This is the second installment in a two-part series on the Columbus Running Company’s race timing and event management division. The first post can be found here.
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For race directors like Andy Harris, creating a race concept can be an exciting challenge. Transforming that concept into a fun, safe, and well-received event, however, is a completely different ordeal.
One of the first things a runner or walker wants to know when they hear about a new race is where the event will be held. And while there are a lot of great places to run in central Ohio, that doesn’t mean that every bike path or open road is ideal for a running event.
“In real estate, location is everything. In race management, it's not much different. The race location and course will play a huge role in determining the required permissions to seek prior to putting on an event,” Andy explains.
When scouting locations for the perfect route, there are many factors to take into account. One of the most important considerations is the event’s overall safety because, as Andy points out, “An event that is known to be unsafe isn’t one that many participants will choose to come back to.”
He further explains, “A more complex route that uses major city streets and has myriad ways to go off-course will require a fairly extensive consultation timeline and permit process, dozens of volunteers, and extensive involvement of police, fire, transportation, and other public departments. Why? Safety. A good race director or committee knows that a safe event is a repeatable event.”
Not every race committee has to start from scratch in choosing a course. As Andy notes, some cities and parks have designed pre-approved courses that they can offer as part of the permit process. This option works well for any director or committee who would prefer to focus their efforts on other parts of planning.
For those cities and parks that don’t have pre-determined routes, race directors might be able to use the same course as another race if many events take place in that location. But if no other race already exists, or if a new course is absolutely necessary, then there are a few specific factors of course creation that should be considered, including terrain (asphalt, concrete, grass, etc.); elevation (flat vs. hilly); and participant routing (out-and-back course vs. loop course vs. lollipop course vs. really weird things!)
“For the budget-conscious race director, an out-and-back route from a park that takes place entirely off of public roadways may offer them the best chance at the distance they prefer with the least cost outlay,” Andy says. “If your preferred location is in downtown Columbus, you may be limited by permit regulations as to the number of options that actually exist, even if there are a large number of pathways and streets from your location.”
Andy also notes that location can also affect cost in a huge way. “The overhead costs for a 5K in a more rural park are going to be at a much different level than a street course in a big-city downtown.”
Everybody wants their race to be a success, and it’s understandable for a new race director to equate a large participant field to a successful event. However, the race needs to be able to accommodate all of its runners and walkers, which is why it’s important to consider limiting registration to a certain maximum number.
“Any necessary event participant cap should be discussed in the early stages with the permit granting agency and any public safety departments that will be involved,” Andy says. “If your event involves police or fire departments, what are their thoughts on top-end numbers? If your event is in a park, do they have any guidelines for participant numbers? If not, how many parking spots are at the park? If you get 500 people for a parking lot that holds 75 cars, there is going to be a problem on race day.”
Parking aside, there are other factors that could limit the number of participants who can register while still being guaranteed an excellent race-day experience. For example, narrow pathways and out-and-back courses are just two potentially limiting factors.
Still, not everything that can go wrong will go wrong, as Andy notes, “While many events may not eventually reach a number of participants that would place their event in a stressful situation, planning for the best and worst case scenario early in the process is the key to a smooth event from initial planning through the teardown of the final cone on race day.”
With so many levels of extensive planning, it’s crucial for a race director or committee to set aside enough time to thoroughly prepare for an event.
“A race committee with little to no experience planning a particular race will need more time to plan an event than a race committee that has been working on the event for years because there will be a lot of on-the-job learning. And larger entities generally need more lead time to get through the permit process and approvals from many city departments,” Andy says. “For most events, I suggest starting to plan at least six to nine months in advance of race day. For events that are bigger, more complex, or intended to happen in bigger cities, nine to 12 months is even better.”
While Andy meticulously plans all of his events, his favorite course is the Columbus 10K, a race he ran many times before joining CRC and taking charge of the event.
“Planning begins nine to 10 months in advance of race day, and some amount of time each day is spent working on the race in some fashion,” Andy says. “So by the time race day arrives, I've ‘run’ through the event hundreds of times in my head, and to see things come to life is incredibly rewarding. It's tough to beat the sights of downtown Columbus on race day.”
Even after reviewing the race from every angle, event management can still throw a lot of challenges at even the most prepared individual. When Andy became a race director, he found that time management was one of the biggest adjustments, particularly since he moved from a traditional corporate job to his role at CRC.
“Weekends are super early rising days and very regimented. Weekdays can be a lot less structured in terms of scheduling. There's no ‘office’ to sign-in to, no set calendar to maintain, no 9-5 Monday to Friday schedule. It's been key to have a very clear process for keeping things straight. With over 50 events in various stages of planning, being able to know what needs to be done next for each race is essential.”
So if you’ve ever considered organizing a road race or similar event, Andy advises being ready for the unexpected and surrounding yourself with a dependable team to share the work while adding that as an event, you should “know what you are or want to be, own it, and don’t apologize for it. And lastly, don’t forget to have fun.”
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