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Confessions Of A Rookie Race Director

Planning and organizing a race is a much bigger challenge than it first seems, writes Daniel Seidel.

Planning and organizing a race is a much bigger challenge than it first seems, writes Daniel Seidel.

After running in more than 100 races over the last 10 years or so, the pre-race nerves now hit me at discreet and brief intervals. They usually disappear when the routine kicks in — pinning on the bib to my singlet (starting at the lower-left corner and moving counterclockwise), doing drills and strides, shaking out the lower legs as if an army of ants has just crawled up them, breathing deeply, retreating inside myself just before the gun goes off.

No such routine was available to me two weeks ago, however. I was the race director for an inaugural event, a road mile, that my co-founder and I had worked on for more than a year. Shortly before the first heat of the day, the kids race, I looked over toward the start line, where the legendary American miler Steve Scott was giving advice to the youngsters about not going out too fast. Pace yourselves, he was saying. It’s good advice whether you’re running a race or organizing one, and it momentarily calmed me down. Then the race announcer gave the start command, the kids tore off (most of them ignoring Scott’s advice), and the next two hours of heats flew by at a similar breakneck speed.

A year of planning, and it was all over in two hours. That is the strange equation of race directing.

Given the proliferation of races and the “professionalization” of race management, there are now explicit guidelines, best practices, race-director certification courses­­­­ — even books. Road Race Management’s Organizing Running Events: The Complete Guide to Staging a Successful Road Race proved particularly helpful. Its first chapter, titled “Taking the Plunge,” does contain an ominous analogy, though: “A road race can be a little like a hole in the ankle of your running sock — at first you barely notice a rub, but over time it evolves into a pulsating blister.”

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There were certainly moments in the course of the past year in which I felt a blister beginning to form: when our initial race course and date did not pan out, when operating costs seemed to be adding up while the number of registrations remained static, when someone from the sheriff’s department came up to me at 4:45 on race morning and said, “Now, I know you’re not gonna like this, but please don’t get stressed out …”

To slightly amend the original analogy, then: Putting on a race is like constantly having a hot spot that is in danger of becoming a blister. When I first pictured putting on a race, I imagined laying out a lightning-fast, point-to-point course and doing everything possible to create the best experience for the runners. What I didn’t imagine was being presented with a chart showing the recommended ratio of portable toilets to participants over a three-hour span. I had to consider the possibility of being oversold Port-A-Potties (do we really need eight?) and the possibility of the worst-case scenario, in which six toilets were not enough and people took to Yelp or Facebook afterward to complain about the incompetent race organizers and their insufficient grasp of the human digestive system.

Of course, not knowing how many people would show up for an inaugural event made all such micro-decisions more difficult, but each one still felt significant, since failing to provide either adequate parking or water or snacks or toilets or safety pins, etc., all incidental to the pure action of running itself, could tarnish someone’s overall experience of the race.

There were also the slightly deeper questions of purpose: Why, and for whom, are you putting on this race? So many running, cycling, and triathlon events (not to mention mud and obstacle runs) now crowd each weekend and shut down public roads and parks that a certain skepticism, and in some cases outright resistance, are sure to greet you at some point if you decide to put on a race. This opposition, sometimes well founded and sometimes not, forced me to think hard about why the event was worthwhile; and once I made the determination that it was, it became much easier and less stressful to confront the inevitable obstacles.

The second question — for whom? — has no clear-cut answer. We wanted a fast race for the elite heats, but many of the local elite runners were (understandably) not thrilled with the idea of an out-and-back course and its 180-degree turnaround. Families and spectators, on the other hand, would prefer such a course, since it became easier to track their kids running and to see most of the race unfold (not to mention the preferences of the city and our own logistical needs). Our race committee confronted little questions like these all the time, always trying to take the broadest and fairest perspective rather than looking through the narrow lens of the single runner.

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It turned out that this change of perspective, required in order to put on an event involving hundreds of people and lots of moving pieces, was an unexpected blessing and the greatest pleasure of race directing. As a competitive runner, I often approach running races with a kind of monomaniacal intensity, worrying about and controlling the right workout in the days leading up, when to take a day off, what to eat the night before, when to start my warmup or strides; large portions of the actual race-day experience are therefore blocked out, as they must be if you wish to maximize your performance.

As a race director, however, I had to relinquish a large measure of this control and begin to take in a wider picture. All the planning, preparation and double-checking set the stage for the race, but the event itself was created by everyone who showed up to run or to cheer the runners on, bringing a plan on paper to life. They were the ones who created the spontaneous, unique and intimate spectacle that is a true road race, whose excitement and surge of human energy can’t be planned or directed. It was much easier to see that remarkable spectacle, and to appreciate how lucky all of us are to be a small part of it, when I wasn’t worried in the slightest about my own race.


About The Author:

Daniel Seidel is a freelance editor and writer living in North County San Diego. He is the co-founder and race director of the Encinitas Mile.