Events

A Return to No-Frills Racing

A practical guide to organizing your own DIY race without the bells or whistles — and a memorable example of one.

When, back in early spring, I received the first of what would become several race postponement emails, I can honestly say I was a little relieved. It was a mountain bike race, and as the date of the race approached, the combination of a race with a lot of climbing and too little training was starting to make me nervous. The few extra weeks of training would do me good, and I was sure all this global pandemic stuff would blow over in a couple of weeks. Three months later, and my race announcement email subfolder is bursting. Every race that I had been planning has been postponed to next year or canceled.

I’m sure most runners have a love/hate relationship with racing. I lose sleep as the date of a big race nears. My heart pounds with anxiety in anticipation of even the low-level, local 5Ks and 10Ks. But, in the moment when the gun goes off, there is no place on earth I would rather be. I love the deeper level of suffering and the sense of accomplishment that I can only get from a race.

No one knows how long it will be before organized races return, and I’m starting to get impatient. But, as is the case with many other things, sometimes it’s just best to do it yourself. Maybe it’s time to get back to the no-frills roots of racing; get a bunch of friends together, plot out a course, and trade pre-race sandbagging tales of how little we have been training during the COVID quarantine. 

I organized a local no-frills marathon on the trails around our neighborhood for a number of years, and I think this is exactly the kind of race that will help bridge the gap between social isolation and large, organized races.

This is the story of our first local trail marathon, and some practical tips on organizing one yourself.

No-Frills, Rough and Rowdy Racing 

The best part of a 5:30 a.m. start is the sunrise. We gathered around and I started the pre-race briefing. I felt the same nervous energy I feel at every starting line. As the assembled group of friends looked to me for directions for the next 3–6 hours of their lives, I was grateful for them, but also scared.

race instructions
Photo: Lynne Cao

My goal had been to create a tough mountain race in my backyard to rival the elevation gain of Pike’s Peak at over 7,500 feet. Though I fell short of that, I did manage to put together a course with about 5,000 feet more gain than the “hilly” Boston Marathon.

I don’t live in a rural area, so I’d had to get creative with a 26-mile loop that stayed almost exclusively on trails. Fortunately, North County San Diego has miles of trails right outside our front doors thanks to local preservation. The trail linking project was something that took a lot of work and creativity. I would dream about sections of the course, and I’d wake up with new ideas for the race: Go right at the water tower, and run down the steep dirt path before taking a sharp left at the second power line access trail and cut through some desert scrub and manzanita to the horse trail that takes you up to Paint Mountain. At the top of Paint Mountain, you’ll see a notebook containing hand-written quotes. Tear out a page from the notebook to prove you made it to the top of the section. (Hat tip to Laz and the Barkley Marathons.)

After finalizing the course, I’d thought of only a handful of people that this particular type of suffering would appeal to, so I sent out an email to about eight people. Word had gotten out, and by the time we hiked to the top of Double Peak for the 5:30 a.m. start, there were 30 of us taking in that sunrise.

There was a disclaimer about the difficulty of the course, and I guaranteed a tough day on the trails. I told them they would need to be self-sufficient, but also take care of each other. I warned them about the lack of aid stations and the absence of a capable and responsible race director to complain to.

no frills trail race
Photo: Dax Ross

I started the day with 26 miles in my legs from the previous day. I’d marked the course with flour arrows, so people would know where to go. The only way to mark a course this remote was to run it, so I marked the first 13 miles in the morning and the last 13 miles in the evening the day before the event.

I’d emailed the route to everyone who was planning on running the race, but this was before it was easy to load routes on a GPS. Then again, maybe route-finding was part of the appeal for this group. My course overview was not very clear and included instructions about steep concrete access roads, narrow singletracks, dams, hills, mountains, and trails.

I told them they were to run by the old wooden shack where a guy should be out waving to them. I had given the man a six-pack of Coors Light the day before and informed him that a bunch of runners would be passing by his house in the early morning. I asked that he please not shoot us, and if it’s not too much trouble, could he chain up the Pit Bull? 

When we got there, he was out on his wooden porch, cheering and toasting us with his morning Coors Light.

I told the runners not to expect aid during the run, but my wife was out there anyway, driving from spot to spot with water, cut up oranges and watermelons, and homemade “You’ve Got This” signs. The aid stations were a great addition, especially as the sun sizzled through the morning haze.

Racing Bonds

As the large group thinned out to smaller groups of twos, threes, and fours, I found myself with Paul and April, both experienced ultra runners, and like these runs always do, the talk turned to past and future races, nutrition, and the minutiae of training.

The last climb was back to where we started the race over four hours before. It’s a hill called Double Peak, and I know every turn, every wind in the trail, every rut, and I didn’t think I could make it the quarter-mile to the top. I sat on a concrete curb and told April and Paul that I just needed a break. I told them to go on and finish, and I’d see them at the top. We’d spent the last few hours running together in this organic trio. We shared race stories, we laughed and we struggled together.

They wouldn’t go on.

April sat next to me and told me to take my time. Paul told me we were going to finish together. I got up and slow-hiked to the finish where a few of the early finishers, some friends, and some family were waiting.

My daughter hung a string of beads held together by a leather strap over my neck. She bought beads and made 30 unique finisher medals. She had been working on them for a week. Travis had brought some homebrew. My friend’s wife and my son stretched toilet paper across the finish so everyone could break the tape at the top.

From where I sat, I could see the ocean and feel the cool air against sunburned shoulders and tired legs covered to the knee in red dirt. We sat as people finished, sometimes solo, sometimes in small groups. I hugged everyone that crossed the line that day after Sophie hung the strand of beads over their necks. Some cursed at me as they finished, but they did it with a smile.

Everything about that day was about our small running community and family  —  from the handwritten notes to the marking of the course, the aid stations, the finish line tape, and the beaded finisher’s medal that holds a special place in my heart.

finish of low key trail race
Photo: Dax Ross

How to Plan Your Own No-Frills Race

As we emerge from this pandemic, small races will come back first. Runners will be forced to get back to the gritty roots of racing. The gatherings of a few friends, some flour arrows to mark the path, some stashed orange wedges and water, and if you’re really lucky, a toilet paper finish line and a strand of beads around your neck.

It’s going to be a while before any of us stand shoulder to shoulder with thousands of other runners waiting with an emotional storm of excitement, nerves, and dread, in the starting corral. It is more realistic to think that one of these home-grown events will be in your future.

Here’s how to plan your own.

Technology

Get comfortable with a GPS mapping program like CalTopo, Gaia, or Gmap Pedometer. I used Gmap Pedometer for my planning and I like it because it is simple to use; it keeps a running distance total as you plan the route. And it’s free. Send the route to the participants and they will be able to load it on their own devices. That way, nobody can blame you for getting lost. You’ll want to be familiar with the area you are running in.

Participants

Don’t let the group get out of hand. Only invite people you trust will be able to finish the race and people who have some experience running trails without aid stations. People need to be self-sufficient with these types of races. This will also help you limit the number of people to a number you feel comfortable with and are allowed with your community’s social distancing rules. It also helps to personally know everyone, just in case something goes wrong. (You also may consider having participants sign a waiver, just in case).

Volunteers

People want to help. As most trail runners know, it’s at least as fun volunteering for a race as running one. Some people will actually be relieved that you asked them to help rather than asked them to run. Get the family involved as well. My family still has some of our best memories while volunteering for races, and the kids actually love contributing. My friend Joe’s whole family set up an aid station at the midway point of our trail marathon. The amount of good karma and love they received that day will tide them over for years.

*Also sometimes important in planning is bribery: Buy a guy with a scary dog on your planned route a 6-pack of Coors Light when you ask him to keep the dog on a leash the next morning.

Swag

Racing t-shirt with writing on it.
Photo: Dax Ross

We had custom shirts made. They are a collector’s item in our area. Use a web service that will let you place small orders, and design them yourself. They won’t be as flashy as the big-name marathon tech tees, but they will mean more to you. Trust me. The same holds true for the race medal. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it will take up a special place on your doorknob, in your medal drawer, or wherever you keep your stash. 

Human Connection  

One last thing, don’t let the day end at the finish line. Get everyone together for pizza and beers to relive the stories. If the group is too big for that, do it via a streaming service. The friendships, the bonding, and the tales of suffering and overcoming are why we do this. That’s not going to change whether you finish on Boylston Street or at the top of a hill called Double Peak as you break through a makeshift toilet paper finish line.