No matter what the size of the event, when it’s contained in an arena or park, it’s easier to manage. But some events are different. Some events take over the whole town: they shut down the streets and pour thousands of athletes, spectators and support crew into the heart of the community. Whether you’re planning a running road race, a cycling event or—the triple-crown of logistical tests—a triathlon, every road race requires a special level of cooperation, communication and planning. From launching your first race to figuring out how to grow your long-term event gracefully, it never hurts to get a little advice from those who’ve been there before.
For racers, success is all about numbers: mile splits, finish times and calories burned. But for the race organizer, the numbers game is just as critical. Knowing the capacity of your venue and planning for the number of participants on race day are crucial to ensuring the long-term success of any road event.
“Every race is different, and you need to prepare for your event primarily on the scale of what you’re expecting, in terms of numbers,” says Peter Douglass, president and CEO of Turnkey Operations. “A race can become a complete disaster when you don’t pay attention to scale and organizers aren’t prepared to service the number of competitors they have.”
Douglass knows what he’s talking about. As a founding partner of Elite Racing Inc. (purchased in 2008 by the Competitor Group), Douglass has helped design and execute some of America’s most notable races, including the Carlsbad 5000 and the Rock n’ Roll marathon series. Today, he’s launching a new event, the 10/20 series, which offers a unique distance—the 10-mile race—along with 20 bands along the course. It’s a logistical feat, but that’s the sort of challenge Douglass and his team are well-prepared to handle. And his first rule of thumb is know your limits.
From parking to post-race food, underestimating your participants is a sure road to race calamity. Stories of athletes unable to find parking or get on a shuttle to the race start, rumors about racers who crossed the finish line only to find no medals, no post-race snacks and even no water: these missteps can be event-killers. But for a first-time race, anticipating numbers can be a trick all its own.
Heather Hellman, a partner in Get Off the Couch Potato Sports Productions, LLC and organizer of the San Luis Obispo’s marathon, which debuted in April 2102, explains how her team managed that magic: “We studied a few other smaller races and their first-year numbers to try to get a good idea of what we might expect. We we're quite surprised and delighted that we hit our estimated numbers in early January and actually added more spots to the race. We then had to estimate again. I think we did a pretty good job, but we did sell out three weeks prior to the race.”
Hellman and her team managed more than the numbers game. Active.com named the race a top Boston Qualifier, giving registration a big boost just weeks ahead of race day. With that boost, the race reached capacity, and Hellman and her team followed the cardinal rule of numbers: rather than raising their registration cap, they kept their sellout a sellout. And that’s one reason they’ll be looking forward to a successful second event in 2013: numbers matter.
“Too many people make an event unmanageable,” says Douglass. “It’s a nice problem, coming up with such a popular idea that you can overwhelm the system with your numbers. But that’s where race planners really get nailed, having course without enough capacity, a cramped start/finish, running out of something like medals, shirts or water.”
Ron Ilgen, president of Pikes Peak Marathon Inc., agrees. “You’ve got to put yourself in the runners’ shoes. What would you expect if you were going to run this race? You can’t skimp on the basics. I recently ran a race that had ten porta-potties for two thousand people. It wasn’t good. Runners have been hydrating!”
Knowing your numbers also means having a contingency plan in place that will accommodate all your athletes, a situation Ilgen knows well. Ilgen directs the famed Pikes Peak Marathon as well as the Garden of the Gods 10K, the Summer Roundup Trail Run 12K and the Pikes Peak Ascent.
“You always have to have a contingency plan. In Boston this year, it was heat. For us it’s more snowstorms and lightning. I make sure we’re overstocked with big black plastic trash bags,” says Ilgen. “We used them one year when a blizzard suddenly hit. The aid station workers handed them out, and runners used them as ponchos.”
Contingency plans for things like weather are just one way that race organizers ensure their athletes’ safety, which, underscores Ilgen, is your most important responsibility.
“Safety is first and foremost,” says Ilgen. “You have to be able to get to your runners quickly, and you have to be prepared to help them or even remove them from the course if necessary.”
The longer the race will take, the more complicated safety issues can become. Take the Amica Ironman 70.3 in Providence, Rhode Island. The cycling portion requires 56 miles of roadway, and it’s the second leg of the race, after a 1.2-mile swim. That means that even with an early race start, a large portion of roadway and local traffic is going to be impacted during prime driving hours. This is where cooperation between race directors, city officials and local police or a traffic management service is absolutely critical.
“After the beach swim, there’s a single-loop course for the cycling: 56 miles of street. That’s almost half the state in Rhode Island,” jokes John Gibbons, executive director, Rhode Island Sports Commission. “The Amica Ironman 70.3 runs on what we call a rolling course. After the final cyclist passes each checkpoint, they clear out and open the road. So there have to be police at major intersections and a staff that is well-trained to look out for the athletes’ safety.”
Rhode Island might be smaller than any other U.S. state by land area, but they’ve mastered the ability to use nearly all of that land area for sports. In addition to the Amica Ironman 70.3, Rhode Island is home to a number of races: Cox Rhode Races, the Ironman, the Newport Bridge Run and the Rock n’ Roll Half Marathon.
Related to safety and a key part of the total race experience is communication.
“I can’t say it enough. Communicate with the runner, early and often,” says Ilgen.
A P.A. system or even a bullhorn at the race is another key consideration. It not only adds a certain amount of excitement when racers hear race stats or even their names announced, but in some cases, it can even affect the race start. “I ran a race recently where we were standing at the start line, and all of the sudden, the gun went off,” says Ilgen. “You have to let people know what to expect and when to expect it.”
Choosing your race route is one of the first critical decisions a race planner will make, and it’s not usually a decision you can make alone. Finding a race route is just one step in a long process, one that involves getting the proper permits and then altering all the impacted organizations and individuals along the race route. And for that, the best thing a race organizer can have is an experience advocate.
Sue Harshbarger is the supreme race advocate in Lane County, Oregon. “My job is to be a facilitator. I get race planners to all the right people and explain the systems. Our city has a program whereby planners can submit a request for an event, which then kicks a procedure in motion for appointments to meet with all the governing agencies along the route: risk management; police; city, county and even state officials, depending on which roads the route will use. Starting the process in plenty of time is crucial. No matter when a race takes place, it’s never too early to get in touch with me. I can help. ”
Harshbarger now has experience on both sides of the course, having just completed the Eugene half marathon. " Now that I’m 60, I decided I should do these at least once a year as my exercise program, and it was a great learning experience. As a volunteer, I never realized how many of us there were. I also had no idea what challenges the athletes go through until I was on that side. They always look like it’s going so well!”
Logistical concerns are always paramount, but race planners also have to take aesthetics into consideration. “The first year, the Crossroads Marathon basically ran down a highway halfway, then turned around and came back. It was a fast race, but I don’t think it was very exciting,” says Jeff Meyers, sports sales specialist, Odessa Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Today it winds through neighborhoods, in and out of town, and it finishes in our football stadium, the one from the movie, ‘Friday Night Lights.’ It’s an exciting finish.”
Some race planners use a classic strategy to create a stunning race course: pick a waterside destination. In Virginia Beach, organizers also find a convention and visitors bureau with a fine-tuned road race planning system already in place, as well as a director of sports marketing with serious race experience of his own.
“What we help with most is coordination between race planners and city organizations,” says Buddy Wheeler, director of sports marketing, Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau (and Ironman athlete). “Because we’re a resort, we have a department called resort management, and that’s where the permitting process starts. It offers a logistical starting point and a single point of contact.”
But the most picturesque races aren’t always coastal. “One of the biggest races we host is the Rev 3 triathlon, in its third year this year,” says Amanda Smith Rasnick, group sales coordinator, Lake Erie Shores & Islands Welcome Center. “It begins and ends at Cedar Point Amusement Park and rides through surrounding counties. Lake Erie gives athletes a beautiful background, as well as a challenging place to swim.”
The Bottom Line
Beyond location scouting and permitting, choosing logistics partners and local club partners, when all is said and done, road races that become huge successes are the ones that put participants first. Every race has to work within budget restraints, but delivering on promises to your athletes is crucial.
The Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon and miniMarathon (half-marathon) shows how a participant-focused race can become a celebrated tradition. The miniMarathon raced for the 38th year in 2012, while the newer marathon celebrated its 10th anniversary. The race, part of the pre-Derby festival that attracts more than 1.5 million people to Louisville each year, draws athletes from more than 50 states and several foreign countries for its famous jaunt through Churchill Downs, and—the most frequent comment by racers—its plentiful supply of porta-potties and extremely friendly atmosphere. Over 13,000 runners participate in the miniMarathon, ranked among the nation's top 50 races by USA Track and Field.
So what’s the bottom line? Plan to give your athletes the kind of experience you would want.
“The biggest mistake race organizers make is to go cheap on runner amenities: maybe there aren’t enough shirts or not enough food or restroom facilities,” says Ilgen. “If you’re hoping to make your a race a tradition, quality is important. Why would racers come back if they have a bad experience?”