Wednesday, March 23, 2011

So you want to be a Race Director...

Browning Ross
I had run in over 600 races, but I never really thought about what goes into actually putting on a race until I directed my first race. I had even accompanied and assisted Browning Ross as he put on dozens of his races and that did not prepare me. Browning made it look so effortless-- pulling a clipboard, watch, Popsicle sticks and prizes from his car and—voila'! He was ready to go.

Few people (how about no one else?) have the skill to pull that off. For us mere mortals, race directing takes time, money, plenty of coordination, flexibility and constant communication and knowledge about who actually does what to make a race come together.

Since my first race directing experience, I have received a Phd. in what can go wrong—and luckily also in what can go right. At least now I now what it takes to put on a race—just how complicated it is. Before getting started, a prospective be race-director needs to know the following:

Race Timers (and what else) not included: First, did you know that race timers cost money? Most of the dozen people that call me during the year for help on their races do not. People who are interested in putting on a race as a fund-raiser and have no idea race timers are usually charging $ 800-1200 and up just to time a race. Over the years, we have seen more than one race organizer with no course measured, or course volunteers present the day of the race because they thought the race timers would provide everything, and handle all race details even though it was never discussed. We have seen many races spend $800 on race timing that have had only a few dozen runners.

You might need help with the course: Race organizers also probably have no reason to know a race timer may not necessarily map out and measure your course for you—especially if you did not ask them for the service and are not paying for it. Often, race timers have no idea of the details of your course. There is definitely no alchemy at work here—if you are paying only for race timing that is most likely all you will get.

You still have to have someone come up with a course and possibly measure and certify it.

Also, consider many parks and townships ask for permits and insurance and you may need police for traffic control if the runners are crossing traffic. These things also may cost money and the race timers will not seek these approvals automatically.

Do you have race t-shirts? Most runners expect a quality shirt as a race souvenir. Shirts cost money although sponsors can sometimes defray the cost. Speaking of sponsors, don’t be surprised if the sponsors come through the day before or even after the race have passed. You may need to pay most if not all of the race bills before then. For example, expect to pay around $10-12 for a good quality long sleeve shirt, plus art and set up charges. Finally, there is the matter of how many shirts to order. Too many and you will have boxes of them in your attic (and of course the unnecessary expense), order too few and you will have some disappointed runners.

What are you going to do for prizes? Speaking of unhappy runners, a quick way to disappoint a runner is by not meeting their expectations for prizes. One of the first races I put on had less than 50 runners but one angry runner was demanding a Clydesdale prize(first male runner over 200 lbs.) I told him I would drop it off at his house before next years’ race. Another runner was first in the over 60 category-- but was insulted that he did not get a prize for the over 70 category because, he was over 70. Don’t forget that prizes are also an expense. We have put on many races that give all the children a free entry and a shirt, medal or trophy for participation.

Expect the unexpected: Be prepared. Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. For example, for a recent race, we had ordered 300 numbers and we had only 16 entries less than 2 weeks before the race. While we were busy calculating the number of future races we could use the extra numbers for, entrees started to arrive-- first as a trickle then as a deluge. We had over 500 runners show up for the race wiping out our supply of entry blanks, numbers and even pins, but the late turnout was good news for the charity it benefitted.

Should you delegate? If you delegate race duties, be sure to double check that everyone is carrying out their assigned duties as close to the race as possible. We’ve been involved with races where delegation did not work as planned-- The person assigned to bring the entry blanks for race day sign-up forgot to bring them, or the person assigned to bring the pins forgot them, and other incidentals like staples for the staple guns (for pinning race results on the board) .

Luckily for this particular race we were able to compensate. Although we were not able to pin up all the race results, we had decided in advance  to give the first 20 men and women finishers awards in the chute-- just like in the old (pre 1970’s running boom)  days. If we had age-group awards in this race we would still be attempting to sort it out. Having a plan B and C often helps.

Hey, remember me? Be prepared for “friends” you vaguely know or maybe have never even met before the race to arrive looking for a free entry-- this confuses your volunteers. We have had race day registrants say they have signed up online (before the race had implemented an online sign up) frequent racers may have been confused with another race for which they had signed up online.
     Be prepared to field a lot of strange phone calls asking about race expos, prize structures, altitude of the course (our response: “above river level”) and percentage of male to female entrants and age graded prizes, detailed course maps in advance etc. In this tight economy, people do not spend their $15-25 frivolously. We once had the manager for some 2nd tier World Class Kenyan runners ask us what the race budget was. He quickly hung up when he heard our reply $500 (which included t-shirts and awards!)
It is worth it: You have probably guessed by now that it takes plenty of time and coordination to plan to put on a race, and although it is great for us runners, it may not be the best way to raise funds. When the race comes together;  when it’s finally completed and you see the looks on the race participants faces, you get a feeling of satisfaction that it just might have been worth it after all.

Note: This article originally appeared in Runners Gazette Magazine along with an interview of some top race directors--Race Management 101. This accompanying article contains more detailed information on race management, and is also now found in this ramscrosscountry blog

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