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The Other Side: What It’s Like to be a Race Director

Judging by the enormous rack my dad built me for all of my race medals, I’ve run somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 races. And while I’ve been able to carve out a little bit of time here and there to help and volunteer in the racing community, I had never truly felt like I got to see what I refer to as “the other side of the aid station table.” I always knew it had to take a lot more sweat to organize a race than it took to physically run in said race, and I finally got to get a small taste of what being a Race Director is like when I helped organized the 2018 ORRC Greenway Trail Trial 10k.

I say “a small taste” because organizing a race, even a small one, truly takes a village to make it a success.  I helped RD the Greenway Trail Trial with fellow bloggers Abby Meek and Kelly Barten and we had a tremendous amount of help from so many other people to make it happen. Kelly and Abby have been race directors before and I was fortunate to have them lead the way for me because it was truly a case of “not knowing what to know and not know,” if that makes any sense at all. I really had no idea what I had gotten myself into until I was knee deep in permits and route signs. Being an RD is a true labor of love, as you often don’t get paid anything but an earful of the good AND the bad on race day. If you are at all curious about what happens behind the curtain, here’s a recap for you of just ONE way your race event could go if you are ever up to the challenge.

The thing I was the most grateful for, in hindsight, was that this race was super local, as in very close to where I live. I can’t imagine trying to travel hours to a race location which I believe is required at least once before the main event. Our team spent a lot of time out on our race course, (frankly I don’t need to return for awhile, thanks!) with our first “working meeting” there months before. There were areas we couldn’t really navigate due to the rainy season we were in (not the summer season we were planning for) so that added to the challenge, but luckily Kelly is a master router, if there’s such a thing. I, for one, get lost in my own neighborhood, so I would highly recommend someone not as directionally challenge as I be the one in charge of anything relating to your route if you ever want to do one of these things. In addition to physically checking out the course, we had a long list of different tasks that needed to take place which we divided amongst each other. Everything from porta potties to permits to volunteers to post-race food and about a thousand other small things had to come together. I was mostly in charge of wrangling up all the permits and authorization required to be on the roads in the first place.

There was a really long “hurry up and wait” period of time once all the emails had been sent and people had been paid and notified of what was to happen and what their role was in it. Race weekend was when we really got the chance to roll up our sleeves and WORK.

First, there was packet pick-up. In our case, it was on a Saturday and my husband was out of town, so I brought my kids to the park where pick-up was located and which was thankfully next to a playground. This was a really fun part of organizing the event, because it’s at this point that you actually get to meet many of the people who have signed up for your race. Everyone was friendly and excited to run and it certainly got me pumped for race day. Our event was also unique in that we had a staggered start. This meant that people could show up any time between 7:00AM and 9:00AM on race morning and run in one of the time slots we’d allocated every 5 minutes apart. This is a great option if you want to run with a spouse and take turns while someone watches the kiddos, or if you want to volunteer for a race as well as run it.

Sunday was a very long day. It was the day before the race (our run was on Labor Day, a Monday) and we had to go out to the storage garage and get together all the things we would need for the race. We’d rented a truck and we loaded that up as well as a car with coolers, tables, road markers, Gatorade, safety equipment, and lots of other little stuff you could easily forget about if you didn’t have a list. Then we headed back to Kelly’s house and got the coolers filled and laid all the signage out on her lawn to envision where each sign needed to go and how to group them together for transport. This actually took quite a lot of time to prepare. Then we drove out to designated spots on the course and dropped groups of signs at several points along the way. Finally, at around 5:00PM, we decided to run the course with signs and hammers. It was time to start marking the course. This took hours. Many race directors use bikes that haul trailers, but we decided it would be more fun to do it running. Boy, were we tired! We finally got to eat some food around 8:00PM and we were all worn out from being in the hot sun all day. After getting the kids to bed (Kelly and I had decided to have a sleepover to avoid so much back-and-forth) Kelly and I stayed up and discussed more logistics and what would happen the next morning.

Race morning started at 4:20AM in the absolute DARK. We got the truck loaded and headed out to specific spots with all the aid station stuff and our headlamps on … tables, Gatorade, cups, gloves, etc. We discovered some of our signage had likely already been stolen from the park which was disappointing but not anything we couldn’t handle. We got the start line set up and walked to a few of the nearby spots on the course and fixed a few things that were already pointing in the wrong direction. Volunteers and runners were showing up before we knew it and there were about a thousand questions from everyone. Volunteers didn’t know where they were supposed to go and two of them disappeared after checking in never to be heard from again. It was a bit overwhelming, but luckily my team was cool as cucumbers and it all went down just fine thanks to the support of our volunteers.

The staggered start meant we had to make race announcements every 5 minutes and that ended up being more time consuming than I had anticipated.  However, another thing the staggered start allowed was a chance for me to escape and run the course that I’d helped planned for months. This is a rare thing, as most race directors will never get to run their own course on race day. I felt very fortunate and I was glad to see everything in the spots they were supposed to be.

The course closed at 10:30, but we still had to take everything down and get everything buttoned up. We had to make a run back to the storage unit with some stuff and the coolers still had to be brought back to Kelly’s house for a cleaning. We got back around noon but sat down to do a debriefing while things were still fresh in our minds. There were some things we felt we’d done well and other things that needed a bit of improvement for next year. We also had to come up with some survey questions for participants. Finally around 2:00PM, I was able to go home and I was SPENT. We still had to organize prizes for the winners of the race, but that was to come on another day.

All in all, it was a super fun experience and I felt very lucky to get a chance to see what it was like to organize a race. Honestly, I don’t think race organizers are given enough recognition for all that they do. They are always called out for all the things that go wrong at a race, and some of those things are beyond their control or things that just were not anticipated. I feel like I will certainly give them more of a break in the future, because it’s not as easy as it might seem from the outside. They are likely trying their best and not getting the thanks that they deserve. The next time you run a race, give them a pat on the back or share a smile. It might just make their very long day a little brighter.

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About Nikki Mueller (333 Articles)
I'm the owner of Healthy Girl Fitness and I'm a personal trainer, certified AFAA group exercise instructor, and an RRCA certified running coach in SW Portland. I am also the mother of two young boys and am on the board at my youngest son's school. I led a relatively inactive life throughout my 20's until I discovered the world of fitness and running. I ran my first marathon in 2006 and haven't looked back since.

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