Posts Tagged 'race director'

From the Race Director’s Desk: The Rocket Science of Course Design

When the throngs of runners arrive on race day, some may assume that the start line, the finish line, and everything in between was preordained, just waiting to be discovered by the event organizers. The reality is that course design involves public safety considerations, politics, science, and aesthetics.

Public safety considerations often involve artificial boundaries. Crossing or running on streets that serve as critical traffic carriers (sometimes called “arterials”) is one limitation. Construction zones are always a challenge, particularly when designing a longer course such as a half marathon or marathon. Even the staff size of a police or public safety department in a particular municipality may influence whether more mileage is in that city or an adjacent one. The local police, public works departments and traffic engineers essentially have veto authority over course designs.

Politics play a role since people in positions of influence, such as owners or board members, may want the course route to go through (or not go through) a particular area of town. At times, these voices can be in conflict with one another or with the wishes of the event staff. The race director is then forced to play the role of mediator as they try to satisfy multiple constituencies.

The science of course design may seem straightforward: go out and design a course of X miles with a defined start location and/or defined finish location. Modern online tools like mapmyrun streamline this part of the process but don’t necessarily make it easy. Achieving an exact distance can be challenging, especially when the start line and finish line are pre-defined and the number of streets or turns available are limited. Courses that overlap take this science to an entirely new level, becoming almost rocket science. In addition to achieving a defined distance, it’s critical to choose routes that facilitate the placement of support services like fluid stations, medical stations and porta-potties along the route.

Finally, the course route itself should be aesthetically appealing to the participants. While they may have less direct influence prior to the event than the constituencies mentioned above, they will vote by choosing to participate or not. This ultimately decides the future success or failure of the event, which in my opinion makes them the most powerful constituency in the long run. This means that the smartest race director is the one who is able to anticipate the wants and likes of the running community, place that objective above all others, and find a way to get it approved by everyone else.

The staff and I have been hard at work planning this year’s courses. We’ve met with public safety officials, politicians, medical personnel, operational staff and board members. We will unveil our 2014 marathon and half marathon courses this week. I can’t wait to see the runners’ reaction!


Prevea On the Move: Good Luck!

Five months ago we all started the training journey; we circled May 19 on the calendar and started running. After months of training in the cold, snow and rain (with some warm days), and trying different clothes, shoes and food, race week has finally arrived. Whether this is your first or your twentieth race, we know you are ready for Saturday and cannot wait to congratulate you at the finish line. This week’s Prevea On the Move [link to], Prevea Training Run Director Mike LaMere wishes all runners good luck and offers words of encouragement and inspiration.


Good luck runners!

From the Race Director’s Desk: Schizophrenic Weather

As we attempt to shift from winter into spring here in Wisconsin, I’m beginning to think Mother Nature has a severe case of schizophrenia.

Over the last couple months, it seems every week we’ve had wild swings from warm, sunny conditions to frigid snowstorms.  On several occasions in the last couple months, I’ve been able to run outside in shorts and a long-sleeve shirt.  Just days afterwards, I’ve wondered how badly frostbitten my fingers and toes were after a run despite wearing two or three layers to keep them warm.  I had to redesign the weekly training run for this Saturday because the Fox River Recreational Trail–which we ran on this week last year in 70-degree weather–is under several inches of fresh snow with more on the way.

The irony of trying to organize an outdoor event is that one of the most important elements–the weather–is completely out of your hands.  I always tell my Operations Committee not to get too confident since “we only control 49% of the experience and Mother Nature decides the rest.”  This statement is humbling but accurate and keeps our egos in check.

So our trainees will slog on this Spring through the snow and the slush and the rain and, eventually, clean roads and clear sunny skies.  Enduring these trials is part of the “character building” process of becoming a distance runner once again each year.  If you can survive these trials, you can survive anything…almost.

-Sean Ryan

From the Race Director’s Desk: A Common Taskmaster

On the top of the Cellcom Green Bay Marathon website is a countdown clock. We added this a few years ago for the benefit of our participants. It serves as a constant reminder to the runners, my staff and any other interested parties that race day is coming.  My staff hates that clock. I assume many of the runners do as well. The clock is a taskmaster for all of us involved with the event, whether as participants or organizers. All of us share the inevitability of race day and the challenge of balancing priorities to  arrive there fully prepared.

Distance runners face the challenge of fitting a rigorous training regimen into an often hectic work and family schedule. Sometimes this requires sacrifices like getting up extra early or using your lunch hour to get in a few miles on a treadmill. The great thing about committing to a race is that it sets an unmerciful deadline. The date of the event is not going to change no matter what drama ensues in our individual lives. This reality forces us as runners to do whatever is necessary to get in the requisite mileage, cross training, and other preparations necessary to get from the start line to the finish line on that day.

Similarly, organizers have a limited window of time in which they must address a million planning details to make sure the event goes off smoothly. Ordering supplies and equipment, coordinating vendors, filling critical leadership roles, and recruiting hundreds of volunteers are all on the “to-do” list in the months leading up to race day. The inevitability of race day can add stress to the organizers’ lives as well, forcing them to squeeze numerous planning meetings into a 8-hour day, stay up late working on site plans and floor plans, and miss family functions on a regular basis.

I’m not trying to suggest that we’re all like movie characters desperately trying to defuse bombs with countdown timers. It’s a much slower burning fuse, typically with a 6-12 month planning cycle. But it is a fuse with an inevitable conclusion, nonetheless. A situation such as this creates a certain subtle, sustained adrenaline rush. Maybe that rush is part of why runners like signing up for events and I like being a race director…that or we’re all just big fans of porta-potties, I guess.

From the Race Director’s Desk: Peer Support

I just returned from the Running USA Conference in Savannah, Georgia.

This annual gathering of several hundred industry professionals is always inspiring and educational. Race directors are a unique breed. There are probably only a few hundred full-time race directors in the country who actually make their living doing what I do. The government doesn’t have a standard industrial classification for the job. And no college offers a bona fide degree in it.

The Running USA Conference is one of a handful of opportunities for my staff and I to interact with people who do exactly what we do on a day-to-day basis. We exchange war stories, advice, best practices, and lessons learned all in an effort to bring more professionalism to the occupation. Lacking standardized textbooks and degrees, race directors are forced to learn from their own successes and failures OR those of their peers. The saying, “Steal from success; learn from failure,” captures this notion.

I’m always amazed at how supportive and open a group race directors are. Unlike many industries where competition precludes sharing a lot of information, most race directors do not view their knowledge and experience as proprietary. Even if you’re in a nearby market, they’re often willing to share advice, contacts, procedures and equipment to help you out. My friend Dave McGillivray, the BAA Boston Marathon Director, always says, “In the end, we’re all in this together.” By that he means that helping one another only helps the industry by creating more wonderful events which in the end grows the populace of runners out there wanting to participate.

I’ve worked in other industries including banking, construction and restaurant management. I didn’t find the same openness and positive energy working in those trades. Sure, they had conferences and shared information but only to a limited extent. The people at those conferences could be genial towards one another, going out to dinner and even staying up late to chat over mixed drinks. But the feeling of collegiality was never the same since they ultimately always saw eachother as competitors first.

Even with regards to the socializing, the race director conferences are different. Sure, we stay up late drinking with our peers, just like those other industries. The difference is that we also get out of bed at 6 am to go for a group run! Yes, most of us, like our audience, are crazy, dedicated runners. It’s exhausting but I love being a race director!

From the Race Director’s Desk: Sharing the Glory

As the Race Director for the marathon, it’s important that I try to understand what motivates people.

I’m not just talking about the participants but also the thousands of people who help produce the event each year. It’s my job to lead and support the marathon staff, who in turn lead and support the Operations Committee (team leaders), who in turn lead the thousands of volunteers that address the needs of the participants. To do a good job of this, we need to provide solid leadership, well-defined jobs, an occasional meal and beverages, a fun working atmosphere, and some nominal perks such as a logo’d t-shirt that tells them they are part of the overall production.

But that’s really the minimum standard in ANY working environment. So what keeps many of these folks coming back to help year after year? Since most of them receive little or no true compensation, what is the PAYOFF?

After ten years, I think I’ve figured it out…

When you cross the finish line of a running event, a triathlon, or any endurance competition for the first time, the sense of accomplishment can be overwhelming. It’s not uncommon to see grown men (or women) brought to tears or cheering wildly. And here’s the rub: Helping others to reach such milestones can be just as fulfilling. I’m convinced that THIS is precisely what drives the return rate for many of our committee members and volunteers.

The glory in the achievement of reaching a finish line is not limited to the individual in the running shoes. It is a glory which is shared by everybody who had a stake in helping them get there — spouses, family, friends, training partners, coaches, and those of us on the organizational side of the fence. It’s been said, “there is no individual achievement,” a perspective that is particularly apropos with regards to endurance events.

It’s exhilerating to work behind the scenes in these events and I’m convinced that the phenomenon of shared glory is a big part of it. I’ve often explained the passion of being a race director by saying that, “the only thing more fulfilling in crossing a marathon finish line is helping tens of thousands of others to do the same.” See you at OUR finish line!

Sean Ryan
Race Director
Cellcom Green Bay Marathon

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

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