The Making Of A Race Director

So you had a rare, bad race experience:  you took a wrong turn late in a 5K, and by the time you got to the finish line, the post-race food was down to leftover pretzel salt and sliced white bread, and you picked up your extra-large race shirt that didn’t fit. But really, how hard can it be to manage a race? You’ve participated in so many races you could probably go out and slap one together this weekend, right? Well, let’s turn the tables and actually consider going from runner to race director. It’s a big step, but one that more veteran runners should consider.

First, let’s take a quick breath and call up our devil’s advocate. While you may be your own boss in theory, a 500-participant race actually has 501 bosses.  It’s like a huge corporate board where the race director has the final vote, but the other 500 members of the board can get together and bankrupt the company.

You need a role model. A mentor, of sorts. Someone to walk you to the race director ledge.  Someone to hold your hand while you gaze into the abyss. Kelly Krieger, seven-time race director of the 50 year-old Chuckanut Foot Race in Bellingham, Washington, looked over the ledge herself and then took the plunge.  Not only did she organize one race, she organized multiple races.  Then Krieger went a step further and started her own running event company, Hamster Endurance Running.

Are you wondering the same thing I’m wondering? The Chuckanut Foot Race is 50 years old?  Also, how exactly does Krieger manage to start races from scratch, and how can you follow in her footsteps?

The Making of an RD

“When I start a new event, I usually come up with an idea while I am out running, then spend a few weeks to a few months refining the concept,” said Krieger. Who hasn’t come up with a few ideas during a long run? Those can be slogging, solitary miles with plenty of brainstorming time. However, the next step is where most don’t follow through: making the idea solid.  Start simple – write it down in a notebook.  Make your idea literally solid in form. Make it real. Then look at the idea again a few days later.  Does it still sound good? Bounce the idea off friends and runners. “I’ll usually present it to my board of directors and see what they think,” said Krieger.

As a race director, you have to do your research. Check your fresh idea of a run against other races in the area.  Is it too similar to other races in the region? “It is very tough to stand out in an overcrowded race world,” said Krieger. “The market in Whatcom County is fairly saturated with events. I have tried to build events that will appeal to people who want to try something a little bit new and different, but this can be a tough sell the first few years.”

There’s nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned 5K, but the competition for such a basic race is brutal. If you don’t have a decent “hook” to draw participants, you’ll face an uphill climb.  Krieger seems to be a natural in that regard. “I don’t make any particular effort to create unusual races; that just happens.  The Northwest Run-Archery Classic was created from a personal interest in ski-rifle biathlon, and I wanted to create a local event that had similar components but could be performed without snow,” said Krieger.  “So I run this event like a biathlon – short running laps with target archery in between.  Participants have to control their heart rate after intense running to shoot well.  There is even a short penalty lap for missed shots. Run-Archery is actually a very popular sport in Russia and Germany.”

Getting Organized

OK, you’re sitting on an approved, original idea.  Now comes the planning.  Race directors everywhere can attest, while the race itself is over in one day, the preparations can take most of the entire year between races.  “Small races face many challenges,” said Krieger. “There are simply so many events out there now that sometimes choosing a weekend to hold an event is the biggest challenge.  And, behind the scenes, many participants do not realize that every single person who helps me is a volunteer.  It can take tremendous effort to gather enough volunteers for an event.”  Yes, as an RD, you’ll need to become a top-drawer salesperson.  Attracting volunteers is never easy.  Get ready to beg, plead, cajole, and bribe your way to interest enough volunteers to staff your race.

“Another challenge for a small race director is the cost of putting on an event,” said Krieger.  “I am a 501c3 organization, and all the proceeds from my events are donated to a particular non-profit.  In order to earn as much as possible for my recipient, I have to control the costs of each event.  Park fees, equipment, and swag can end up costing a great deal.” While going cheap on extras is an option for a race director, most races are taking the opposite approach these days.  Tech shirts, colorful medals, and instant results are expected.  In exchange, runners pay a bit more but the total profits stay about the same.

“The most difficult part of any event to control is the part you can’t see.  For most of my events, this is the course.  Marking courses, particularly complicated ones like the Run-Archery loops, is time consuming and challenging.  The last thing a race director wants is to have participants lost out on the course.” Indeed, whether in the city or on the trails, race directors have limited choices for race venues, and those limited choices can fill up fast with other events, including other running races.  Finally, there’s the dreaded, but crucial bureaucratic process.  “All events require a venue, so there is always a permitting process,” said Krieger. Plus, you’ll likely need to consider police, road signage, cleanup, and 100 other small tasks that fill a race director’s schedule.

Learning Experiences

“Some of these challenges are easier with a larger race, such as the Chuckanut Foot Race, which I was lucky enough to direct for the Greater Bellingham Running Club for seven years.  There is often a very large membership pool of ready and willing volunteers.  And, because of the history of the Chuckanut Foot Race, promoting the event each year is much, much easier.” If you’re serious about taking a turn as an RD, find an established race where you can apprentice, or co-direct, for a few years.  The lessons learned under a veteran RD will be priceless and the RD will appreciate the help.

“Race Directors are basically trying to host an event that pleases people.  We want everyone to have a good time and leave happy.  That being said, it is impossible to please everyone all of the time, said Krieger. “Sometimes I come up with a flop,” said Krieger.  “I tried the Hamster Fitness Games, which was short runs with some planks, push-ups, squats, and lunges in between.  It’s a workout that I enjoy doing a lot, and it reminded me of the Presidential Fitness Tests we all did in grade school.  I got so few sign ups the first year, I had to cancel the event, and have not repeated it.”

Long-standing races are almost always built slowly and steadily.  When starting out in the race director game, be patient. Give it time. Don’t quit if you have a dud race or two.  Think about what makes your favorite races work and emulate the things those races are doing right.

If all of this sounds like way too much work, that’s because it is. Directing a race is hard, serious work, and it’s not the only way to give back.  Register for a race, volunteer for a race, or co-direct a race. Any and all of these actions play a part in the success of the sport of running.  So does going out of your way after finishing a race to shake the hand of a RD and thank them for a job well done.

All that said, directing a race can be hugely rewarding, so if you’re feeling like you’ve done just about all you can in the sport of running, it might be time to step up and try on some race director shoes.