From the Race Director’s Desk: What’s with the caps?

I’m often asked by participants in the Cellcom Green Bay Marathon and several of the other events that I direct, “Why is there a cap?”

Capacity limitations, or “caps” as they’re commonly referred to, have become commonplace in many endurance events these days, including marathons, half marathons, triathlons, long-distance relays, etc. While newcomers to these sports may see caps as the norm, some of the veterans in the business are surprised and even a bit irritated by them. That’s because we can remember a day when events DIDN’T sell out, when you could wait right up until race weekend to pay a nominal fee to participate.

There are numerous reasons for caps on events. Some of them include:

  • OPERATIONAL CONSTRAINTS: Some events have caps due to physical limitations of some sort.  Sometimes this is easy to pinpoint. In the case of the Door County Triathlon, we can fit exactly 1,000 bikes comfortably in the transition area and no more. With the Cellcom Green Bay Marathon, it’s a bit more difficult since our greatest constraint is getting thousands of runners through a narrow player tunnel at Lambeau Field during the final mile. This is compounded by having the half marathon and marathon go on simultaneously, which presents a challenge for the elite marathoners who arrive at the stadium just as the densest pack of half marathoners are passing through the stadium. Ultimately, every event will face some sort of constraint that forces them to limit participation. The incredibly popular Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota is limited in part by the lodging capacity of the surrounding community. And even the Chicago and New York City Marathons are limited by street widths on their courses.
  • PARTICIPANT SUPPLY LEAD TIMES: Not that many years ago, it was customary to give out cotton t-shirts to finishers in distance races. As long as participants registered “in advance,” they would be guaranteed their t-shirt size. Any mid-sized community has a plethora of local companies that can supply custom screen-printed cotton t-shirts on fairly short notice. I’ve put in emergency orders on cotton shirts less than 48 hours prior to an event. When moisture-wicking technical fabric shirts became the standard, all of this changed. These shirts are often cut, sewn and screen printed overseas–most often in China–and shipped to the United States in shipping containers to reduce freight costs. This causes ridiculously long lead times. As an example, in order to guarantee timely delivery for this May’s Cellcom Green Bay Marathon and Half Marathon, the t-shirt order had to be submitted by December 1st, SIX MONTHS PRIOR TO THE EVENT! There are also long lead times on things like finisher medals and gear check bags. All of these lead times forces organizers to set caps on the events well in advance or risk the possibility of over-selling and running out of the perks that runners expect.
  • BUDGETS: Whether an event is non-profit or for-profit, the organizers have somebody to answer to for its financial outcome. It’s easier to meet or exceed budget if a target level of participation is established well in advance.
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE: One of the ironies of an event becoming popular and drawing a lot more participants is complaints from the veterans that “it’s getting too big.” While its tempting to dismiss such comments as “people nostalgic for the past,” there is often some legitimacy to them. If an event reaches a size where the crowd congestion before, during or after the race creates a negative experience for the participants, then indeed it may be “too big.” In this case, a lower capacity should be considered.
  • LAW OF SCARCITY: I’ve heard it suggested that some events limit capacity to ensure it reaches a sell-out status, thus enhancing its reputation and desirability. This is like saying, “everybody wants to eat at the restaurant where you can’t get a table.” While there may be some merit to this notion, I think the desire for more revenue and profits outweigh this as a significant factor in limits being set. Still, I suppose it is one factor considered by boards and race organizers.

There are other reasons races may place caps on their participation but most fall under one of the categories listed above. Contrary to what some runners may think, most race organizers I’ve talked with do NOT enjoy having to set and enforce capacity limits on their events. Nobody wants to turn away participants or the revenue they bring to an event and a community.  Unfortunately, it is the norm that the popular event you want to participate in is capped. SO HURRY UP AND REGISTER BEFORE IT SELLS OUT!

Sean Ryan
Race Director
Cellcom Green Bay Marathon


4 thoughts on “From the Race Director’s Desk: What’s with the caps?

  1. Julie Johnston from Cedar Rapids, Iowa January 29, 2013 — 2:23 pm

    What a well-written article! Thank you for sharing your thoughts & wisdom.
    As a small local race director myself who has not had to face a cap yet, I learned a great amount from this post, yet I have already become aware of a number of the reasons you listed as well. While international trade is good and necessary to an extent, it’s sad, as Americans, that we can not come up with a more green, local solution to at least the performance apparel issue so as not to have to always have them produced, printed & shipped from other countries, like China…6 months in advance, as they are cheaper …and dry-fit is what runners/walkers now “EXPECT.”

  2. Thanks Julie! I agree with your comments. – Sean

  3. The sourcing of the shirts is fascinating. Runners in the apparel and or logistics biz should be penciling out a plan to shorten the supply chain and time between order and delivery.

  4. Greg, good comments. The challenge with shortening the supply chain comes down to how broadly appealing the products are. Cotton t-shirts are in greater supply domestically because they are used for a lot of other non-athletic purposes (e.g. schools, corporations, restaurants, etc.). At all times, the big t-shirt companies have warehouses with stockpiles of the cotton shirts in a variety of colors to fill these quick demand screen printing needs. The technical fabric shirts have fewer uses and higher unit price so there is much more limited raw domestic inventory. When we order 8,000 shirts, they are typically custom cut, sewn and screen printed. This is much cheaper to do overseas in places like China with lower labor costs and environmental standards.

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