An Ode to Race Directors Everywhere

AJWs TaproomOver the past four months, I have had the good fortune of traveling to four ultramarathons around the country, none of which I had run before. I enjoyed each race immensely as they were, as is typical in our sport, all located in beautiful places with wonderful people and all featured a fair amount of what can be only called the ultra “vibe.” Additionally, as I have reflected back on these four events, one common theme emerged, that each had outstanding race directors!

Keira Henninger at Ray Miller, Clark Zealand at Terrapin, John Medinger at Sonoma, and David Horton at Promise Land each bring their own touch to their events and each succeed in pulling off something that looks so easy on the surface but is actually extraordinarily difficult, directing a trail ultramarathon. Another thing about this that struck me is that one might think there is one successful formula for race-directing success, one personality type that does it best, and one clear way of getting it done. Yet, these four race directors prove that there are many ways to skin a cat and, in so doing, lend credence to the fact that our sport truly is the ruggedly individualistic pursuit it’s always been.

To illuminate the point, allow me to profile these four outstanding race directors:

Keira Henninger – “The Cheerleader”
I don’t know if Keira ever was a cheerleader but if she wasn’t, she should have been. Throughout her event, she was constantly there smiling, laughing, hosting, and organizing. As a master delegator, she seemed to have everything under control all day and night and never lost sight of what was most important about the whole thing, having fun.

Clark Zealand – “The Professor”
Now, truth be told, Clark is a professor so this is not too much of a stretch. Nonetheless, he goes about his business as a race director in much the same way I would imagine him going about his academic life. He asks as many questions as he provides answers; he has an understanding of every aspect of his event without being overbearing; and his preparation and follow-through are impeccable.

John Medinger – “The Connector”
The Lake Sonoma 50 is, quite frankly, much more of a party than an ultra. Sure, there is always an incredibly deep field at this race but to be honest the race seems to be an excuse for a get-together. John, of course, knows everybody in the ultra world and uses this event to connect people, establish relationships, and grow goodwill across the generations. I know the purpose of the event is to have a race, but John succeeds in creating an event that is rooted on relationships and connections.

David Horton – “The General”
David has been directing races in the central-Virginia area since the early ’80s and he has consistently done them “his way.” As the years have gone by and his following has grown, his style has become one that is at once incorrigible and delightful. Perhaps the best two indicators of that are the following stories. One, during the prize drawing during the pre-race meeting the night before Promise Land, David pulls names out of a hat to give away prizes. When he pulls the names out, if he doesn’t feel like giving the named person a prize, he just folds the paper back up and puts it back in the hat. Then, the next day when everyone finishes, he personally and enthusiastically greets every finisher with kind exhortations like “You got chicked, Chicken Boy.” and “Pretty smart run for such a stupid girl.” Needless to say, there is only one Horty.

Truly, race directing is both a science and an art which requires a rare blend of skills and a great deal of patience. In addition, it is clear from my experience that organizing and carrying out an ultra event is a skill reserved for that rare person who can do it all while remaining true to who they are, what they want, and how much they care about others.

So, for all you race directors out there…

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week
This Week’s Beer of the Week comes from a Taproom favorite, Bell’s Brewing Company in Michigan. Their summer seasonal Oberon Ale is a highly sessionable ale that blends a touch of hoppiness with smooth citrus tones and a nice crisp finish. Served cold on a hot day, Oberon hits the spot.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Let’s get some more shout outs going! Who is your favorite race director and why?
  • What, in your opinion, are the top qualities of the race directors you’ve met?

There are 35 comments

  1. Jeff

    I think it would be hard to be a race director if you weren't great at it. Two of my favorite races – the Finger Lakes Fifties and the Oil Creek 100 have awesome race directors that put their heart & soul into it and it shows in each event.

    If you lack that passion for trail racing, to be willing to put in the many hours for little or no pay (when you could be training!), I can't imagine you could have a very successful event.

      1. Jeff

        I did the 50K in 2011 and am going back this year for the 100K – they are SO well-organized.

        Just make sure you turn right (not left) after the bridge as you finish your first loop – I missed that in 2011 and added a few miles before I realized I screwed up and turned back. The markings are in both directions so a good thing to remember is that once you're out of the hills and on blacktop for the Drake Museum loop it doesn't turn to trail until you start the next loop.

  2. patrick t.

    Oberon is the greatest all-purpose beer ever. I'm flying home in July from Chile and…aside from hugging my family…which of course will be nice…drinking Oberon is the thing I'm most excited about. Seriously.

    1. Guy C.

      I'll second that. I live in Mexcio now, but when I get back to Michigan, an Oberon is high on the list. It was always the first sign of spring. Not sure if they brew it year-round now…

  3. Pete

    Good read. I am happy to see race directors get some love here as it is a very rare this happens. All the race directors deserve much credit for the thankless hours they put in to allow us to enjoy a great sport.

  4. Luke Garten

    Two race directors that have impacted my running was Robert and Linda Mathis before they were killed over a year ago. They were very helpful to me as I was starting out and it was fun to volunteer for them.

    Now Tim Stahler of has done an excellent job of managing all the standout races he puts on. He does a great job of making the event fun and is well orginized. His races allways have the best course markings (making job as a sweeper very challenging to clean up) :)

    I have been to too many races that were not well organized with terrible course markings and missing aid stations. Even a couple of races were the race director wsa not even there at the races and put the control in the hands of people not able to handle the situations professionally. I will not mention which race company it was.

    1. AJW

      Luke, thanks for this! I didn't even mention course markings for these four races but I certainly should have. Keira, Clark, John, and David do an extraordinary job with markings; from streamers, to flour lines on the ground, to stationing actual people out on the course in the places that are particularly tricky these four have course marking dialed. And, they seem to get it all done with a smile and a positive attitude.

      1. Luke Garten

        Yeah I also just did the Silver State 50 miler and it had outstanding course marking. Giant colored arrows for signs to point you in the right direction to differentiate the 50k from the 50 miler. Great touch.

    2. Tony Mollica

      When I'm running an ultra I want great course markings. I've read ultra websites or RR's in ULTRARUNNING magazine where the RD brags about how difficult it is to follow the course and how easy it is to get lost. Why would I want to travel and pay good money to do that?

  5. Terrie Wurzbacher

    Parvaneh Moayedi ( gave me a chance no one else ever has – I was bummed in November because I was going to run the NYC Marathon after not having run at all for 11 years. So when I found out about her local marathons and ultras I shyly entered for "something to do" – Now she's allowed me to fulfill a 15 year old dream of doing a 100 miler – I am not good enough yet to do it in an acceptable time for the other 100 milers but I was able to finish hers. She puts out for everyone who enters and helps propel toward goals they have never thought they could reach. She supports Larry Macon in every way possible as he continues to stay ahead in the Guiness Book of World Records for most marathons in year and she's going to Badwater this summer (and I have the honor of crewing for her). She is the most self-less person I've ever met personally.


  6. Jonathan

    Parvaneh is an awesome person to run with. Shout out to Joyce and Joe Prusaitis of Tejas Trails. I hear good things about Squamish 50 organizers and am looking forward to meeting them. Always have heard great things about Henninger. Kudos to all race directors for putting up with us.

    Once again, another beer that Texas doesn't get. It's on my list to try, along with Hopslam.

  7. CP

    Having ran ultras directed by Clark Zealand and David Horton, I agree with the above descriptions of these guys. They both put on great events and care about the runners in their races and the region. Great trail running community in Lynchburg, VA. If you haven't done a Horton race, the prerace talks, beautiful courses, and greetings at the finish line make it all worth it.

  8. erin

    3 (or 4 or 5 or 20) cheers for James Varner of Rainshadow Running here in the PNW… He puts is heart & soul into each one!

  9. Ellie

    RD who puts up enough flagging for what would be described as a well marked 100 mile course, but in fact the race might only be 50km – Gary Robbins! (Squamish races were flagged out of oblivion as I think Gary has tended to go off course himself in the past). 200% enthusiasm too.

    Horty – I might be scared to even sign up for a race in case I did that bit wrong ;) No one like Doc H, love him!

    It's one of the things that I think if lacking from some of the bigger races (TNF San Fran) – I raced it and didn't even know who the RD was. Doesn't have to be that way – catherine is very hands on and present at UTMB series of races. I hope that as some races grow in field and gain bigger sponsors that we don't lose the RD as the face of races.

  10. fred p

    …"if he doesn’t feel like giving the named person a prize, he just folds the paper back up and puts it back in the hat… he personally and enthusiastically greets every finisher with kind exhortations like “You got chicked, Chicken Boy.” and “Pretty smart run for such a stupid girl.”

    Wow, what a 'delightful' misogynist.

  11. Matt P

    Smiled at the characterization of Horty and Clark Z. Dead on. By the way, AJW, there was a third RD on hand at Promised Land in Virginia a few weeks back. Crossing paths at the Cornelius Creek aid station, I'm pretty sure I saw Brandon Wilson, the impressario of the still new, but already classic Outer Banks' Graveyard 100. Another one of a kind, as all the best RD's seem to be.

  12. Jeff R

    That wasn't an ode at all. I was looking forward to some poetry, maybe even a link to AJW singing. Talk about letdowns.

  13. Utah Runner

    I'm new to the ultra scene with only one under my belt (Speedgoat 50k) but I was very impressed with the job Karl Meltzer did with that event – excellent course marking and aid stations, not to mention a ridiculously hard course! Looking forward to Speedgoat again this year.

  14. Mike Behnke

    I ran the "no whimps challenge" a month ago where you run 13.1 on Sat. and a 50k on Sun. during the trail marathon weekend in Pinckney, Mich. The race was put on by Running Fit running shop and the RD was Randy Step. I have to say that it was one of the most organized events I've ever been to! Super fun, friendly, great aid stations and perfect course markings! So again Randy, thanks much and I'll see you next year!

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