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Planning a race: race directors share challenges, logistics, and why they do what they do

Race directors share what goes into planning a race.Much like training to run a race, putting a race on successfully requires months of preparation, dedication, and hard work. And with the past decade’s running boom, race directors now contend with some pretty fierce competition.

BJ Williams of Massachusetts – who organizes the annual The BJ Williams Road Race and the Annual 10K Hilltop Road Race – said getting your race out there and gathering sponsorship is one of the biggest obstacles race directors face today.

“Eight years ago, when I hosted my first event, there were very little 5K road races being hosted. Sponsorship at that time was very easy to receive from local companies and donors,” Williams said. “But over the past [couple of years] it has been a battle to market and gather runners against more and more 5K events, along with other events such as triathlons, Tough Mudders, and obstacle races.”

Beyond the marketing and financing of a race, Mike St. Laurent of LOCO Sports in New Hampshire – who has been organizing races since 2004 – said directors also need to think about the “what ifs” – from extreme weather to road closures to random shenanigans.

“You can plan all you want but when race day comes, you hope for good weather and that drivers will be courteous on the roads, that the police car will go the right way, that nobody moved our course signs – or stole the water stop stuff,” he said.

And then there’s the paperwork.

Most races require approval and meetings with local boards, police departments, and other agencies and committees. If it sounds like a lot, it can be – especially if your race is a big, multi-community event. For example, St. Laurent’s Smuttynose Rocktoberfest Half Marathon attracts more than 4,000 runners and has a full beer garden and live band at the finish. It is a huge event with multiple moving parts – and lots of people to contact and work with.

“For our biggest race, there are two towns, the state DOT, the state parks department, the police, medical, fire, and public works,” St. Laurent said.

So yes, race planning is hard and complicated – but what helps?

In a word: Volunteers.

“Year after year, I continually remember how much the volunteers make the event a success,” Williams said.

St. Laurent agreed and added that a town’s running group is also crucial to a race’s success.

“Many of our [running] groups have done dozens of races and we count on them heavily to show up, have fun, and do what we asked,” he said.

In addition to the logistics of the event, there’s also the race route itself directors need to consider. If you’ve ever been in a race and wondered, “Why are they sending us down/up here?” – there’s probably a good reason.

“If the roads will have active traffic then the width of the road is very important.” Williams said. “The … most important thing to think of is where the start and finish will be. [There needs to be] enough parking for cars, handicap accessibility, electricity, and bathroom facilities.”

When St. Laurent plans a route, he puts on his runner’s hat.

“It’s a matter of looking for nice roads I would like to run on. Ones which are raceable, no tight corners, no steep hills,” he said. “Also, going by parks, ponds, open space, and historic buildings is always a plus.”

Both St. Laurent and Williams have been directing races for years, and a lot has changed in the last couple of decades. Half marathons have skyrocketed in popularity, the sheer number of races in general has increased – and the demographic of the race runner has changed, with more women and “average Joes” participating.

“There are the 10 percent that race seriously, but most people are there to run and have fun with friends,” St. Laurent said.

This has changed event dynamics.

“[It] used to be races had basic paper bibs, only men’s cotton shirts, and bagels and bananas or orange slices at the end,”St. Laurent said. “Now there’s an announcer that can get your name as you finish; fancy finish chutes; all types of foods, themes, and tag timing; tech shirts; online registration.”

But all of these changes haven’t affected the core missions of many race directors.

“Races are a great way to get more people running, fit and healthy, and … turn them into role models in our society,” St. Laurent said. “I think giving back to the running community by providing safe, fun races is a dream come true for me.”

Williams said he hosts races for two reasons: (1) To motivate people to achieve their goal of crossing a finish line, and (2) To help people remain – or became – active and healthy.

“I put all my heart and soul into every race for everyone to enjoy, and [I] take something positive away from each event I host.”

Written by Rob Haneisen.

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