Monday, October 13, 2014

The RD: So How Did It Go?

On September 6th I hosted the first official race of the Human Potential Running Series. As part of "The RD" series here on my blog, I wanted to give an honest recount of how the entire event went from beginning to end. Any good race director should be able to take a huge step back, post event, and look at every little thing they endured. They should be able to honestly view it, addressing what went well and what did not, then suggesting changes for the next year based on their own honest feedback. Race Directors should also be compelled to ask their runners for feedback. Whether that comes from in e-mail form, or via Survey Monkey.

Even though I have been involved in race directing for a number of years... (Co-Directed some Peak.com Races in Vermont from 2007-2009, Directed the New England Ultras 50/100/200 Milers in 2008, and the HPRS Fat Ass Series here in Colorado) the race did not go off with a number of hiccups. There was a great deal that went well also, and at the end of the day I completed my goal. My goal was to direct a first year race that broke even or made money, and did not have the feeling of a first year event. We've all been to at least one first year horror story. This, was not one of them.


The course I had originally mapped out, was a no-go with the Forest Service. The original layout had the entire course as one big 100K loop and one big 50K loop on 95% Single Track trails. Those trails are used by dirt bikers and has a host of blind curves. The Forest Service asked if I wouldn't mind moving my course out to the OHV/ATV Roads. After a re-map, the course was still one big 100K loop and one big 50K loop and we were approved by the Forest Service. However, the County did not approve the route which utilized a 1 mile section of paved road through a subdivision. They were not comfortable with the prospect of noise disturbing neighbors. After 2-3 other options were discussed by the County and the USFS, the permit application from the County was ultimately denied.

I then was informed that the proposed event was getting caught up in local politics of the potential host site with nearby neighbors. I started working on my USFS permit about a year and a half out from the event. I now had to pick everything up and immediately find a new host site and reroute the entire event just 3 months out from the event. After planning the repute, I had to resubmit my permit applications to the USFS and the County and pray it was approved or we would not have a race. What made this process even more difficult is that a local "paper" caught wind of the issues and published a story saying the race was denied and was no longer happening. All the while, I was still working on the permits. This caused us to start losing business from runners who had read the article. What a fiasco! Eventually, we got it all straightened out and permits were never officially secured until 3 weeks out from race day. The newspaper never wrote a retraction.

I arrived at the race site about 2 hours later than I wanted to. I had a sufficient number of volunteers to help with set-up and getting everything organized on site for pick-up. This mostly involved getting the aid station supplies separated and prepared, setting up the start/finish and preparing for packet pick-up. All of this went smoothly. We had a plan for the pre-race meal if the weather stayed fair, and a plan if it went south. It went south and we had an indoor pre-race meal that was really yummy. The host facility was great to work with and incredibly welcoming.

Course Marking was rocky. We started marking the course way too late in the day, and then our volunteers were out in the pitch dark, marking a course they were very unfamiliar with. Upon checking the course after pre-race festivities, I caught a number of issues. I then spent my entire night.. until 5am, marking the course and double/triple checking as much as I could. I made my way back to the start line for the 2am 100K start, sent them off, then headed back out to mark more of the course. Incredible headache but we got it done. At one point I ran out of orange tape and switched to all that I had.. which was yellow caution tape. I forgot to tell the runners about this change pre-50K. So some were confused in this section but no one got lost. It just so happened to also be the toughest hill on the course.

Two runners in the 100K were disoriented about 1 mile into the race. The local sheriff, whom we were required to have, escorted the runners up the dark road with his lights flashing. These two runners stopped to delayer, and when they were done, they missed the first left hand turn due to being disoriented by the lights. Earlier in the day, I caught a volunteer marking the road in the wrong direction. He was supposed to remove those markers after marking the rest of the course, but he was still out there. So after being disoriented, these two runners kept going on what they thought was the right course. They were wrong, and went 10 miles in the wrong direction. They returned to the start/finish. One of them went home, disappointed, but happily ready to return in 2015 for redemption. The other, she decided to sleep a few hours in her car, then line up for the 50K instead. When she woke up in the morning, I greeted her at her car with a partial refund, which was the difference between the 50K and 100K registrations. She would finish the 50K, with a huge smile.

The week of the race I received an email from one of the USFS Rangers that a local land owner had swung a gate on the course. They were trying to contact him to find out why but were unsuccessful. I did not need the gate open, so I told them I was ok with it being closed. At 3:30am, runners entered this property as we were permitted to do, and they were greeted with a flashlight shining in their eyes. This was the girlfriend of the contractor who was working on the house. She was spooked, apparently they were approached earlier in the week by some crazy dude wielding a gun, the house was broken into, and $20,000 worth of items was stolen. She got her boyfriend, the contractor, outside and they interviewed the 100K runners. After a brief discussion, the runners continued down the road and the contractor fired a shotgun into the air to scare them.. which he did.

Hours later during the 50K, I received word that a number of runners were lost on the course. They had followed orange arrows and flagging down the wrong trail. My volunteers jumped into action to get everyone back on course. I dispatched one volunteer to head to the location of the issue, turn runners around, and remove any wrong markings they found. I sent another volunteer out with water and food in the back of his truck to care for the runners given the new long distance to the next aid station. This was an incredibly successful operation which immediately corrected a potentially disastrous situation. How many times have you heard of this kind of response in Ultra? We had 4 DNF's because of this snafu and I was able to quench the disappointment of these runners. However, one of them was upset.. I'll explain more later.

With everyone back on course, weather moved in during the race. We had a few thunderstorms roll through which dumped about an inch of rain and two separate hail storms. The runners took it in stride, everyone was safe, all runners were accounted for and the race continued on. The storms never got bad enough that we needed to consult our Emergency Action Plan for immediate action.

At the finish line, all runners seemed pleased yet adequately worked. One runner was incredibly upset by the extra miles, and was so tired he was.. well... irked. He crossed the finish line, refused to shake my hand by putting his high into the air (like.. stick 'em up) then left. Sorry bud! Another runner was upset that the BBQ was so-so at best. True.. we were not allowed to cook for ourselves given county regulations for a food permit (= expensive). So we had a local BBQ place deliver on a recommendation. I agree that the BBQ was, so-so. This same runner was upset there was no beer. Our race was hosted by a Christian Camp. We respectfully asked them if alcohol was OK and they preferred that we NOT have alcohol at the event. Therefore, no beer at the finish line. Sorry.. rules are rules. Besides these two runners.. I heard no other major complaints.

At the end of the event, we left the national forest better than we found it, picking up ALL trash that we saw. This was regardless of if the trash was produced by us or other users. We left the host site better than we found it and they have happily agreed to host again. All runners were accounted for and safe. We didn't have one single drop of blood and certainly nothing to award the Best Blood Award. We gave out awards for DFL, which the two last finishers of the 50K shared by splitting the comp entry to a 50% discount for each instead. This indicated that the idea of "community" was not lost at our event. Those who attended, and their families, have all approached me to mention the true community feel at the event. The runners loved their shirts. We did not lose money on the event.

The last snafu was the finishers award. We had a local artisan help us in hand making each one of them. They said, "Tommyknocker Ultra 100".. since we had a 50K and a 100K.. this confused some runners at the race. We turned these awards into glass magnets.. and no one really seemed to mind. I guess we don't do this for the awards after all.

At the end of the day, the event was a huge success. Our aid stations were mentioned at being some of the best they'd ever seen and certainly advanced for a first year event. With the permit issues worked out, permitting for next year should go smoothly. We have a new plan for course marking. We have a new plan for awards. The course will be re-rooted to not include the questionable landowners parcel. At the end of it all, when you look back.. if that's all that happened.. we did good. I wanted to move the event to October in 2015, but due to muzzleloader season for hunting, we have to keep it in September. We take what we learned, and we'll apply it to the upcoming Indian Creek Fifties.

Directing the Tommyknocker Ultras was incredibly challenging. A lot happened from beginning to end. Some good, some bad, some unavoidable, some unimaginable. I'd like to think that we took the time to address every situation with professionalism and care for the runners. It was by far the most rewarding experience in race directing that I've had and I have my many volunteers and runners to thank for you. I'm looking forward to Indian Creek Fifties as I know, it will be above and beyond expectation.
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This is Part 9 of a multi-part series focusing on the ins and outs of race directing. You can read the previous three parts by clicking their links below:
Part 1: The Decision
Part 2: Your Course
Part 3: Permits
Part 4: Infrastructure
Part 5: Expenses
Part 6: Insurance, Shirts, Shwag, Volunteers
Part 7: Advertising
Part 8: Bringing it all together