The Rise of Road Races | Sports Destination Management

The Rise of Road Races

Jun 24, 2013 | By: Juli Anne Patty

Photo courtesy of Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum

Healthcare is a one of America’s greatest challenges, but the current crisis might just have an unexpected silver lining: a road race boom.

“Thanks to healthcare costs, it makes more sense to take up a fitness program, whether it’s running, cycling, or whatever,” says Ryan Lamppa, media director for Running USA, an organization dedicated to advancing the growth and success of the running industry. “People are trying new activities. Then they sign up for races, set goals. That’s why our sport is growing and thriving.”

Running, says Running USA, is experiencing a “Second Boom,” and they aren’t the only ones. Road races of all kinds are growing, as well as a new breed of novelty races. With all that growth, a few growing pains might be expected, but with some advice from the industry’s experts, race directors can keep everything on course.

The Players

Any event that uses public roads will require the input of local officials, sometimes from several cities or counties. In the case of some of the longer-distance events, such as the Ironman Pocono Mountains 70.3, officials and planners from several jurisdictions collaborate to ensure the availability and safety of athletes on both public roads and public waterways.

“At the Convention and Visitors Bureau, our goal is to find out how the race is going to impact the area,” says David Jackson, vice president, sales, Pocono Mountain CVB. “For races on a Sunday, for example, we’re sensitive to how they will affect churches, and we’re always considering how places of businesses are affected on race day.”

Race planners also work with national governing bodies (NGB) to certify and ensure the safety of each event. NGBs vary by event, including USA Track & Field (USATF), USA Cycling and USA Triathlon. Some races, like the popular Color Race, aren’t certified by any governing body. The Color Run, a 5K untimed race, emphasizes fun and health rather than competition. Since its debut in January 2012, the event has grown from over 50 events and 600,000 participants to more than 100 events and a million-plus participants in 2013.

Trying a Tri

An event comprised of two parts road race and one part water competition (traditionally swimming, but also paddling in some cases), triathlons have become one of America’s fastest-growing events.

“Triathlon participation numbers continue to rise and are at an all-time high,” says Chuck Menke, marketing and communications director, USA Triathlon. “USA Triathlon reached 550,446 members in 2012, and our organization sanctioned more than 4,300 events last year.”

USA Triathlon also cites the increase healthy lifestyle activities as a catalyst for their sport, as well as an inspiration for race directors to produce more creative and socially-minded events.

“Events like a USA Triathlon Splash and Dash (youth aquathlon) or untimed, non-competitive events like USA Triathlon’s Retro Triathlon Series are examples of new aspects of triathlon available to participants,” says Menke. “Women’s-only races are also gaining popularity.”

Social media is on the rise as a race director’s tool, as well, providing race directors a way to reach new participants and drive registration.

The growth in triathlons is likely to increase, thanks to the number of youth athletes joining the sport. USA Triathlon saw nearly 90,000 participants between the ages of 7-17 at year-end 2012. USA Triathlon is aiming to promote that growth with events like the 30-race Splash & Dash Aquathlon Series, designed to introduce multisport events to youth athletes.

Go the Distance

Cycling events can be some of the most challenging races logistically (other than the infamous Ironman Triathlon) simply because of the amount of road—and road closures—required. Another big hurdle, according to USA Cycling, the sport’s NGB, is volunteer recruitment.

“Our events, like many, rely heavily on volunteers…they are truly an integral part of the motor that makes an event run.  Having events on holiday weekends, changing cities, etc. are a few of the things we battle when reaching out to local communities for help,” says Tony Leko, national events coordinator, USA Cycling. “But having said that, the communities we do take our events to are all outstanding in their support and volunteerism.”

Another challenge faced by cycling race directors, says Leko, is keeping your event up with current technology. Today’s athletes expect to be able to do things like register and sign forms online, as well as get schedule update notifications— capabilities that, once implemented, can not only make your participants happier, but also ease the organizing committees’ workload.

Like running and triathlons, cycling is also seeing a strong uptick in participation. USA Cycling observed increased numbers at its National Championship events, as well as throughout the sport, a trend they attribute to an increase in healthy lifestyle activities. 

The Classic Road Race

Running experienced its first boom in the 1970s, thanks in part to American Frank Shorter’s Olympic Marathon victory in 1972. Today, says Running USA, American running is booming again, bigger than ever. But they’re not calling the race.

“Even though we’ve had incredible growth, I keep this in mind,” says Lamppa. “In 2102, there were more than 14 million finishers, which means there were fewer individuals. There are more than 310 million Americans. We have plenty of room to grow.”

Photo courtesy of Mad Marathon
With all of this rampant growth, you might expect some less-than-satisfactory races cropping up, particularly with some of the non-traditional and wildly poplar new races, but Lamppa says all signs point toward success.

“If any series has a problem with logistics, our industry will find out in a big hurry, especially with social media,” says Lamppa. “If there’s a major problem with registration, course setup, safety, anything, people will talk. And they will turn and run. We haven’t heard anything like that. What logic tells us is that these new events have taken their cue from road races and they’ve done their homework.”

Safety, says Lamppa, is the industry’s biggest challenge. Race directors and industry leadership have been increasing the focus on security ever since 9/11, but the recent Boston Marathon bombings redoubled that effort.

“Any open-air event—road race country fair, you name it—you need security but you don’t want to have too much security,” explains Lamppa. “You have to have a plan making the race as safe as possible while also maintaining the flavor of the event. It’s a big challenge.”

Road Rules

Race directors and community organizers are the eyes, ears and hands of all of these rapidly growing road races across the country, and who better to provide some practical advice on how to create and operate a successful race?

Know Your Purpose

“Develop a mission statement and business plan for your race, just like a business, and be true to it,” says Trudy Merritt, race director for Nebraska’s Platte River Fitness Series.

The mission of the Platte River Fitness Series was, from the start, a healthy community. The series is a fitness initiative made possible by several public/private partnerships between the North Platte Recreation Department and a variety of local businesses, civic organizations and communities.

Photo courtesy of Visit North Platte
Support the Community

Although planning for an event that serves approximately 25,000 runners and an estimated 75,000 spectators, the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon planners make a concerted effort to use only products and services from within their state.

“It’s very important to us to support Oklahoma businesses, so we work very hard to buy everything we need for the marathon within our own state,” says Stacey Weddington, Development Director, Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum.

Remember the Research

When growing an annual community road race, experienced event organizers know that doing your research is key. One of the most critical steps is the post-race survey.

“We always seek feedback from our participants and the community,” says Debby Guertin, sports and services manager, Experience Kissimmee (Florida). “One of the things we learned is that participants really want a new medal each year. People collect these things, and it’s important to give them every reason possible to come back.”

Guertin and her team at Experience Kissimmee plan and assist with a variety of races each year, but the Shingle Creek Adventure Challenge, a bike/paddle/run triathlon is their own baby. A relay race open to teams of two to four participants, the Shingle Creek Adventure Challenge celebrated its fourth year this April, as well as (thanks for research) a ramped-up course length and a single kayak division.

Photo courtesy of Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum
Vary Your Race Lengths

“It’s a huge commitment, but it’s worth it,” says Dori Ingalls, creator and race director of Vermont’s Mad Marathon. “We wanted to create a unique experience and include families, so we started with the marathon and added a half marathon, then a relay. We also added a mountain bike course and a kids’ run. People come to fish, kayak, bike. It’s become this amazing outdoors experience.”

From its inaugural year, the Mad Marathon drew surprisingly large numbers, and the weekend of events grows each year.

Establish a Strong Team

“After 40 years, there is definitely a system in place that makes things run smoothly,” says Denise Jackson, sports sales manager at Discover Lynchburg, home of the Virginia 10 Miler, a race that has been drawing thousands of runners for decades. “There is also a great team, which is important because there are always challenges you don’t expect, like skunk removal. There’s a team that patrols the course the night before and again a few hours before to make sure that the course is clear of debris, which sometimes includes dead animals.”

Connect with Local Officials

“As an association with strong ties to our local running community, city officials, and the hospitality industry at large, we’re able to streamline the planning process, providing the right connections and resources to reduce the time and legwork involved in organizing a running event,” says Lisa Lawton, director of community relations, Travel Lane County (Oregon).

Many CVBs and sports commissions act as connectors, ensuring that race directors have easy access to the necessary city and county departments.

“When we have contact with someone who is interested in establishing a race, we find out the logistics and get a map, and then we help facilitate getting that map to the right departments,” says Lori Nunnery, executive director, Convention and Visitors Bureau of Jackson, Tennessee “Safety is our focus, and everyone makes sure that our races are safe from all perspectives.”

Communicate with the Community

When you’re planning an event that you’re hoping to establish or grow as a community tradition, community buy-in is indispensible.

“Our largest event is the Amgen Tour of California time trial stage, which requires a lot of coordination and road closures that last up to six hours,” says Laura Kath, media relations director, Solvang Conference & Visitors Bureau. Fortunately, Solvang’s citizens are accustomed to traffic diversions – and they like a good celebration.

Beyond informational communication, some destinations also reach out to their communities in other ways, with the goal of building race participation and support.

“When races come in and roads close, there’s definitely some inconvenience, so we appreciate events that involve the community,” says Amanda Smith Rasnick, group sales manager for Ohio’s Lake Erie Shores & Islands Welcome Center. Lake Erie Shores and Islands is home to the Revolution3 triathlon, which is adding a glow fun run and a movie and popcorn night to the festivities this year.

Make it a Celebration

Above all, make sure everyone has a good time. In Rock Hill/York County, South Carolina, they welcome participants with Southern style.

“We like to offer hospitality events that make everyone want to stay and come back. They also give our events a special Southern flavor,” says J. Auvis Cole, sports sales manager, Rock Hill/York County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “For our next hospitality tent, we’re considering roasting up a couple of pigs. That’s a welcome people don’t forget.” 


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