Mistakes of the Rookie Race Director

July 24, 2013

I love the show Restaurant Impossible on the Food Network. If you’ve never seen the show, the premise is that a failing restaurant calls in Chef Robert Irvine, who has two days and $10,000 to attempt to turn the restaurant around. When Chef Robert first heads into the restaurant, most of the problems that he spots right away are consistent throughout each episode, things like not cleaning the ice maker, not having tables numbered or not understanding basic finance.

I’ve been running races since I was 14 years old and timing races since 2009, thus I have literally been to hundreds of races from small 5Ks to the BolderBoulder. Just like in Restaurant Impossible, there are certain mistakes that are common amongst races. Now I titled this post “Mistakes of the Rookie Race Director” but these types of mistakes happen to races of all shapes and sizes.

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Inaccurate Course

I grew up in rural Illinois and Iowa, where we had maybe one to two races per weekend and we’d have to drive within a 60 mile radius to race. Thinking back, I rarely remember running a course that was overly short or long. These races were put on by old school runners, sure they probably measured the course in their 1990 Cutlass Ciera, and while that might not have been USATF certified, it was close enough. The inaccurate race course is more rampant in 2013 than in 1996.

I’ve run and timed numerous races that were +/- a tenth of a mile off. The difference is that  10-20 years ago, races were put on by runners, now they are often put on by non-profits, people who don’t run and have never been to a race. Now that’s fine, but if you want to raise money for your charity/non-profit you also have to be respectful to the guy who pays $30 to run your 5K, but does not care about the cause or charity. It’s even more important if you want your race to grow, your reputation is on the line.

If you put on a race, I’d guess that at least 10% of the runners will have a Garmin (gps watch), thus they will know if the course is short or long. You’ll also have serious runners, who can simply tell by their time if the course is short or long. I wrote an entire post about this, it’s my pet peeve so get it right. It’s 2013 and it’s easier than ever to have an accurate course. The other side of the coin is if you utilize a USATF certified course, know the course inside and out, even the Denver Marathon (2010) and the Colfax Half Marathon (2013) marked their certified courses incorrectly, just because the course you are using is certified doesn’t mean that you will lay it out correctly.

Data Management

The next one is behind the scenes, it’s what runners never see, but what I deal with daily as a timer. When it comes to timing, the results are only as good as the data coming in. Thus, the more the system is automated (online registration) the better the data will be, a lot of the data will have to be hand entered by the race director and the race timer, but the goal is to keep this minimal. If a birthdate gets entered incorrectly, or someone’s gender, it can impact awards.

Lastly, there are numerous online registration sites that race directors can use for their race. Almost all of them utilize the same business model, they charge the runners a transaction fee and the service is free to the race director. Often races use an in-house registration system or they use a registration system like Kintera or Eventbrite, that are not used explicitly for races and you have to create the fields.

I need more than two hands to count the number of races that I have timed that have used a non-running online registration sites and they forgot to ask gender or birthdate. Huge headache.

Logistics

If you can have the start and finish in the same spot, do it. I know it’s not always possible but it makes things easier on everyone, including the timer. I laugh thinking of The Office episode “Fun Run” when Michael starts the 5K and ends it 3.1 miles away from the office. I’ve never had anything that bad, but I’ve had a few that were close.

You can also help your timer out by having the start/finish line marked on race morning, before they arrive.

Start the race on time and if it’s in the dog days of summer, 9am is the latest you should ever start a race, shoot for 8am.

Awards

Be respectful of runners time, especially faster runners who finish the race often times an hour before the awards presentation. If it’s a 5K, have awards about an hour to 1:10 after the race. When you get the awards posting from the timer, get to it, it’s not the time to talk for 10-15 minutes about the cause or organization. I understand that many races are for a charity, but if you want to grow the event, you need to attract runners and by putting on a professional event, that’s what makes runners come back to your race.

At a minimum, get a decent prize for the overall male/female winners. Generally you can ask a running store and they will be happy to donate a gift card.

Pre-Packet Pickup

A few years ago, only the large races had a pre-packet pickup. Now, I’d guess that 80%+ of races have pre-packet pickups, including races with ~100 registered runners.

The problem has been exasperated by the running stores, who want to use your race to lure in customers. However, a pre-packet pickup is not always necessary. It requires finding volunteers to work the event and it generally creates a few extra steps within the data management, that can result in errors.

Just because the BolderBoulder does it, doesn’t mean it’s the right call for your race.

Random Advice

* Don’t put the year on your race t-shirt, it’s not needed and if you have extras you have the option of using them next year or giving them away for marketing.

* The more colors on your t-shirt, the more expensive it will be to make.

* Read up on marketing and get out their and market your race. Even simple stuff, like if you are giving a discount and the price is under $100.00, use a percentage and not a dollar amount. Customers perceive 10% off $50.00 to be a better deal than simply $5.00 off.

* Be careful of offering up multiple distances in one race, unless you’re an experienced race director, I’d wait a few years and learn how to put on one event flawlessly.

* One thing runners will call you out on, not having enough port-o-lets and not having at least something other than water at the finish.

* I hate “dailydeal” sites, especially when it comes to races. Instead of having a middleman cut into your profits, offer up a steep discount  and have RunColo advertise the discount for you. Understand your customers, generally deal seekers are looking for a deal and will not return to your event.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Should I Put on a Race?

May 24, 2012

Start of the Mother's Day 5K

Start of the Mother's Day 5K

 

One of the questions that I get asked the most from race directors is when should I have my race. I always respond with an answer the does little to answer the actual question, “it depends.”

Most race directors decide to hold their race in a time of year where the weather is optimal. The popular months for races are May/June and September/October. The logic goes that since the weather is pleasant for the workers and the runners, it’s the ideal time to host a race. You don’t have to deal with the extreme cold of January or the heat of July.

The negative externality of hosting a race in the prime running months of the year is the pure number of competing races that you the race director will have to compete against. Just a few weeks ago, Mother’s Day weekend had a high number of races and I counted 14 races from Ft. Collins to Colorado Springs that weekend, the competition was stiff and that’s not even counting the races that were held in the mountains.

My experience is that race directors are scared to host a run in the winter months. However, I can tell you that working a race in cold weather is a lot harder than running a race in cold weather.  It’s true, the weather can make or break you, it can be snowing and cold and it will impact your numbers negatively, however it can also be 50 degrees in Colorado on a January morning and you’ll get a lot of last minute registrations. It’s a roll of the die, pick your poison, put you race on in the winter where you might compete against one or two other races or in the spring/fall when the competition is stiff.  Lastly, if you have access to an indoor facility for your race, say a school or a business building, that helps out in hosting a cold weather race as it allows your runners/walkers a place to warm up before and after the race.

The next decision to make is Saturday or Sunday. In Denver and Boulder races are split rather evenly between the two days, however in Colorado Springs races are rarely held on Sunday.  When deciding on Saturday or Sunday, look at your target audience. Saturdays are harder for families with kids, as parents often have obligations with children’s sports on Saturday. Sundays are problematic for church goers. What group will make up the bulk of your participants?

Also, don’t rule out week night races, especially in the summer. The Drop Your Drawers and Run 5K is held on a Friday evening at Denver’s City Park and attracts close to 1k runners/walkers.  Races on the week nights are different, fun and low on competition.

Creating a Race Website

April 25, 2012

Start of the 2012 Mile High Mile

 

It’s 2012 and I think it’s safe to say the Internet is here to stay. That means if you are a race director, your race should have a website. However, I am continually surprised at how many races do not have a simple website in the year 2012 Anno Domini. I can tell you that any race that I am contemplating, I first check out their website and if they do not have a website, I would say that the odds of me not running that race increase significantly. My thought process assumes if they couldn’t spend the time to put together an informative website, the race will most likely be sub-par. It’s a generalization, but one that I have found to prove true.

A good race website does not need to be fancy, you can leave out the flash, KISS. The first decision that the race director needs to be make is whether or not to try to design their own website or pay someone else to design a website for them. Regardless you will need to decide on a content management system (CMS) that is easy to use, if you pay someone to design your website you don’t want to be dependent on them to edit the site. I personally am a big fan of WordPress, it’s free, flexible, powerful and there are vast amount of resources and templates available on the web.

When putting together your race website, here are some things to include:

Home Page

This is your landing page and it needs to make a great first impression on the visitor. Keep it clean, simple and to the point. Make sure you include what time the race starts, location, who the race benefits and how they can register for your race. Also include a link to the online registration page. However, keep the information to a minimum and have pages set up as to not overwhelm the visitor.

Schedule of Events

Outline when registration and pre-registration open up, when they close and what time the race starts, if there is a kids’ run, let the parents know the start time and if they need to register their children.  Let runners know what age groups will be awarded, prizes and if there will be a raffle. Sell the race.

Race Route

Describe the race course in detail, note if the course is USATF certified and include a course map. Let runners know how many aid stations are on the course, if it’s a longer race will Gatorade and gels be provided. Let runners know if the course is run on roads, bike path,trail or dirt path.

Registration

Link to the online registration site and try to get as many people to register online as possible, to help control data integrity. If you are offering paper registration, link to the form. Outline your pricing, early entry fees, late entry, race day entry fees, etc. If you are offering onsite registration or at an offsite location such as a running store, spell out the details. Discuss race day registration, forms of payment that will be taken and what time registration will close on race day.

Results & Photos

Make results, both past and future easy to find. Link up to all of the old race results, note the course record holders and at the top put a link to where the most recent race results will be posted. Have your upcoming results link on your website a few days prior to the race, so that once the timer post results that link will be live. You can also use this page to link up to any photos from race photographers.

Contact

Establish a contact form, runners will have questions and you will want to be able to address their questions.  I can tell you some FAQs will be can I run with a stroller and a dog, so address those questions on a seperate page to eliminate the possible question.

Putting together a great website, requires tinkering. If you get runners asking the same question over and over, be smart, address it on your website. I also am a proponent of establishing a blog and Facebook/Twitter page to continually communicate with your customers. This is your opportunity to brag about your race, recognize sponsors, show off your race t-shirt in advance, raffle prizes and give a shout out to any elite runners who might be running the race. After the race post photos and get people excited for the following year.

 

 

 

Accept Credit Cards on Race Day

March 22, 2012

Photo Credit (Commons) to shawnzrossi at Flickr

 

I was wrong.

I’ve been to a few local races where they took credit cards as a form of pavement and always wondered, why were they were so accommodating?  I assumed that no one showed up to a race without cash or a check and that when a race accepted credit cards that they were simply letting runners who would have otherwise paid with check or cash an alternative payment method.  Plus accepting credit cards means the recepient has to pay a fee, which in turn reduces profits.

At the Golden Gallop last year I decided to not take credit cards.  I figured if someone showed up on race morning without cash that we would let them run the race and that we would email them after the race to ask them to send in a check and we also wrote down their credit card number as a backup.  The race had about 90 race day registrations and about 12 people showed up without cash or check and were expecting pay with a credit card, that’s a lot higher percentage than I would have guessed.

After the race I sent an email out to the 12 runners and politely asked if they could send in a check to cover their race registration fee.  I received six checks based off that initial email, so I decided to send out a secondary email combined with a phone call to ask for payment and three more runners paid their bill.  Thus, I was left with three runners who would not respond to email or messages left on their phone.  Race day registration was $40, thus the race was looking to lose $120 from these three people who would not pay.

I tried a third email and phone call, to no avail, I was too trusting of my fellow runners.  Eventually we worked with our online registration company to process their credit cards for their race day entry fees and that was the end of the story.  I thought I was simplifying things by not taking credit cards, but in reality I wasted a ton of time trying to collect payment and it was frustrating.

Race directors are now in luck, thanks to products such as Squareup and PayPal the process of accepting credit cards is now easier than ever.  The I Run Colorado 5K was the first race that I had seen use that technology to handle race day registrations and it worked remarkable well.  Since then I have signed up for a Squareup account and found it to be beneficial.  I highly recommend that more race directors move to accepting credit cards via this method on race day.

Race Directors – KISS

February 22, 2012

 

 

Apple CEO Tim Cook in a recent earning call stated that at Apple “We believe in simple, not the complex.”

I’m a firm believer in Kelly Johnson’s KISS principle. KISS is an acronym for Keep it simple, Stupid!

Having timed, spectated and run, literally hundreds of races over the past few years, I am amazed at how complex some race directors make their races. Here is my KISS advice to race directors.

Multiple Events – The logic for most race directors is that the more events that I offer, the more runners that I can attract to my event.

This is partially true, what is also true is the more events that you put on the greater the chance you have of screwing up.  If you’re a first time race director and you’re contemplating putting on a 5K and a 10K, my advice is learn to put on a great 5K before you add the 10K, KISS.

When putting on multiple events you open yourself up to problems. Runners will sign up for one event and run in another, which can impact results. You have to manage multiple courses and make sure that runners stay on the correct course. Those are just a few examples.

Walk Division – The logic usually goes like this, not everyone will run the race, so lets have a walk division and award prizes.  The walk division is a huge headache.

When your race features a walk division, inevitable you get a few serious race walkers and hundreds of other people who see the box “run or walk” and check walk since they will be walking most of the race.  The race starts and a few of these “walkers” run the first mile and walk the rest and win the race. Then you have the serious race walker coming in 4th or 5th and gripping that the “walkers” in front of him didn’t walk, they ran part of the race.

KISS, it’s a headache and a fight that’s not worth.

If you want to truly put on a race walk, then you have to hire USATF judges who stand out on the race course and judge whether or not the race walkers are truly race walking. This is an added cost, but it’s about the only way to properly put on a race walk.  Wait, you thought the drama ended with the USATF judges, nope. I’ve worked several races where race walkers were disqualified by the judges and then the race walkers delayed results and argued with the race director and myself that they should not have been disqualified.  This is one of those instances where a few people make it such a big headache, that I say scrap the walk division and just put everyone in the same division.

Teams – Races with team divisions can be a lot of fun, but once again if you’re new to race directing -KISS.

The problem with teams is you have to be meticulous with the parameters that you set up and state prior to the race how the team event will be scored.  You need to establish the maximum number on each team, the minimum number, are you going to have male teams, female teams, co-ed teams and if you have co-ed teams how many women does each team need to have and how many will score.  When you establish that team category, everything has to be thought out carefully before you start taking registrations; otherwise you will run into problems.

In conclusion, if you’re goal is to put on a 5K that grows, my KISS advice is to put on a simple 5K but do it well. Multiple events, walk divisions, and teams are one way for you to grow your numbers but you have to decide if the juice is worth the squeeze.

 

 

Properly Managing Your Race Course

January 19, 2012

 

 

I ran two 5Ks in 2010 that were close to a tenth of a mile to short, is measuring a race course really that difficult? If you advertise your race as being five kilometers, make it 3.1 miles.

First let’s talk about measuring the race course, if you’re using a race course that has already been USATF certified such as Denver’s City Park or Washington Park then your job is a bit easier. However, just because a course is USATF certified doesn’t mean that the course you laid out is the exact distance, this is what happened at the Denver Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in 2009. The course was measured properly but not laid out correctly.

If you’re tinkering around with a race course, your best bet is to us either www.mapmyrun.com or Google Map Pedometer. This is a great place to start and you can outline the course that you want to utilize. Once you have the course in mind you might want to consider having your course USATF certified, in that case you’ll have to pay someone.

If you don’t want to pay to have your course certified, then you’re going to have to measure it yourself. Now before you get in your Honda Civic and reset that odometer, let’s look at a few other options. The easiest way to measure the course and to reach “close enough” proximity would be to use a GPS running watch, which are generally within 1-3% accuracy and my experience is that they are almost always longer than a certified course. If you don’t have a GPS device find a runner who has one and ask to borrow it, in my book that’s the minimum that you have to do for measuring a course. Don’t simply use www.mapmyrun.com or your cars odometer.

Once you have the course measured, now comes the important part, marking the course. I always tell race directors that I work with that you have to dummy proof the race course. What looks obvious to you does not look obvious to someone who is racing with their heart beating at close to maximum capacity.

Course Marking 101 Tips:

• If your race course is USATF certified, know your map. Don’t wait until race morning to look at it for the first time.
• Know your race course. Even if your race is at City Park or Wash. Park go out to the course a week or two before the race and run/walk the course. Make sure there are no potentially dangerous obstacles or things that will impact the distance such as new construction. Also take this time to know exactly where the mile markers should be placed so that you can place them properly on race morning.
• Mile markers – have them and make sure they are placed properly.
• Use arrows and pylon cones to designate turns and decision points. Use chalk or spray paint (not on roads) when you can.
• Place course marshals at key decision points and where traffic control is needed.
• If you’re the race director, it’s pretty difficult to setup the course on race morning. Do NOT rely on volunteers to setup the course unless you can 100% trust them to show up and to preview the course before the race. Another option is to pay someone to set the course up for you, it’s too important to mess up. Volunteers have good intentions but they are not the most reliable as they have no skin in the game.
• Have someone who knows the race course lead the runners on a bicycle. If you can spare another cyclist, have them lead the top female runner. By simply keeping the lead runner on course you can greatly reduce the likelihood of other runners going of course.
• Just because the police offered to have a lead vehicle, that does not mean they properly know the course. I know of many races where the lead police officer on a motorcycle took all of the runners of course. Once again, have someone on a lead bike who knows the course.
• Properly mark the start and finish area.

What You Should Know About Race Logos

December 21, 2011

Clean, Simply, Stylish - Great Logo

 

I’m going to let you in on a secret.  At RunColo we send out a monthly e-blast where upcoming races can advertise their event.  I’ve gotten good, really good at being able to pick out which races will have the most click rates.  You might think its name recognition or the description of the event, yes those things help, but the number one factor is the logo design.  Does the logo capture the reader’s attention, if it does that generates a click.  If you create a flyer or a postcard for your race and place it in a local running store the same logic applies, your race flyer will be sitting there competing with all of the other races, will the customer pick up your flyer?

It’s common for races to cut cost when creating a race logo. They hire a friend to design a logo or they simply grab a photo off the Internet or even worse from Clip Art.  Spend a hundred or two hundred dollars and get a logo that is professionally done.  The ROI is positive.

As they say on Madison Avenue, “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.”  When I see a weak logo, my first thought is that if they don’t care about their logo how much are they going to care about their race?  Yes, I am generalizing, but that’s what people do.

Another pet peeve of mine is a lot of races that benefit children will have a contest where the children get a chance to design a logo and the winner is  used for marketing and for the race t-shirt.  I’m not a fan of cute; I’m a fan of professionalism.  Everyone loves art work from their kids or kids that they know, but I’m not interested in having a crayon drawn logo on a race shirt and I can assure you that those shirts go straight to Goodwill.  If it’s one of my own kids, I make an exception.

Most races look at the race t-shirt as an obligation.  They buy the cheapest cotton t-shirt they can find and slap a generic logo on there.  Look at the race t-shirt as future advertising, advertising for next year’s race.  Why spend $4-$6 on a shirt that no one wants, instead put some effort into the logo so that people will wear that shirt and your race will be exposed to future runners.

If you’re a race director get that permit and then start working on the logo, it’s money well spent.

 

Simplifying Packet Pickup on Race Day

December 6, 2011

Registration Table at Fans on the Field 2011

Registration Table at Fans on the Field 2011

Anyone who has run a race has incurred the agony of showing up on race morning and getting in line to pick up your bib and chip and wondering why the pre-registration lines are so unevenly distributed.  You’re in a line with 20 other runners and you look over at the S-Z table and notice the volunteer running the table on their iPhone with not a runner in sight.  Why does this always happen?

Before becoming a full time race timer, I was a business analyst and one thing that I loathe are bottlenecks.  You don’t need a black belt in Six Sigma to reduce congestion on race day but you will have to do some basic math.

One simple rule of data analysis is to look at the data before you make a decision.  However a lot of race directors make the mistake of breaking out the registration tables by the alphabet and not by how the runners who have registered fall within the alphabet.

Here is the alpha breakout from the 2000 census, first letter of the last name:

US Census Alpha Breakout by Last Name

 

If a race director broke out the pre-registration table into halves, the above chart shows the participant distribution. Using data from the 2000 census this would create a scenario where 63% of the race day participants are going to the A-M table and the other 37% are going to the N-Z table.

What we recommend is analyzing your pre-registration information and assigning the breakouts according to the actual percentages. Utilizing the census data we would look at the breakout and find the point that allows us to most evenly distribute the participants over two tables. The larger the race the more tables and breaks you’ll want to create.

 

Alpha Breakout by Actual Percentages of Last Name


A lot of people with the last name beginning in M!  Thus by creating alpha breaks of A-L and M-Z, we were able to distribute the breakout to 52%/48%, which will help alleviate bottlenecks on race day and create a smoother race day experience for the racers and volunteers.

This is a basic example, but carry this logic forward if you’re breaking your pre-registration tables into thirds, fourths, etc.  Don’t rely on the census date, look at your data before assigning the alpha breakouts.

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