The Race Director’s Life

Some of the difficulties of being a first-time ultramarathon race director.

By on January 24, 2014 | Comments

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?
Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.