Why Would Anyone Do It? The Agony and the Thrill of Race Directing
Everyone knows that without race directors, there would be no races. What many people don't know however, is the difficulty involved in staging a race.
Posted Sunday, 1 March, 1998
Everyone knows that without race directors, there would be no races. What many people don't know however, is the difficulty involved in staging a race. If you have ever put on a race you know just how tough it can be. I like to say that putting on a race is analogous to flying an airplane. It takes a huge amount of energy, motivation, and thrust to get it off the ground. Once airborne, however, it then requires a delicate touch and proper guidance to keep it on course.
Many of you may know that I directed the recent Eastern States 20 Mile run from Maine to Massachusetts along the New Hampshire coastline. This was not a position I was hired for, nor elected to. It was just something I decided to do, as from all accounts it seemed like an event people would be interested in running. Plus, I was involved in the original incarnation of the event in 1994 & 1995, so I was familiar with the layout. The question one might ask is why I, or anyone else would decide to do something like this, and could you too become a race director?
In answer to the first question, there are almost as many reasons for putting on a race as there are races. Here are some of the most popular:
* Because you have a great idea for a race and you want to share it with all the runners out there.
This is how many races get started. You are out running one day and say, "Gee this course would make for a great race." Or you say, "I wish there were a half marathon in my hometown in the fall." Behind every running event, there was someone somewhere who thought up the idea. There is no shortage of great race ideas; you may indeed have the next great one. Then again, the people who make up the running community may or may agree with your assessment.
* Because you want to raise money for a charity.
Many events are fund-raisers. It's a great way to support a charity, but as I will allude to later, just because you put on a race does not mean you will make money, even if it is for the best and most worthy cause in the known universe.
* Because you want to make money for yourself.
Please believe me when I say that earning money from directing a road race ranks somewhere between telemarketing and coal mining as a means of employment. Unless you are offered the directorship of the Boston, New York, or London Marathon, you will be far better off choosing an easier way of making money, such as collecting recyclable containers on the side of the road.
* Because it's in your nature.
Some people were just meant to be race directors. You know them; they are the ones who are always calling up running club members and arranging runs, organizing teams, scouring the results after a race for times. It seems inevitable that some of us eventually turn to organizing and directing our own events. Despite all the complaining and agonizing we do, we really thrive on the excitement and bask in the afterglow of satisfaction that comes from managing a good race.
So, you are still not deterred, huh? Good, because you are exhibiting one of the primary characteristics of an event director: a stubborn and determined nature. That brings me to the next part of the article. Just what skills are necessary in order to put on a race? It's not as if you can get a college degree in race directing, although that's not a bad idea. Anyone will tell you however, that a diverse set of skills and talents make for the best event organizers and directors. Here are what I would list as some of essential job skills needed:
* The Ability to Lead
This of course, is the main requirement for being a race director. Races organized by running clubs or civic organizations usually end up with a strong leader as the point person as a matter of course. If you are thinking of putting on your own event however, make sure you have a lot of take charge in you, and don't mind telling people what to do, often forcefully, tactfully, and on the fly. Be certain that you are the type of person who can stay cool under pressure, calmly keeping things in order when all hell is seemingly breaking loose. The ultimate event directors are of course field generals in times of war. If you saw and enjoyed the film Patton more than once, you are on the road to event directing.
* The Ability to Negotiate
The ability to negotiate is a subtle, but necessary skill in being an event organizer. It's not all black and white when it comes to races. Often it is necessary to deal with town officials, sponsors, and runners-all on the same issue, all with different needs. The director who can gracefully and tactfully bring all sides together with a satisfactory solution for all is indeed rare. The best tacticians are politicians. If you have ever held public office or chaired a town committee, you can check off this requirement.
* The Ability to Write
Press releases, sponsorship letters, notes to runners and volunteers are all examples of documents that need to be written when staging a race. This is not even to mention the creation of the race entry blank itself, which is the most critical document of all. Mega races such as the Boston Marathon have a full-time press director. Wow. Can you imagine that? You on the other hand, will not be so lucky. So brush up on your grammar, typing, and graphic design too, while you are at it.
* The Ability to Sell
As I will discuss in more detail later, races are subject to the laws of supply and demand. Only a select few races don't have to aggressively market their event to runners and sponsors. If you truly believe in your event, you will have no problem promoting it. What you will have to do however is identify your target market. Also identify the reasons why people would be interested in running your race and let them know you exist. It's not as easy as it sounds. The old marketing tenet that "You have to be first or different" is applicable. Knowing the selling points of your event and presenting them to sponsors is also a learned skill.
* The Ability to Delegate
You cannot do it all. You simply can't. Race directors tend to be control freaks by nature, so it's often difficult to learn how to properly delegate responsibility. It's not just learning to give up control that is important, but learning how to size up the job to be done and matching it correctly with the right individual. Some race volunteers like to remain behind the scenes will others prefer to be on the front lines, interacting with the runners. Delegating responsibilities properly will make everyone happier and make for a better race as well.
* Physical Strength
Unless you have a team of workers constantly at your disposal, at some point you are going to be looking up at a van full of tables, chairs, and heavy water containers. You don't really know how heavy water is until you have tried to haul a load of five and ten-gallon containers of the stuff around. It helps to have done your gym work at times like these.
The endurance needed to be an event director is different from kind of endurance needed to finish a marathon. It's more like the kind of endurance you needed in college to finish all of those term papers at the last minute. If you cannot live without a full night's sleep, race directing is not for you. Any event organizer worth their salt will be working on limited or no sleep in the final days before the race, even the most organized ones. The nature of the event dictates that a lot of things are going to be done in those final, critical days. And forget about good night's sleep the night after the race. There is still too much to do. If you were not a coffee drinker before directing a race, you will probably become one.
* Resilience & An Optimistic Nature
Marathoners tend to be optimistic in nature. Otherwise, why would we keep going back to that torturous distance? Organizing an event require a similar optimism. There are going to be those times, like at mile 18 in a marathon, where you just don't think you are going to be able to do it. There are going to be those times when a sponsor rejects your proposal, or when your best friend decides to run another race on the same day as you holding yours. At times like these, you just have to be able to shrug off these small defeats and take it on faith that you will be able to pull it off.
In critical situations, you just don't have a lot of time to mull over decisions. You often have to make critical calls on the fly, with a million other things going on. Planning helps, but races are fluid events, often creating situations that call for quick thinking and decisive action. Sometime you just have to make the best of a situation and know that your event will not be "perfect.".
* Knowledge of Meteorology
Sure, you can trot out all of the clichés such as "You can't do anything about the weather." But you can plan for all types of weather, which any smart RD will do. Bad weather happens. You just have to make the best of it. Know the effects of cold or wet weather, or excessive humidity on your runners. Example: In the 1996 Boston Marathon, runners were dropping right and left at the baggage area, from dehydration and hypothermia. It was not excessively cold, but it was windy, which made it seem colder. Plus, it was a very dry day, one that set up marathoners for dehydration, since they drank less than they thought they might need. Know what kind of effect various types of weather has on runners and do your best to be ready for it. Running a 5-km race in the heat is quite different from running a marathon in the same conditions.
* Knowledge of Finance
Aside from the ability to lead, this is by far the most important requisite for a race director. You simply must master the art of developing, analyzing, and following a budget. Even races with seemingly unlimited funds must pay attention to the bottom line. If there is one area that surprises rookie RD's, it is the magnitude of expenses that go into putting on a race. Managing these costs and balancing them with an adequate flow of income is essential to the long-term success of the event. It's hard enough to put on a race without worrying about having to pay out of your own pocket to make it happen. Runners want everything and they want it now, regardless of cost. At some point you just have to decide where your limited funds will be best spent. You can get good deals through hard work and hustle, but it is not easy. Runners are savvy shoppers. They know an event that is a worthwhile investment. Allocating your limited budget in the right areas will result in a greater likelihood of staging a quality and financially solvent race.
Well, that about sums up the job requirements. In reality, all race organizers are stronger in some areas than others. That's why having a race committee is helpful. Responsibilities can be delegated among those with skills in different areas. All races however, usually have one person who is ultimately calling the shots and assuming final control.
If you think that it's in your future to be that person and if you having a burning desire to put on a race, by all means go for it. Having been a competitive runner for more than 20 years and a race director for more than half of that time, I can unequivocally say that the satisfaction that results from staging a successful race is equal to or greater than the satisfaction that comes from running a PR. It's more difficult, more tiring, more stressful, and more agonizing than actually running in a race, but it's also fun and rewarding. There is no feeling like guiding the plane in for a successful landing.