop working and so while the order of finish is correct there isn’t a time for finishers when displaying results. Or the printer doesn’t want to work and results are read from the laptop at the awards ceremony. But nothing compares to the dreams (or nightmares) you have leading up to an event where no matter what you do in getting ready, finishers start coming in and the finish-line chute and clocks are not set up yet. We’re always good for a nightmare or two each season.

JH: In what way has the Internet affected the way you put on races?
Dave: I can multi-task more than ever and communicate better than ever!

Linda: It’s the only way we conduct our business! Many events that we time, do not even send out entry forms any more. All event info is now online: entry, results…the entire event!

Les: It's a very big feature now. Before the Internet it used to be important to get the overall order of finish printed and displayed at the race site by the time the awards ceremony was over for all to then see how they did. Results might even be mailed to all finishers either by post cards or big printouts. Now finishers know that by noontime, with most races, results are up on the site to satisfy their curiosity. And now most timers keep results displayed for a few past years for athletes to compare things.

JH: How have runners changed (if at all) in the last 25 years?
Dave: I think today it’s more about participation vs. competition.

Linda: Aaaah, all too hard-headed. Once a runner, always a runner! But basically their clothing (for some), and better running shoes. A lot now want and expect fast reporting of accurate results. They deserve it.

Les: The biggest thing I’ve noticed is that now there are more 40- and 50-year-old athletes competing compared with 20- and 30-year-olds years ago. The runners then have continued to stay active and thus we see them appearing in bigger numbers in the upper age groups. From where I stand, the athlete these days, no matter the sport, is usually faster, stronger, and more athletic then in the past. This is probably all brought about by proper training techniques.

JH: What are the two biggest trends in running now?
Dave: Walking more than running; more women, and more families.

Linda: There is more technical training info available--better info. There is easily accessible information now available through the Internet on the events-- information which permits more travel with friends, and fun!

Les: Geez, we could talk about running-shoe technology to nutrition to a well-planned training regime to even hiring a trainer for helping you become better; all could be trends we’re noticing.

JH: Do you think there are less races being put on now? If yes, why?
Dave: No, there are more races now.

Linda: Not sure, but cost is a big factor. Running fees are basically low and without sponsorship/corporate support, the profit margin is very, very low especially in smaller events.

Les: I tend to think there are more events, but what I do notice is there is a discontinuing of the classic events that used to be popular around the area. The Stop the Jade Run in Vincentown, NJ that seemed to open the season each March for example. The Haddonfield and Cherry Hill, NJ races from twenty years ago. But I suppose it’s just meant to be that way, I notice there’s sometimes a three-year life span to a race director. If there’s a good race-directing committee then events can continue, but finding volunteers to step up to lend a hand can be a real challenge. I’ll never forget the time a race director, at her event while getting ready to announce the winners said, “if there’s anyone here that thinks putting on a race is a walk in the park for us ought to step up and do it one time. You’d have so much compassion for every individual you come into contact with at a race you’d be filled with nonstop thank yous and you’d see all the work that goes in to making you, the runner, happy and fulfilled.”

JH: What do you see as the biggest trends in your races?
Dave: As I said walking more than running; more women and more families.

Linda: A lot of events now realize they must get support to make a profit and have funds to benefit the race cause. They also realize that they must have good Web exposure, and good timing services with the fast and accurate means to access/receive race-day results.

Les: More of the upper age-group runners competing these days

JH: Do you think there is less coverage of running in the popular media?
Dave: Maybe not less, but still not much.

Linda: I don’t think that the media ever gave running its due. Unless it was a NYC level marathon with big runners, it’s just not there. This hurts running in getting the exposure and desire out to our youth. They are the future of all sporting venues. Must get and keep the young people involved.

Les: I think so, outside the local Runners Gazette there ought to be more mention in say, the Courier-Post (local South Jersey newspaper) for example.

JH: What do you like best about race directing/timing?
Dave: Feeling good that I helped raise people’s self-confidence and self-esteem.

Linda: I do not, well  I “tri” very hard not to direct road races. God Bless the road-racing directors. A very tough job. But the best part would be to have a good number of entrants, a good course, and good weather!

Les: Regarding the timing side, it’s always nice to see the regulars back for another season come each March. Also, making sure the results are processed quickly and accurately is satisfying. The race director and the timer are in a relationship that can’t help but influence each other, if the race director has their operation buttoned down, we notice that and tend to step up and lend just as high an integrity element, too.

JH: What is the toughest problem you’ve faced while putting on a race?
Dave: We once had a road re-opening during a race with people still out on the course.

Linda: A monsoon-level rain setting up the event and during. It’s a killer in the level of participants (there is that financial equation again), and who wants to be out working or running in a flood!?

Les: As far as race directing, gathering in sponsorship dollars is unquestionably the toughest part. When I provide consulting ideas to a new race director, I mention something like--“You’re going to want to try to generate say $2500. for your first-time event here in Camden County, NJ and you’ll want to generate that by way of sponsors. Just think of your family and friends in the business world who you or your committee members know, especially those involved in something that is at least indirectly related to running. Do you know any wellness doctors or chiropractors? Any sports stores? Any health-food stores? Because you’re going to want to generate that much to take care of your awards, T-shirts, postrace eats, and finish line/timing. You’d love to go into a race where any entry fees go toward your charity. You’d rather not go into a race needing X amount of runners to break even, since weather can play such a pivotal role.”

JH: What advice would you give someone who wants to put on a race?
Dave: Work a few first before taking the plunge!

Linda: Keep beer or wine handy for when the day is done. Have your head examined.
Seriously, a good support team, knowledgeable race committee (that can work together); do your homework i.e., course, site, budget.
Les: Surround yourself with organized individuals, because you’re going to want to delegate certain responsibilities and know that they’ll get accomplished. If you have enough on your committee you could petition someone to take care of securing sponsors, another for researching T-shirts, another checking with an awards or trophy store, another handling the postrace snacks, and another to handle the registration and awards ceremony, and yet another to handle the race course logistic--from water stops, cones, signs, and the volunteers needed out there. One person could handle a couple chores, but be careful someone is not overextended.

JH:What are some of the common causes of a race’s demise?
Dave: $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$!

Linda: You need to rotate the committee, keep all involved, see who likes to do what. Encourage, thank people, keep going for financial support. Keep politics out of the event.

Les: Burnout from the race director, plain and simple. Maybe not enough fresh blood coming into the group to continue the pursuit. Remember, behind the scenes, where runners never see what goes on, you’re meeting with town officials and police for permission to even hold the event, you’ll hope they’re agreeable.

JH: What is a good way to get more kids running?
Dave: Get their parents running first!

Linda: Stop training or racing them so hard! Within five years they peak and burnout. Develop them more slowly and try to keep it fun. Make it a “game.”

Les: A teacher or administrator at the school will make the biggest difference. They would have the enthusiasm to start something like this. Find another co-race director to help you and you’re on your way. I would say, come out to the Run Against Drugs One Miler and 5K in Seabrook, NJ and see how they’ve made their event a success after 18 years. Have a one-mile run on or near the school grounds, with a lot of young age groups to be acknowledged at the award ceremony. The announced recognition for a youngster would be unforgettable. It becomes a contagious activity every Spring with over 200 one milers lately.

JH: What is the most common thing that runners/people who hire you do not know about race directors in general?
Dave: How much time they have to invest in producing an event.

Linda: The depth of our knowledge and experience, but for us we have been in the business so long with many repeat events, that we now do not take on too many new events.
As many know, we are heavily into multi-events such as triathlons, duathlons, swims.
It is an entirely different level of sporting event; a different “animal,” so to speak.
For us, it has been a good thing. As your questions point out, you are aware that the running scene is a very difficult venue. To have put all our eggs into one basket would have narrowed our business. It has pushed us to grow technically, the field we cover, and our sporting exposure.
Our first love though remains running, as I said, “Once a runner, always a runner!”

Les: You’ll probably glean most of this response from my answers to the “What is the toughest problem you’ve faced while putting on a race?” Sponsorship dollars etc., a couple questions earlier, Jack.

JH: Which one of your races would you like the most to run in?
Dave: Boston, and I do already run it every year.

Linda: Right now the “race of life.” To be healthy, to continue to be able to participate in all sports that challenge us. Right now I have been into the “game of tennis” on a competitive level both in training and playing. But, the years as a runner have helped on the courts.
They can’t stand it that I never get winded, and that I can run everything down, the running legs are still here!

Les: You tend to think of those events that have become a rite of passag--like the Sea Isle City, NJ 10 Miler. Even though 70% of the runners are from PA, runners still show up to do it “one more time” no matter the conditions. There’s a good support audience close to the runners as they’re on the promenade. Lots of cheering and activity. The Berlin, NJ Parade 5K was that way. It was the most undiscovered 5K in South Jersey, just before the parade on July 4th. You had a few thousand spectators assembled along the route and especially in that last mile you couldn’t help but be aware of the spectators around you. Big fun.

Thanks, Dave, Linda, and Les, for your wisdom, insight, and for all you do for our sport.
You’ve given Runners Gazettes readers a chance to learn from the best.

Written by Jack Heath for Runners Gazette Magazine

Click here for Runners World's "5 Boston Marathon Questions for Dave McGillivray:"

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