Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Race Director 101

I was going to write a multi-part report of my experience from this past weekends New England Ultras; but I've decided to just stick to telling you folks very matter-of-factly about my experience as a Race Director over the last year and of course this past weekend. I would start by saying that directing a race is no different then running a race. I felt just as stressed and wrecked post-race as I have at the end of any long ultra. But with the job came many highs and lows, disappointments, aggrivations, moments of elation and personal satisfaction. Here is the story:

I am very proud to be a part of the Peak Races team. We hold a series of races in Pittsfield, VT that are into our second year on the scene. We have a Snowshoe Marathon/Half, 150/100/50 Milers in Illinois in April, 50 Miler in June, Death Race in June, 6 Hour Mountain Bike Race in August.. and our new edition of our November Funeral Run. Back in April of 2007, I spoke with Andy Weinberg, Our expert RD, at the McNaughton Park 150/100/50 miler. We talked about putting on a longer race in Pittsfield and how challenging it would be given the terrain and potential of elements. As time wore on, the idea was solidified and the race was going to be put on. I really wanted to try my hand at being an RD and give back to the community I have grown to love. So after discussion with Andy, I took it upon myself to accept the job as RD of the New England Ultras in Pittsfield and Andy would be my Assistant RD.

Fast forward to April of this year. I got the ball rolling with an e-mail to the rest of the Peak Racing team. The e-mail included an action list of things that needed to be completed for the race to happen. I envisioned a very difficult, multi-loop/p2p 100 mile and 200 Mile ultra that would challenge even the seasoned veteran. The race would be very grass roots. No fancy buckles for awards, no over the top aid stations, no massive clock keeping time. Just people... running. Left, Right, Repeat. The way it should be. We offered our races at a rather inexpensive price. If you figure the Western States 100 costs $300 to enter.. our race was affordable at $210 for 200 Miles. This was also important to me, that we offer the race cheap and hope to only cover our costs.

People started signing up and the real work began. But when August rolled around, the wrenches came flying.. and very quickly I wished I had never accepted the job. Turns out that our original race date was Nov 6-9... which also happens to be youth hunting weekend in Vermont. I could envision 12 year olds with shot guns shooting at racers thinking they were frolicking white tailed deer. So we moved the race date forward a weekend. I then asked how everyone was doing on the action list. No one had accomplished anything, and then I found out that they were unable to help anyway. Great... now it was down to Joe and I. Furthermore.. no one was getting landowner permissions for us at all over the summer.. and it was now much too late to even begin to ask. So.. Joe and I scrambled to come up with an idea for a course... and we discussed at great length if we would even put the race on at all. Joe's main concern is that it ended up being a profitable enterprise. The amount of pressure I felt was getting to an insurmountable point because I had to ensure to Joe that the race wouldn't run in "the red."

Long story short (haha), we decided to put the race on anyway saying, "You've gotta start somewhere" and do our best to give the runners what we thought they'd want in a quality challenging course, good aid stations, free stuff and a great time. Thankfully, one of the Peak Organizers sacrificed some of his time to help us design a course. So to Jason Hayden, who has a beautiful loving family; and is very dedicated to his job.. I thank you for your time in helping us create one hell of a challenge for these runners. The weekend before the race, I headed up to Pittsfield to mark the course. Thanks to Steve Van Orden for his help in making sure the ribbons were hung with care. And after running the loop, we had a good sense of how seemingly impossible 200 miles seemed. Thanks to our sponsor Moeben Sleeves and Darn Tough Socks for giving us some great product to hand out to our runners.

Being a race director is a full time job. A full time job that I tried to do on part time hours. I'm embarrassed by this. I really think the race suffered because of it. In reality, there was nothing more I could do. I just spread myself too thin. I work part time at EMS, I'm a full time student, I was preparing to run across NH and I was the best man in a wedding in Virginia. All of this in the weeks directly leading up to the race. I was operating under the mind set that, "how bad could it be?" It can get pretty bad if you're not careful. I really felt like I was behind in race preparations even in the days leading right up to the race.

Regardless of how we got there.. the race was going on and I was in Pittsfield to ensure everyone got started and came to their finish-line safely. Out of the 8 who registered for the 200 mile run, only 4 showed up. Five miles into the first loop and Pete Stringer had to drop out. He slipped on some ice and aggravated an old back injury. I felt really bad for Pete as he is one of those people in our sport that you just HAVE to look up to. He is a true champion and an ambassador to say the least. The first night was a frigid 18 degrees in the valley. John Izzo came out and helped set up and feed the fire. I took a nap on the ground, all wrapped in my sleeping bag and woke up as runners came in. I napped again an hour later for another hour, woke up, helped a runner.. then moved to my car. I slept in the car for two hours. So on the first night I managed to fit 3 naps in for 4 hours of sleep. One of those times that I woke to help a runner, I had frost on my glasses, my face and everything else. It was damn cold! I can;t imagine how uncomfortable it was for the runners but this is what we wanted. This with the fact that 4" of snow covered the higher elevations of the course made it not only challenging but perfect.

When the sun rose on Friday, the aid station on the course was unmanned for most of the day. Unfortunately its not easy finding volunteers to come and help you when they all have jobs. We did our best to help the runners by periodically checking in up there. I then had the job of helping Anthony carve about 300 pumpkins for the Pittsfield Halloween Pumpkin lighting. Not very much fun to say the least but it gave me something else to do.. on top of getting ready for the 100 milers to register, check in, etc etc etc. Watching 3 runners run a 12.5 mile loop can get pretty boring but we made the best of it. I was awake for 89 hours and only managed to find time for a total of 8 hours of sleep in that time. 4 hours on Thursday Night, 3 hours on Friday Night and 1 hour on Saturday Night. I really hated leaving the race each time... I wanted to direct. It was fun. I only wish I had more volunteers and a bigger crowd running. But I suppose for a first year race it was perfect.

Highlights:
1.) The first highlight came on Sunday Morning. On his two previous trips to the Aimee Farm aid station, Randy Dietz came in and wanted to quit. We talked him back out onto the course both times. When he finished his 2nd to last lap, he came in and look haggard. I asked him, "Randy.. want a beer?" He gave me a rather quiet, tired and depressing sounding "yes." When Randy showed up, he gave me one of his favorite beers to try... As he was searching within himself for that extra something to get him to the finish, I was honored to sit beside the fire and share my beer with Randy. When we finished, he looked at me, stood up and I told him, "Get out of here.. I'll see you at the finish." This really moved me, that a runner would take the time to just sit down and enjoy a beer... a few times prior wanting to quit.. and leaving knowing he would finish. Simply amazing.

2.) For quite a long time into the race John Bridges yelled that I had better save the last 10 mile lap he had to join him. I didn't bring any of my running gear, and I didn't even want to run. But, when the time came, I was honored and humbled that John still meant it and asked me if I was ready to go. I left the race to one of my volunteers and headed off to pace John on his final 10 of 200 miles. Joe Holland came along with his wonderful dog and we really enjoyed a little over 2 hours together on the course. John is an animal and true champion. 190+ miles into the longest race.. and this guys was still running negative splits. It was a truly moving experience.

3.) Carl Asker... the course closed at 72 hours and at that point Carl had only run 150. As we tore everything down, and prepared to go home.. Carl continued on, refusing to quit until he completed 200 miles. And he did it all for Tyme For Lyme and Lyme Disease Awareness. Carl embodies what determination is. He exemplifies what strength and courage is. Human Potential... yeah, Carl's got PLENTY of that. It was amazing to watch him go... but beyond frustrating to watch him sleep! Carl slept more during the race than I still have since the race! lol.

All in all it was an amazing experience to be an RD. I don't think I can do it again at this time in my life. Timing is just bad and the work is just unreal. Putting on a 200 mile... 72 hour event was one of the hardest things I've ever done. But as the last runner came in off of the course on Sunday, I stood watching his headlamp bobbing through the woods with a real sense of pride. Pride in knowing that the mission was accomplished. The first annual New England 200 Mile, 100 Mile and 50 Mile ultras had been completed successfully. A huge thanks to all of you who came to help volunteer and an even bigger thanks to the runners who came out and tried the course. I knew that it would take a massive army to put an event like this on.. but we managed to do it with less than a dozen dedicated volunteers. Thanks to JP Lewicke, Steve and Allyson an Orden, Josh Robert and Loni Allen, Cory Delavalle, Adam Wilcox, John Izzo, Joe Desena, Andy Weinberg, Mike Halovatch, Kate Pallardy, Jason Hayden, Angela at The General Store and Ray Zirblis. You're volunteerism and help was paramount in ensuring the success of the race. Without you it would have never happened. I'm not sure who will direct it next year.. but I'll be there helping.. or maybe even running. As far as this year goes.. it was a real pleasure to be able to give back to the running community in such a small way.