Race Directing Report

Dakota Jones humorously ponders the challenges of being a race director.

By on October 15, 2014 | Comments

So you want to be a race director! That’s great! We need more races, probably, because at least so far most of the races I know keep filling up with runners and making their race directors exorbitantly wealthy. And there’s nothing more American than cashing in, so let’s get right down to it. I help direct the Telluride Mountain Run each August with Reese Ruland, who is a great race director and should be the one writing this article instead of me. Nevertheless, we have managed to scrape together two incarnations of our race and it has been such a thinly veiled disaster–no wait, I mean success–each year that I have all the expertise you need to know if you want to direct a race yourself. So here are five steps to getting your dream off the ground and onto the trails.

Step One: Surround Yourself with People You Can Trust

If you’re like me, then you think you can do everything yourself. But the fact is that you’re absolutely wrong about that. And the biggest lesson you learn as you feel the mounting doom of your oncoming race approaching is that being absolutely wrong about anything is suddenly a way bigger deal than normal. Yes sir, being absolutely wrong means that everybody in the race suffers from the mistake. And these are people who have paid real money and traveled long distances to take part in your race. And here you are screwing things up for everyone. Dealing with this pressure is about 90% of race directing. So you need to surround yourself with people to whom you can ostensibly delegate duties, and on whom you can later apportion blame for all the things that went wrong. Aid-station coordinators, volunteer coordinators, finish-line coordinators–just give someone an impossibly complex job and the title ‘coordinator’ and you’ve got yourself a scapegoat.

Step Two: Plan Ahead

If you’re like me, you have never planned farther than a month in advance. Well, with race directing, you have to jump start the planning process so that you can do literally everything because races require so much busywork and errand running that whole days come and go as you race back and forth across town, or stare at computer screens. Since I’m not exactly a planning genius, I leave that part of the process to Reese, who actually knows what she’s doing. She figures out which pieces go where, and then gives me the jobs to do. Or, actually, she just does them herself and later mentions casually all the backbreaking work she’s been doing while I was off screwing around in some mountain range somewhere, and I look at her somewhat askance, sensing sarcasm, but she’s already back to paper shuffling, which pretty much just proves her point. Planning ahead is crucial because agencies like the US Forest Service take eons to process applications, and sponsors have to plan their end to send product and/or reps, and the city needs insurance for this and that, and we’re going to need more than just chips, dammit, and so on and so forth ad nauseam.

Step Three: Make a Reasonable Course

If you’re like me, you’re pretentiously cynical about most U.S. mountain races. This kind of sanctimony is usually a great tool for appearing too cool at all manner of social gatherings. But then when you direct a race it sort of backfires, because people expect you to actually deliver. We put our race in Telluride for a lot of reasons, most of which revolved around the fact that we could find a killer course without actually doing any hard work. We spent several fun hours tracing out the most insane mountain course imaginable for our race, then immediately ran into solid brick walls when we approached the Forest Service. That’s because our course crossed into two Forest Service districts, the Bureau of Land Management, and the town of Telluride itself, which made it prohibitive. This was really frustrating at first, but actually a blessing because looking at that course now, I mean good lord we would have had to base our operations out of three towns and send volunteers and crews driving for hundreds of miles over dubious mountain passes at all times of the day and night. Our course was eventually beaten back by the governing agencies to one that fits entirely within the scope of the San Miguel (Telluride) valley itself, which is sweet because now we can say things like, “If you’re ever lost and need to get back, just go downhill.” And our three aid stations are all a 15-minute drive apart. I never thought I’d say this, but thank goodness for bureaucratic nonsense.

Step Four: Have Great Prizes and a Killer Afterparty

If you’re like me, then the only thing that gets you through most races is the enticing prospect of post-race festivities. And since I’m not afraid to project assumptions onto other people, I just assumed everyone else felt the same way. So we bought burgers and hot dogs and soup and a whole keg to keep the party rolling long into the night at TMR. However, at our first race the weather turned bad, rained for four hours, and snowed on over a third of the course (in August). Then the second year, with great weather, people ran so hard that they sort of pooped themselves out and couldn’t really rage afterwards, which was perfectly alright with us actually because race directing turned out to be plenty of effort in itself. Also, it turns out that a keg goes a long way in an ultra crowd, especially at a small race of 75 people. Nevertheless, I stand by the suggestion: give people a difficult course and a good afterparty and they’ll remember a great race, even if for no other reason than that they were so delirious by the end that all positive reinforcement was taken to heart.

Step Five: Mark Your Course Like Your Life Depends on It

This is the most important part of any race. The course is the race, so this is the one thing that matters above all else. A mountain run is hard enough without adding bonus miles, and people get straight-up pissed off when they go off course. Just ask Anna Frost. Seriously, I cannot stress enough that course marking is really the only thing that matters in the end. And then once your course is marked, send out runners one and two days in advance of the race to make sure that the course is still marked. Cows and elk and deer eat flagging; wind and rain wash it away; little fairies float around and move markers at random. At TMR, I spent days on the course making sure it was perfectly marked, only to have some fine citizens from Telluride pull the markers on several crucial turns close to town. This created quite the hoopla, as you can imagine, as the first 10 runners went about two miles in the wrong direction. And as I mentioned before, every mistake reflects onto the people who have put months of time and paychecks into coming to your event, so you feel like a total dick when something goes wrong. Just remember: mark the course well, triple check it, and pray desperately on whatever you believe in that everything goes well. This is another good area to designate scapegoats ahead of time (Erik Skaggs!) But you can only do so much, so get good maps and tell people to read them well. Then go back to praying.


Well there you have it: five steps that will give you the confidence to become a race director without actually having any idea what kind of nightmare you’re getting into. Okay, ‘nightmare’ might be a bit of a stretch because as long as you don’t totally screw up, race directing is actually really rewarding. There is something special about being able to bring together a group of motivated, healthy people to participate in something very challenging and inspiring. I like directing TMR because I get to share a little bit of the good things that mountain running has given me, as well as (ha ha) a whole lot of the bad, too. You now have five of the 7,492 steps that go into race directing. Good luck!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • There are many race directors among iRunFar’s readership. Race directors, what other humorous steps would you add to ‘Dakota’s List of How to Not Mess Up a Race Too Much?’
  • And for those of us who experience races from the other side, from that of the runner, what funny thoughts would you add to the horrifically long race director’s to-do list?
Dakota Jones
Dakota Jones explores the wild places of the world on foot and tells us about it every few weeks. He runs for Salomon and Clif Bar.