The Race Director’s Life

AJWs TaproomEver since I started running over 20 years ago, I have admired ultramarathon race directors. They are the selfless, devoted heart and soul of our sport and frankly some of the best people I know. On top of that, they are, by and large, deeply committed, hardworking, disciplined, and relentless.

Over the past few months, I have gained even more respect for race directors as I have attempted to become one myself. You see, back in the fall, I had this idea to start a 100k race here in central Virginia and I would be the RD! How hard could it be, right?

Well, I’m learning how hard it is, and the lessons are painful.

My race, the Thomas Jefferson 100k on March 15, is relatively simple in scope. Runners will cover a nine-mile, singletrack loop seven times within an 18-hour cutoff. The course is all contained in a single Albemarle County Park so I only need one permit. There are perfect spaces for two fully stocked aid stations with full access for vehicles, volunteers, and equipment. The race lends itself perfectly to a chip timing system. In short, this is about as logistically easy as a race could be, right? Well, sort of.

In the process of my initiation into the life of an RD, I have become painfully aware of three key aspects of ultramarathon race directing that are essential to success:

  1. Details — Even a small, logistically simple event like the TJ100k has hundreds of details that need tending. From marketing and community outreach to pre- and post-race event planning, the to-do list for an RD seems to grow way faster than it is possible to check the items off. Furthermore, even with the support of an amazing team like I have, the ultimate responsibility for all these little details rests with me. If the course is marked poorly, it’s my fault. If the results don’t go up in time, it’s my fault. If the race t-shirt is lame, it’s my fault. If it rains, it’s my fault. You get the idea. For a successful RD, it’s all about the details. The rest is gravy.
  2. Communication — Being able to communicate effectively, efficiently, and frequently seems essential for any successful RD. Certainly, some of the communications are fun when you get to enact a plan with sponsors like Montrail, CLIF, Whole Foods, Ultimate Direction, and Petzl. Those conversations are some of the most enriching and furthering. There are also countless emails and texts from runners, volunteers, county officials, local campground hosts, and other stakeholders. In order to do the race right, following up on communications and creating open lines of give and take ultimately make race day come off well. Poor communication will undoubtedly lead to a poor event.
  3. Vision — While I certainly have no idea how I am doing with this one yet, I will say that having a vision for the event and sticking to it through all the ebbs and flows of production seems to be important. In my case, I sought to create a multi-loop course modeled after such successful races as Umstead, Rocky Raccoon, and Javelina in a 100k rather than 100-mile format. That is the simple vision. I also want it to be professionally organized, family friendly, and a good showcase for Albemarle County and the surrounding region. Other races have different visions; however, in my opinion, the best RDs stick rigorously to a clear vision to enact a successful event.

So there you have it, the three keys to successful race direction: details, communication, and vision. Over the next couple of months we’ll see how I do in my first test. Until then…

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week
Starr Hill - Monticello Reserve Ale
This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Starr Hill Brewery in Crozet, Virginia. The Monticello Reserve Ale is brewed according to Thomas Jefferson’s original recipe. Most folks know TJ loved his wine but he also loved his beer. In honor of his legacy, each finisher at the TJ100k this year will receive a one-liter bottle of this great wheat beer!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Are you a race director? If so, what resonates with you among AJW’s keys to successful race directing?
  • Race directors, would you add anything to this list of how to pull off a successful race?
  • And finally, for the rest of us, do you have examples of when you’ve seen race directors using details, communication, and vision to create a race you really enjoyed?

There are 2 comments

  1. Travis L.

    We are on our 3rd year of the Mark Twain Endurance Run and details.. or the little stuff is the most overwhelming part of RD'ing. Luckily I have a Co-RD to share the workload. Fuel for stoves/generators, lights, planning for the right amount of water (we don't have a local water source), food, shelters, signs, types of food, vegetarian options, coordinating volunteers… the list goes on and on. You take your first breath once the race starts.

  2. ThaMessenjah

    Although the race that I RD is only an 8 mile, point-to-point trail run in Iowa, I don't sleep much for the weeks leading up to the event. I rely on a bunch of members of my running club for things, but a lot of things I do myself because that way I know it's being done. It is so much work, but once I send the runners off and jump back on the bus to the start line I can finally relax and know that everything has been done.

  3. Mr Pre-Press

    [Larry Gassan aka Mr Trail Safety, signing in here as "Mr Pre-Press Speaks! [my pro blog].

    Having been an RD with Andy Roth [Baldy Peaks 50k, 2001-2004], I have a few comments:

    1] make perfectly clear to runners that aid-station captains have absolute authority to pull someone who is uncooperative, non-compliant, behind cut-offs, delirious whatever. Its really easy to go all wobbly with the "ultrarunners are all one happy family" etc, but liability is huge. No matter what your signoff is, if somebody screws up, and they feel like suing, they'll come after you with a vengeance.

    2] Gate your entrants. Check out their priors. is a very useful tool. Use it. People will tell you all kinds of things about how totally bitchin'ly-qualified they are.

    3] Hard cutoffs. See #1

    4] If runners have esoteric nutritional requirements, then its on them to figure it out. You provide a base aid structure, you're not running a multi-stage tasting event.

    5] Love and adore your volunteers. It wouldn't happen without them. A few might not make it for whatever reason. Count on having 90% of the work done by 20% of the vols.

    6] I'd discourage Halloween costumery at aid-stations. Dunno why this has become so pervasive in the last 10 years. Runners first, dress appropriately for the weather. If rain is likely, then a chicken suit is a poor choice. Also bad if somebody has to be evacuated, and pictures show volunteers dressed as zombies, whatever.

    And of course, the Pre-Race Hellfire and Damnation Speech. In case you'd forgotten it, here it is:

    PS the FB login did not work in this instance.

  4. @trailrunz

    A few months ago, a film crew came up to me with the great idea "let's do a documentary on the Tarawera Ultra from the perspective of the Race Director – this will be totally exciting – what does an RD do?" Well, this RD sits in his dining room in front of a macbook from mid November to the end of March each year writing and reviewing dozens of different documents and dealing with perhaps 10,000 emails during that time. He only really ventures outside on race day.

    Film crew "thanks for the warning – I think we'll follow one of the runners instead"

    All the best with TJ100k!

  5. Joe

    We need a "Hug a Race Director" Day for sure. Sometimes I feel like people only seek out the RD when they got something to complain about. I know it is hard work but well worth the effort. Best of luck to you Andy.

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