LAST UPDATED: 28 March 2024

Designing a Race Course

How do you design a course that is practical, safe and enjoyable for participants? A chat with DMSE Sports' Director of Events, Meryl Leventon.

Meryl LeventonMeryl Leventon

Designing a Race Course

As a race director, few things in the race planning lifecycle can be as exciting and enjoyable as designing a brand new race course. From picking a start area to mapping out race distances and figuring out where to place amenities, such as aid stations, race course design constitutes an important first step in shaping your race’s identity - one that will likely affect all aspects of your race experience, safety planning and logistics for years to come.

So, how do you nail this critical first step in making your race a reality? How do you design a course that is as enjoyable for participants on the main stage, as it is safe, practical and easily accessible for you, your team and emergency services behind the scenes?

That’s what we’ll be discussing today with my guest, DMSE Sports’ Director of Events, Meryl Leventon. As industry people go, Meryl’s a Swiss army knife when it comes to race planning and race day ops, and with tons of experience and a plethora of events under her belt, Meryl will help lay out for us the most important principles of effective race course design, from designing for speed and a great race experience to delivering a course that respects host communities and works well in emergencies, should things happen to go wrong around the race.

In this episode:

  • Deciding on a type of course: know your town, know your market
  • Working with local authorities on approving your course
  • Picking and planning out your start/finish areas
  • Designing your course for a specific distance
  • When you should (and needn't) certify your course
  • How to combine different race distances on the same course (and how to think about start times)
  • Fixing course bottlenecks with a good wave start plan
  • Responsible course planning: communicating with and minimizing disruption for local communities
  • Publishing race day road closures through Google Maps, TomTom and other popular mapping sources
  • Incorporating spectator zones in your course plan
  • Designing for safety: emergency planning, access lanes and coordinating with emergency services
  • Laying out alternate course contingencies in case of weather disruption
  • Designing your course on Google Maps

Meryl's lululemon 10K Scottsdale Google Map:

Thanks to RunSignup for supporting quality content for race directors by sponsoring this episode. More than 28,000 in-person, virtual, and hybrid events use RunSignup's free and integrated solution to save time, grow their events, and raise more. If you'd like to learn more about RunSignup's all-in-one technology solution for endurance and fundraising events visit

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Episode transcript

Panos  02:05
Meryl, welcome to the podcast!

Meryl  02:07
Thanks for having me.

Panos  02:08
Well, thank you very much for making the time to come on. What part of the world are you joining from today? Because I know you traveled quite a lot.

Meryl  02:15
Today, I am joining you from sunny Palm Springs, California.

Panos  02:20
Awesome, which is home for you, is it? 

Meryl  02:22
A little bit further than where I live. I live in San Diego. Here for a site visit and decided to stay last night to wake up here and do our podcast. 

Panos  02:33
Awesome. I've been to San Diego once. It doesn't strike me as a place where winter visits. Do you get winters in San Diego or South California or is it just, like, flat one season all year round?

Meryl  02:46
Actually, I think a lot of people think there's no winter in San Diego. There is no actual winter, and there's no snowfall but it does get cold in Southern California - colder I think than most people would expect. It's not like Florida weather which is hot and humid all year. So we have layers and people like to put on boots and jackets and beanies, we like to think, but it does get a little bit chillier in the winter.

Panos  03:14
Okay, cool. And where are you originally from? Because when we last chatted, you mentioned something about out east somewhere.

Meryl  03:21
I am originally from the Philadelphia area - born and raised there. 

Panos  03:27
Okay, awesome. You work for DMSE Sports. I don't know why I keep calling it DMZ Sports, even when I had Dave on. I think some people call it DMSE Sports. I think Meg calls it DMSE - I don't know why - so I'm calling it DMSE Sports, if that's okay.

Meryl  03:44
You can call it DMSE. We'll call it, like, our industry nickname. It is DMSE Sports, Dave McGillivray Sports Enterprises, but our nickname is DMSE. So yeah, so you'll hear our staff refer to it, and you can too. 

Panos  03:59
Okay, cool. Okay. And you're all there. According to your LinkedIn, at least, you're director of events, which sounds pretty broad. What exactly do you do? Do you want to tell us our listeners a little bit about what your role involves at DMSE and also a little bit about your background actually running up to you joining DMSE? Because I know you've been spending quite a lot of your career in the industry. So you want to take us through that?

Meryl  04:28
Yeah, sure. I graduated from college. In my years in college, I actually was the head of my Student Activities Board. So I had a really fun taste of what it was like to manage a budget and plan events for people, get feedback from the other students, and be the person representing the students and what we wanted to see on campus, whether it was concerts. We had one big event every year called Flunk Day - that was a surprise event and just a huge honour on our campus to oversee every year. So, kinda started there. But if you had asked me in college what I wanted to do professionally, I would have told you that I wanted to work in the front office of a professional sports team. I had that opportunity but it wasn't really everything that I had hoped for. So it almost came together perfectly that my love of sports and my love of events were able to come together in endurance. So now looking back, I've been doing this for 15 years, I've worked with some of the biggest companies in the country, whether it's just running its triathlon, experience operations, working with marketing managers, being a race director, being a course director, but my bread and butter in the industry has truly been operations and logistics. When I left my previous job, I was the race director for an event in San Diego, a 25-year-old event in San Diego. So, it was very cool to spend time helping tell the story, reimagining each year how we are different, and we're still putting on an incredible event, and I loved every moment of that job and the people that I worked with, but had an incredible opportunity to come over to DMSE and work alongside Dave, and Matt - our leaders here at DMSE. And what I love about it is I'm not in a corner anymore. Like, at our company, this is a team sport for us. So it's really hard to say, like, what does the director of events do. I can definitely tell you the things that I've been doing but I think what is so cool about our company is that everybody is so good at so many things. And when we collaborate, we come together, we can put on amazing events. Right now, I've been spending a lot of my time focusing and supporting our clients in-- they have a city that they want to go to and I'm helping find a new venue, creating a new course, having the conversation with stakeholders, and really selling in the event, getting it permitted and approved, and then go from there. But my role is not limited. Like I said, it truly is a team effort and a team sport at DMSE. Nobody only does one thing. We fling barricades, we pick up trash, and we do whatever we need to make it happen. So it's interesting to go from organisations that own their events to now client services. It's truly the biggest difference with what I'm doing now and I love it. We have amazing clients who had these amazing events that have been around for 50-plus years and it's like being a part of race history now when I get to show up at the Boston Marathon. It's so iconic.

Panos  08:18
And how's business looking actually from your end now that we're clearly out of the pandemic and I'm reading really positive stuff in terms of registrations picking up and stuff? From your point of view, you see quite a lot of the market. How are things looking?

Meryl  08:35
From my view, things are great. The events that we go to-- we just finished producing the Lululemon 10K tour in Scottsdale, Arizona, and we sold out. The interest is there. People are back riding, people are back travelling, and people feel comfortable again. I definitely think the pandemic is behind us and we're back in business at the events that I'm at. So I am optimistic for the future. 

Panos  09:04
Awesome. That's great to hear. Last time we spoke, I got the impression that - as you say, you enjoy operations quite a lot - you were really enthusiastic about race courses and stuff. 

Meryl  09:15

Panos  09:16
Is that a part of the job that you enjoy, generally? 

Meryl  09:18
It is. It is definitely my bread and butter when it comes to events. My friends in the industry who know me, I'm a course girl. So I spent a lot of time outside on the race course, I spent a lot of time designing them, working on traffic control, and really trying to cultivate an exciting experience from start to finish. So yes, I've spent quite a bit of time mapping and thinking about those things.

Panos  09:50
Okay, awesome. So if we've got the right person here. So this is actually an episode that I've wanted to do for quite a while - race courses. I mean, it's almost, like, the first thing or really quite up the list of things you would do as a race director, even sort of daydream about it before even doing anything else - like, designing courses in your head - and it's an important one that affects race experience. It has lots of implications on the safety of everyone on the course. Basically, lots of things can go wrong - let's put it that way - if you don't sort of, like, do the race course bit well, and many things can get also quite expensive if you don't do it well, which is hopefully what we're going to be going into today because it's really important to hear from someone like yourself who's done this a million times. And you've seen all kinds of situations and I'm sure all of our listeners can benefit from your experience. Now, I'm not exactly sure where to begin here because it's a little bit-- I mean, there's a few things that we're going to be covering but I'm sort of trying to find a good way to get us started. I'm thinking, like, someone wants to put on a race in a town. Okay, let's start with sort of a tangible example. They have no prerequisites, precondition, sort of, like, pinning them down, so like, blue sky type stuff, okay? So they want to put on a 10K, just to pick a moderate distance. I guess there are even different types of courses that they can contemplate, right? They can go point to point, they can do loops, they can do out and back and stuff. From your point of view, when you get into that situation, you get started, right? What considerations would you go over in deciding even, like, broadly what type of course you want to design?

Meryl  11:44
So I think, obviously, the distance is important. And I think knowing your market, knowing your neighbourhood, wherever you're looking to produce the event is also going to be key. So I think having those initial conversations with stakeholders, city officials, and your local police department is going to be really important because they're going to be the ones who usually make the final decision on your race route. They know the roads best, they know how they're going to detour traffic, they know what highway ramps are going to be shut down. So I think starting with a conversation with someone from special events or your local police department. Again, it's different in every city, but those are usually two positions to go to first to kind of bring the idea and say, "Is there an approved area?" Some cities actually have even established some pre-approved routes now. You can go places that will say, "If you want to do a 5K, we already have an approved 5K course and this is what we're going to do." I know that was something that they were looking to establish the last time I was there. For example, in a city like Omaha, Nebraska, they have a lot of people who want to come in and use the same park and they want to use the same system because they know it works, they know it's safe, and the community can operate around. So I would start with an appointed personfrom the city special events department and kind of go from there. It usually creates itself, especially if there are limitations. Now, if it's a blue-sky situation, like you said, you're still going to have to have the conversation with the same people because permitting the event and getting the route approved is just part of the process. 

Panos  13:27
It's interesting that you sort of jumped into the city and stakeholder relationship. From your experience-- I appreciate that this may vary from city to city, but do cities and other stakeholders tend to basically lean on you fairly firmly to push you in one direction or another? Like, you go to them with something that's maybe outside their comfort zone or their designated 5K's and stuff? Would they try and basically steer you towards something that they're comfortable with or would they accommodate whatever race course you may have in mind and you go to them with?

Meryl  14:14
I think it's just about coming up with a good plan. I think that there are a lot of things as event producers that we can present to cities and stakeholders that actually help support a route we really want. Coming up with creative solutions like, say, a neighbourhood access lane. There's a neighbourhood that we really want to run by and they say, "Well, we can't run by there because these neighbours aren't going to be able to get out", and we say, "Okay, no problem. Listen, we're going to move the runners over one lane and, right next to them, we're going to cone a traffic access lane and this is how we can get this neighbourhood out back to the main artery and they won't be impacted by the event." So I definitely think coming with some good solutions and problem-solving tactics to sell in a race course - that's what I like to say-- like, I can sell in solutions to them that-- again, if you can help show them that this is going to be a great event for the community and why it benefits the community but, at the same time, understanding that people still have lives, people need to leave their house, people need to go to work, people need to go to church, and we show them how we all can kind of be in the same orbit, it typically works out. Some cities are harder than others and some cities are really welcome to solutions and trying something new.

Panos  15:40
I'm guessing, though, generally, that out-and-back type courses or courses where the start and the finish line are quite close to each other - which also makes sense from a number of other reasons like logistics, etc - I'm guessing these are favoured by cities and venues.

Meryl  16:02
Yeah, when I think about an out-and-back course, I think about a course that's probably going to trace the same route out and back, whether it's on one road or just a couple, and they trace it back, and then you have a common start-finish point. Those types of events tend to be minimally impactful as opposed to a point-to-point course that goes around the whole city and creates a box around a major metropolitan city. But I will say that there are benefits to a point-to-point as well where I can tell you, in a giant route, a half marathon that goes around a city, we tell the city, "We reopen the roads on a rolling reopening plan. So after this last participant passes this point, we can reopen the roads here and we follow so behind," whereas the out and back course would be shut down a little bit longer. Again, it just depends on what those hurdles are that we're trying to get over in the city. Is it one neighbourhood? Is it a highway ramp? Is it a major artery that's really important to a certain city that we need to get reopened by a certain time? All those things play a part in what direction you're going to go with the type of course you're going to create. 

Panos  17:24
And of course, the road running bit of it is-- I guess you need to think about access lanes and all that stuff and not boxing people in that we're going to get into. But in terms of the start and finish areas which are, like, bulkier than just-- I mean, you need space to do stuff with those. If I showed you a map, would your eyes sort of, like, gravitate towards certain types of features in the city or something that would be favourable for putting your start and finish areas? Like how would you think about that? 

Meryl  17:56
Yeah, I mean, there's a lot of things that we need to think about that start before the start line. Do we have enough room to create start line corrals? Do we have enough room to place things at start lines that we want to offer our participants like portable restrooms, gear check, and maybe morning refreshments? Things like that. But all of that has to do with how many participants are we expecting. Are we doing a small community event of 500 people? Or are we doing a massive community half marathon with 25,000 people twho are going to line up at a start line? So all of those things are part of your consideration before we're even establishing that course. Or maybe you just have a neighbourhood that you love, and now we're looking for a great park or a great venue to put them in to put all that together. So yeah, it feels like you can't have one without the other but you got to start somewhere, right? And all those things are dictated for one reason or another. You have 25,000 participants coming to your event. Okay, well, you know that you need a large venue, right? So some of those things will dictate themselves for you.

Panos  19:10
But for the smaller ones that you mentioned like the few 100 to 1000 type events, you can, in principle, sort of start them from a broad enough or wide enough kind of street - is that Is that doable, basically? 

Meryl  19:23
Yeah, we're doing a 1000-person 5K in the neighbourhood and maybe we don't need a huge park. Maybe we just need a block party permit where we start them on the road and we permit to just have that full road kind of like a neighbourhood block party and we're able to place all those things that we need and we have all the rooms. So yeah, we don't always need a park or anything like that. We can get creative and just utilise a wide road. 

Panos  19:52
Now, of course, the other constraint, obviously, that you need to solve for is hitting the event distance that you want to do, right? I mean, if you're designing a 10K, you want your course to be a 10K or, I guess, slightly above that - is that is that sort of the rule of designing? You don't want to be short, you want to always be as close to the desired distance, if not a clique longer than that. 

Meryl  20:18
Yeah, it depends. If you're going to certify your route, yeah, we fall into the rules of course certification. And, of course, that means you're bringing in a measurer who's going to hop on a bike with a Jones counter and go out and certify that and paint your mile marks and your start and finish and know your exact turnaround point, if you have one. And it's not required. If you're putting on a small neighbourhood 5K or a smaller community 10K event, there's nothing that says you have to certify your route but, if you're going to do the measurements yourself, obviously, if you're advertising a 10K route, we want to make sure it's 10K. So yes, to your point, a tiny bit long is fine, short, if it's not coming up at 6.2 on their watch, it'll be short. So there are great tools, though, to ensure your route is the correct distance and then checks and balances that come on race week with staff to ensure that your plan is executed properly, and the turnaround and the course are marked properly to hit that distance.

Panos  21:31
Yeah, we're gonna get into the tools a little bit later. I know you have a few that you're using and people are going to be interested in anything that can make the job easier. But since you're on that, do you find-- because I'm guessing you do a lot of putting lines on digital maps before you go out there. How accurate is this kind of exercise? Do you find that if you map out a 10K on Google Maps or something equivalent, basically, that when you go out there with a Jones counter or whatever, that it's a relatively reliable estimate that you've put together?

Meryl  22:05
Yeah, when I map online before going out to a market and to look at things, I use Google Maps. Lots of people use MapMyRun or Plot A Route. I typically say I like to measure about a 10th of a mile over. Satellites aren't always perfect. Your tangents aren't always perfect when you're measuring. So I always like to measure that a 10th of a mile over and when it comes time to certify, we ended up being pretty close to where we established those start-finish points. But yeah, I would say it's quite accurate. 

Panos  22:42
Yeah. Because I guess also the certifier, they tend to sort of, like, cut corners - kind of, like, minimum distance possible kind of thing - right? So if you have a wide enough street, they will go corner to corner to minimise the distance as much as possible, right? 

Meryl  22:59
Yep, exactly. And I've spent quite a bit of time certifying routes with Doug Thurston, who's in A-level measurer here in the US and he's been doing it for quite some time. But yes, we're coming out of a turn and we're on the left side of the road, and the next turn is the right. We're taking the tangent and going corner to corner. So sometimes, when you're mapping, you'll map a little longer anyway just because you haven't pulled the tangents. But there are great tools that you can manually map to and you can set your own tangents to really get it as tight as possible. But there are great tools that bring a whole lot of accuracy. And then, obviously, we have GPS watches and things like that as another layer to check. But I would say it's pretty reliable. It won't be nearly as close as the course certifier going out with the Jones counter, but it will be close enough to get you where you need to be, whether it's that 5K or 10K distance.

Panos  24:02
We've heard this question a couple of times about course measurement and certification from people, particularly some junior people who are not very familiar with how necessary this is for lots of the races that people put on, which may be, like, a small or smallish community - 5K, 10K. Just to clear that up, under what circumstances would you look to call in, like, an actual measurer to certify the course?

Meryl  24:33
I would say anytime course records could be broken - that's always an important one. And then something that we hear often in the industry is the Boston qualifier. A lot of people look for other events in the country to participate in, to get their time to qualify for Boston. So you'll hear a lot of people say, "Well, I'm going to certify this because it's going to be a Boston qualifier or BQ," and that's probably one of the number one reasons people like to come out and certify their routes. But otherwise, there's no rule that says it has to be done. But what I will say is it is a common practice for events to do that. Now, your event is fundraising or nonprofit, you're a volunteer, budgets are smaller, events certification costs money and if you're not looking to break records or have any of these things, again, it's not necessary. It doesn't mean it's not a 5K. It's just not certified.

Panos  25:42
I want to go back a little bit to the design side of things. We started talking on the basis of I want to put on a 10K. What lots of people do even quite early on in the history of a race, they would put on 2 distances on the same day, right? They'll have a 10K and 5K for convenience, I guess. It makes a lot of sense for people to reuse parts of the course. They would have the 5K on the 10K course, that kind of thing. Is there anything to advise against that? Or is that as obvious as it sounds that, yeah, it makes sense to have your distances share parts of the same course? 

Meryl  26:21
There are tonnes of events across the country that like to embed a 10K in with a half marathon or a 5K in with a 10K. And again, every route is different. Some of the things that you want to make sure you're just cross-checking are the timelines. Are you sending the 5K out before the 10K or vice versa? Does your course lend itself to that? A lot of times, you see these two distances go out and, sometimes, the timings are not great and the 5K went out first, the 10K went out second, and now your lead 10K participant is running into the back of the back of the 5K. So I think it's important to just look through timing with the road. Is it an out-and-back? Is it a point-to-point? Are they merging? Do you need to keep them separated after they merge back together? But again, it's very cost-effective to share multiple routes on the road and do everything on the same day, if you can, if we're looking to maximise the budget, experience, and those different elements of the event. But yeah, just some things to keep in mind but I wouldn't advise against it. I would just advise knowing your math and making sure your timing is correct. 

Panos  27:47
And in terms of that math of the timing, is the idea that, basically, you're aiming for both races to finish at right around the same kind of time? 

Meryl  27:58
Yes and no. I've worked, personally, a lot of events where the 5K comes in first and then the 10K comes in first. That way each of those top participants can have their moment. And by doing so, most of the 5K have completed a course before the thick of the 10K is coming in now. So, the goal is to just make sure you have enough room to accommodate both distances and the bell curve, if you will, of runners slowly coming into the finish chute.

Panos  28:35
And thinking of road races where-- I guess, all of this gets a little bit more complicated always because of road closes and stuff when you get a pick of larger streets to use and narrower streets to use and that kind of thing. I guess they have pros and cons because closing larger streets down creates more of a disruption to the public, but then the smaller streets may have bottlenecks and stuff like that. How do you think about these kinds of things? Again, going back to blue sky, assuming you can map out any course, would you try to avoid larger roads? Would you like to avoid narrower roads? Looking at a map again, what makes you think we shouldn't go through there and we should go through there?

Meryl  29:24
Yeah, I mean, you make a good point about pinch points or anything that could bottleneck but I always tell people, "For the most part, we can fix all of that at the start line." So all of that goes into your wave plans. Is it a mass start? Are you gonna pinch down the start line to thin the runners out a little bit more as they're starting the race? Are you going to put them in corrals with two-minute breaks in between? So narrow points on course can be fixed at the start line with a good wave plan. So it's not necessarily a deterrent to stay away from it but it's just again another play on to execute with the team at the start to ensure that people aren't having to hop up onto the sidewalks and aren't spilling over on the street and aren't bottlenecking like we were talking about. So, as you say, like in a blue sky situation, I always go into city meetings where I'll say things like, "If I had my dream route," a lot of markets across the country have heard me say things like this, I always love to come in with, like, if I could do anything I want, here's what I would do. Maybe you have an amazing neighbourhood or an iconic city site that you really want to go by. I've done a lot of events in Philadelphia, and there's so much scenery that's so iconic in the city of Philadelphia, running past the Liberty Bell, and all those pieces. So if you can make it work, make it work, because that's just part of enhancing that experience out on course for your participants, right? We want to give them the best we got out there.

Panos  31:08
Absolutely. I think, now, it rings a bell. That's a point that I had Marcel Altenburg, who's a professor at Manchester Metropolitan University, if I recall correctly, who actually deals with actually creating-- he has, like, a big simulation engine for races and he actually looks at the flow of the participants, and he was telling me indeed, as well, that same point that, basically, the last thing you can control things is the start line with the waves, the corrals, the width of the start line, etc. You can basically control the flow of participants. After they've left the start line, it's basically out of your hands. I mean, they'll just race through and bottleneck and whatever. So it is important to think about your start line and how you're releasing people into the course so you don't end up bottlenecking stuff.

Meryl  31:59
Yeah, and it can become a problem-solving solution too. Again, for a major artery, a couple of years ago, when I was working on my event in San Diego, I really wanted to change the 5K and I wanted to move the start venue to the other side of Balboa Park, which is a really iconic Park in San Diego and we were going across this major artery called Park Boulevard, and there's a quite a few city buses that come through that need to operate and we truly can't shut down. So I said, "That's no problem. I'm going to put the start line right here. And we're going to send them off in waves. And when the buses come, we pause the runners. We allow the buses to cross. Once they've moved out of the intersection, we let the next group of runners start" and it was problem solved and we made it work. We were able to run through Balboa Park and we didn't interrupt the city buses. But yes, as soon as those runners take off from the start line, it's up to them and you don't have any control over the flow or the situation. So everything needs to be fixed at the start line first. 

Panos  33:12
So in that race, you are actually holding people back? You were asking them to basically hold back at some point for the buses to go through - am I understanding it correctly?

Meryl  33:21
So it was the start line. They just hadn't started yet. 

Panos  33:23
Ah, ok.

Meryl  33:25
Yeah, yeah. We would start a group of runners and then we would pause, the buses would come through, and then the gun would go off again, and the next wave. So it was all right there at the start line.

Panos  33:36
Okay, quite creative. Yeah. I mean, I guess you have to solve all of these things because the cities have to go on living their lives. And recently, there's another thing we're gonna be touching. I seem to see increasingly lots of news of local communities getting frustrated with races. I think some of the goodwill that used to be there with people going into cities and putting on events is wearing thin, I find in some places. Do you see that at all, basically - people not being as willing to open their communities up for races because of the disruption? 

Meryl  34:18
Yeah, I would say that event fatigue is real even in small markets. Just 5Ks, 10Ks, marathons, constantly having roads shut down, and things like that. Something that makes me think of-- something a friend of mine named Ted Metellus, who is the race director for the New York City Marathon used to say and he used it as an example in city meetings. You don't want to be the third cousin that shows up at Thanksgiving each year, eats all of the food, and we never see you again. So I think this is a great example of relationship building and relationship maintenance, and goodwill towards a community. Communities tend to be supportive of events that are supportive of their communities. So, things that we all know how to do that we should look to. If we're experiencing some of this event fatigue, what are we doing to support the community? Is our post-race party all community vendors and local businesses? Are we working with local nonprofits? What are we doing to be an inclusive event for the community and not an event that puts the community out? And those are always big pieces before you even get into planning your race route or what park or what venue you want to use. Like, what are you doing in the community to make this an inclusive event? You want to feel like you're one, right? You don't want to be the outsider. And you tend to have much better experiences when you maintain those relationships and you do have some goodwill towards the community to be part of your event. And when you go to city stakeholder meetings or a neighbourhood council meeting to seek approval for your event, those are all the questions that they're going to ask you anyway, "Thank you for coming and letting us know that you're having this event. But what are you doing for us other than shutting down our roads?" So those are all great things to think about? 

Panos  36:37
Well, and also - which I find some people do a better job than others - being respectful and deliberate in communicating your plans, almost sort of like door-to-door canvassing and stuff - like, just letting people know, being courteous, being very precise with what kind of disruption you're going to be causing, all of that stuff. 

Meryl  36:56
Yeah. So there's a community notification plan - that's what I usually call it - and that could be going door to door, as you said, canvassing, making road closure brochures, making sure people have that information or website, contact information. For the event that I was just in in Scottsdale this past weekend, we did that. We had a community landing page that had all of the information online if people needed anything. We created a priority list of people who received the information and then we checked back with them before the race to make sure that information trickled down to, say, an apartment complex or a restaurant, making sure all their staff knew how to come in the morning. One other thing that you can do is create a community line. Once our race went live, our community line went live. So people could call us live during the event and say, "Hey, I'm trying to get from point A to point B, can you help me?" So we had that. Some cities will require some early notification signs to be placed along the route that says, "Special event, expect delays, visit this website for more information." Just having information readily available to people and getting that information out early is going to make those road closures a little less painful. But then there are also amazing tools that you can use too - TomTom and Waze, which are navigation apps that, at least, we have use of here in the US. You can send your road closure to Waze and then tell people, "Hey, in the morning, turn your Waze on and Waze will navigate you around the road closures." So that's just another really easy tool to help people get around your race course and make their day a little bit easier and uninterrupted as well.

Panos  38:52
Well, that's an interesting point, actually, and avery practical one because I find in some of the larger city marathons, even Google-- like, when you do Google Maps and you say, "I want to get to that point," on race day, it actually knows that there's going to be a race on and it diverts your route. Is that something that you guys do? Like, the race team would actually call up Google and they'll map out where the race is going to be and Google knows to divert people around that? 

Meryl  39:20
Yeah. So when I've worked with, like, Waze or TomTom in the past, I just send them an EXCEL document with the road closures and the times that the roads will shut down, and they can import all that information in. Now, you can't be sending them that information the day before and expect that it's going to go in. So it's something that you want to get out pretty far in advance. But yeah, they'll activate that for you on race day. And again, it's just another great community tool, even for people who aren't maybe immediately impacted by the race who are coming from out of town and don't even know what's happening. It's just a great resource to keep the communities moving around while the events are going. 

Panos  40:00
That's super cool. Let's talk a little bit about marking. You mentioned it sort of, like, in passing earlier. Again, thinking of a road course because trail and other stuff is a world of its own in terms of marking. For a simple road course, even maybe on a park - like people running on asphalt - I'm guessing the marking is going to be fairly intuitive and quite low touch, right? I mean, it's difficult for people to get lost, particularly when you have barriers and tapes and marshals that sort of point them the way. How do you approach that?

Meryl  40:33
Yeah, for me, when I go out and mark a race course, I start the week. I use bright orange tape. It's very intuitive. Just fluorescent tape that you can buy online. I go out and mark the route with a couple of arrows at each turn. As the race unfolds and we start to shut roads down, we'll place sometimes directional signs as well on A-frames that also have arrows, and then cone the turns, things like that. So there are a couple of layers to ensure people going the right way. If you have enough volunteers, we love to put volunteers at each turn. And then lastly, my final layer of insurance that people are going the right way when I'm out there, I stop and I chat with the local police department and I just say, "Hey, just making sure you know what's going on here. The runners are coming from here. They're making a left here. Traffic's going to be moving through here." And just again, making sure everybody is aware of what's going on.

Panos  41:41
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Ok, now, let’s get back to the episode…

Lots of races like to tout their speed credentials like "We're fast, flat", this and that. It's obviously for a certain type of runner, particularly if they're trying to PB or they want to qualify for something. It's a very appealing part of a race. Now, obviously, beyond avoiding hills and all of that stuff, which makes a course much more challenging, what else would you think of if you had your mind on designing a fast race?

Meryl  43:43
I would do something with little to no turns. The less turns that we're taking, the faster we can go. There's a really cool event that happens on the Pacific Coast Highway and in Huntington Beach called Surf City 10. They also have a marathon out there and it's literally the most beautiful out and back on a coastal California highway you'll ever see, and it is flat as can be. It's out. You turn around and come back. And it is a very, very fast race. So that's immediately what popped into my head when you said how do you make your race course faster? No turns.

Panos  44:25
Okay, that makes sense. For a course like that actually, for your ideal simple A to B back to A type of thing where you loop around and you come back, is there anything to think about having basically the same part of road accommodate both directions of people probably in high density going back and forth? Like, is there anything to think about there that people should keep in mind?

Meryl  44:53
Yeah, I mean, I would definitely recommend running some sort of centre cone line, and some signage that delineates the runners so they know they're going out in traffic flow on the right and coming back with traffic flow, same thing. Right here in the US, the way that we drive is opposite of some other places in the world. But yeah, I like signage, I like delineation, if the road is really really, really wide like this giant highway in California, I like to call it line of sight cones. So, just enough that you can see that there's some delineation but we don't need to go crazy. There are other things that we can do, like I said, to show signage that has arrows going into different directions is kind of that universal symbol of two-way runners and things like that. So there's some other additional signage and things that you could place out there to delineate them.

Panos  45:50
Okay, cool. Yeah. Because I guess, more cones, more expensive, among other things other than having to put them out and then collect them again. 

Meryl  45:58

Panos  45:59
And obviously, this is one bit that even I know, which is you try and put a timing point at the point where people turn around, I guess, to discourage people who might think of cheating or cutting course.

Meryl  46:12
Yeah, you could definitely put a cheater mat out at the turnaround but the technology now has gotten so good with timing, even if you don't put a cheater mat out there, most timers will be able to pick up if you are mile one to mile two was a 9:30 pace and then, all of a sudden, your next mile, you're running a 6:30 and something significant has been shaved off your other mile time. So a lot of timing software now can pick up on that stuff instantly, so it's not 100% needed but I am a classic fan of a cheater mat out at the turnaround to ensure people are getting all the way out there and not cutting the course.

Panos  46:57
Yeah, I mean, that sounds 100% foolproof. I also get the kind of trying to infer it from other timing points but, like, a cheater mat-- I didn't even though there was a term for it. Sounds much more robust, right? I mean, you either go through it or you don't. There's no debating about how fast you go and stuff like that.

Meryl  47:15
Yeah, the bottom line is you definitely want to have some sort of timing mat out on course for intermediary points, whether it's doing it at the 5K and mile five. And then, like I said, if you don't put it all the way out at the turnaround, being able to collect at those timing points is going to be able to tell you if people made it to the turnaround or not because everything will just look different in one little mile.

Panos  47:40
Now, other beats and features that you need on the course like aid stations, porta loos, and photographers, do you have any strong views about where you would place those? I'm thinking of strong views for photographers. I guess the other stuff, you need to put them in specific distances. How are you thinking about all those little things that you need to insert there somewhere?

Meryl  48:01
Yeah, I mean, there are pretty standard course elements that we want to have out there - water stations, obviously, or hydration stations. We'll call them depending on the distance. If we're doing a 5K, one. If we're doing a 10K, two has been my standard, historically. Half marathons, every mile and a half, maybe a little less if it's in a warmer weather city. I like to just put water stations and portable restrooms together for the runners. That way, when they know they're at a water station, they know they're coming up on a portable restroom. Some of the other things to think about too when we're placing some of these things on the course, we don't want to forget about the staff and the volunteers too. So do you have volunteers working in an area, say, out at your far and turnaround that's five miles from the finish line? We want to make sure we're putting portable restrooms out there for them. Everything else-- mile marks are pretty standard. I mean, there isn't a rulebook that says what we have to put out there, but there are best practices now at this point that most people will adhere to. But yeah, mile marks, medical stations, water stations, portable restrooms, and then photographers getting out there telling the story, creating content to continue telling the story afterwards each year. When it comes to photographers, you'll see a lot of photographers at the start, at the finish. I've worked on tonnes of events where I've seen photographers get on the back of press trucks and take photos. If your event doesn't have a press truck, I've seen photographers who hop on an E-bike, on a really wide road where they have room to manoeuvre. They'll get on a bike, go out to a point, snap some shots, and then kind of just fall in with the participants and kind of rove around the course and take photos that way. But a lot of those are conversations you want to have before the event, you want to have a good plan, make sure they know the course, make sure you want them in one place that maybe you don't want them in another, and have those conversations. In Scottsdale, this past weekend, we did a course ride with the photographers to show them the route, where we would have live traffic, where we wouldn't have live traffic, and some of the moments that we wanted them to capture with different activations and things that we were doing. So the more information you can give them, the better of a job they can do to tell your story out there.

Panos  50:41
Yeah. And to have a good eye for this kind of thing. I should mention here, that if people are interested in more in the whole race photography on race day and where to put people, we have a whole different podcast episode on that. So you should check that out. Now, last but very much not least, spectators. So spectators-- generally, for these kinds of events, they tend to congregate wherever it's closest or wherever they can park their car, I guess, and come out. Do you try to encourage, through the design of the course, people turning up at specific parts of the course? Do you even think about spectators?

Meryl  51:21
Every event that I work on is a little bit different. I've definitely worked at events where we've truly tried to have spectator zones where we invite people out. And you bring up a good point because there were definitely some cities that we said, "This is a great opportunity for community engagement. Maybe you have a restaurant with a prime location on course that you could be sitting right out there looking for your friends or your family that are running and taking advantage of morning brunch and all those fun things that people like to do and they spectate." So finding good locations on courses that are accessible is really important and definitely something that I've done before if the opportunity lends itself. Otherwise, they kind of find where they want to be. Common points, obviously, are your start and finish line. And then, events with the longer distances, if they have a split - or maybe even a shorter distance, you're doing a 5K or doing a 10K and the course splits off into two different directions - you'll see a lot of spectators gather at the split point because they want to grab someone and see them and take pictures, things like that halfway. But yeah, I mean, I think spectator zones are awesome. But again, make sure that they're accessible. People can get to them, and make sure you get the information out and tell the story of the event for the people on the other side too, and how they can come in and enjoy as well.

Panos  52:53
And when the spectators on race day, which obviously happens quite a lot, they want to cross the race course, like, from an operational point of view, do you have the kind of, like, protocol to deal with that or do you just hope that people will just cross and not bother the flow of the race?

Meryl  53:10
If there's a scenario where you know spectators or we'll just say anybody on one side of the neighbourhood needing to get across the other, it's usually best if you have a controlled crossing point where you have a break in the barricades, maybe you have a feather flag that says crosswalk, and then you can put some staff or security there to establish that that crossing point where that staff person will say, "Now's a great time to try to cross. There's a break in the runners here." So anything that you can do to improve the experience instead of watching spectators play Frogger in front of runners and get across is always going to work better than people just taking it into their own hands and crossing wherever they want. But I'm sure you've seen your fair share of people running across race courses and things like that too. 

Panos  54:04
Yeah, you can't avoid it, particularly if you have some people who are very strong-minded about wanting to cross and wanting to make a point of crossing race courses sometimes. You let them cross, I guess. But it's always good, as you say, in extension to this whole idea of being courteous and understanding and investing in your presence in the community to have those specific crossing points or to have thought about these kinds of things. It's fascinating to me that most races in the US happen on Saturdays, which is actually not at all the case in Europe. Most races happen on Sunday because you guys have church-going folks, so they need to get to church. So this is big enough of a consideration or, at least, that's what people have been telling me because I've been asking, "Why do you have races on Saturdays?" And they tell me, "It's because of all the people trying to get to church."

Meryl  54:59
Yeah, I think it depends. I've worked in a lot of markets, we'll say, in the South where Sundays are for church, and doing an event on Sunday morning is definitely not a thing. But then, I'll be in other markets where Sunday is preferred because Saturday is a much busier morning than a Sunday. So I think it kind of just depends on your geographical location. But I've seen both.

Panos  55:22
Right. But actually, I think it's an important point because it speaks to understanding the norms of the communities that you operate in, right? I mean, you need to think about these things. You can't just go, like, gung-ho, "Okay, here's my date, here's my route," and then try to basically solve issues. As you say, it needs to be a little bit more collaborative and you need to think about the community you're inserting yourself into on race day.

Meryl  55:48
Yeah. And it can be quite difficult. I used to do an event in St. Louis and our race route had quite a few churches, and it was a lot of access lanes, and it was a lot of conversations, working with the community to make sure those people could get to where they needed to be on Sunday morning without interruption, and the directions were clear, and the access lanes were set properly, and they had a point of contact in the morning. So yeah, it can end up being another huge piece of your event that you wouldn't even imagine, but we still need to have a plan for it. 

Panos  56:28
And that's a great segue, actually, because I wanted to talk about access lanes. Shifting a little bit into the safety aspects of the course and the practical aspects of the course, we discussed, like, setting up a nice course taking in the sights, all of that stuff but there's there's really important considerations people should not lose sight of in terms of emergency services being able to access parts of the course, the race directing team and staff being able to act to access parts of that course. How are you thinking around that and access lanes and making sure that every point on the course you can get to in good time? 

Meryl  57:05
Yeah. We're talking about outside event resources. Like if there were to be an emergency and a vehicle needed across the course during the event, how would we think through those details? So that's all part of the conversation, too, when we're meeting with the city and stakeholders, and you're usually going to see people from transportation, from fire rescue, from police. They're all talking to each other. They're planning internally. So they know when this half marathon is happening this day. They're planning their routes. But there are certainly times when an ambulance needs to cross a course. And, unfortunately, sometimes the best thing that has to happen is you have to pause the runners if there's no other way in. If you have ways to create access lanes for those emergency situations, that's definitely the route that you want to go but there have definitely been scenarios where there's something life-threatening in a community, and I always tell people that that's going to come first and we hope that the goodwill of people running the events team kind of understands the emergencies in that case. When it comes to access lanes inside the route, the preplanning, one of my events in San Diego that I worked on, we went by a fire station, so we had an access lane for the fire station so that fire trucks could get in and out with no problems whether they use the access lane or not. It was there if they needed it. 

Panos  58:40
And actually, that's an interesting situation because when that kind of thing happens, you find yourself in the position on race day, life and death type access needs to be granted during the course. When you look back on it, given that many raise directors, when they're designing a course, they won't have the intricate understanding of access flows and all of that to be able to prethink and come up with everything that might happen, would you say that a lot of the responsibility of making sure that those access lanes and plans exists are back on the emergency services stuff? Or is it more, like, a responsibility of the events? So if something goes wrong, who's to blame? Just to put it bluntly. Is it the local police chief or something that didn't think of a scenario or is it on you, the race director?

Meryl  59:36
I mean, I still think it's a team effort. Anytime any organisation comes into a market to produce an event, these are all the best practices and questions that we should be asking so that we're all set up for success. When it comes to medical emergencies during the event, you want to think through, like, where do we want to stage that ALS unit, the BLS unit? Do we want to have medical professionals on bikes? Wherever that is. So we definitely want to think through, like, any trouble areas, any harder-to-reach areas, and think through where do we best be staging these vehicles to navigate around the course. Those are important conversations. But then, on the flip side, again, it depends on your race route, it depends on the city. Most cities will take initiatives and say, "We're going to stage certain units inside this area. That way, if there is something that we need to respond to, we can get to it easily." So, I don't want to ever point fingers and say anyone's to blame but I just think it's something that we need to work through together and make sure that we all have a good plan to support our initiatives that day, whether it's the race or it's just making sure the community has the resources that they need. 

Panos  1:00:55
One of the things that I know happens quite a lot in the trail running world is that race directors usually come up with lots of contingencies for weather, natural catastrophe, that kind of thing because you're up in the mountains, maybe a landslide happens, or maybe there's snowfall overnight and you need to reroute the course. Is this a common consideration for road races? Would you have alternate routes or ready-go-to plans in case the streets shut down or something else happens along the course?

Meryl  1:01:32
Oh, absolutely. And most of the markets that I'm in now actually require that kind of plan. Something that we haven't really touched on but is probably a good point to make is, at this point in the world that we live in and making sure everybody's on the same page and we can all communicate easily, you want to have an established race command centre. And that can be a 10 by 10 pop-up tent with a member from the organisation sitting with somebody from the fire department and somebody from the police department. That way, if there is some sort of weather-related emergency or any of these tabletop exercises that we go through, you have people in a decision-making place to make decisions together to then filter that information out to everybody who is out there. But yeah, we come up with all kinds of plans for different scenarios. If it's too hot, if it's too cold, if there are lightning strikes on the course, if we need to evacuate people, where are the gathering areas that we want to stop people and put them into? And how are we picking them up and getting them back in safely? Or where is that safe place we're gonna move those people into until it's safe to resume again? So I'm sure that's something that you and Dave talked a lot about on that Boston Marathon bombing episode that you guys did together. Yeah.

Panos  1:02:58
Yeah. Does this kind of thing actually happen with any frequency in the races that you've put on or helped in actually having to change the route over road race?

Meryl  1:03:13
I have had it happen just a handful of times. There are things that we're doing to make sure we're not putting ourselves in those situations. You're monitoring the weather forecast, whether it's for thunder and lightning, or it's heat. We had a year in Nashville. We knew it was going to be warm. We started the race. We got the information out to get the race off earlier. And as the temperature rose, we cut the course that just became a half marathon. So we were still able to get people out there safely but knew that anybody going out to do 26.2 that day, it was going to be too much. So it really turned into a half marathon. But because we were able to pay close attention to the weather and see where the heat was going to rise, we got them out sooner and people were able to complete the event. But sometimes you do have to make-- it's best to make those decisions before you start the event as you and I have already talked about. Once they start the race, everything gets harder after that. So if you can get ahead of some of those things, that's best. There was an event earlier this year that was cancelled before anyone even showed up at a start line because it was just going to be too hot. But yeah, things happen. Weather comes through, especially in states like Florida. But again, monitoring weather and having that command centre or that essential point to have decision-makers together is always going to help streamline that information and help execute those contingency plans that you've come up with before the event.

Panos  1:04:53
I want to wrap us up on something very important, which is actually putting together the race course map. I mean, actually sketching it and the kind of tools you use. We mentioned, we'll be getting all that at the top of the episode. So you want to walk us through the kinds of tools and approaches you use to actually put together a map that you can use and you can share with others of the race course? 

Meryl  1:05:21
Yeah, absolutely. When I came into my previous job, my boss was using this tool. And he said, "I want you to learn how to use it. It's going to make your life so much easier." Having previously come from using MapMyRun and things like that, I am a big fan of just using Google Maps. Why? Because it's free, anybody can use it, and it's very shareable, and you can add all of that essential information that we talked about what we put out on the race route with mile markers, portable restrooms, and water stations. So, I have a couple of different methods that I'll use. Sometimes, I'll go out to a new city and I'll turn on my GPS watch - my Garmin - and I'll drive the route. And what's really cool about Google Maps is that I can download my Garmin file as a GPX file or a KML file, which is a key marker location, and I can import that file into Google Maps and I don't have to do any drawing. From there, you can adjust tangents and points that were plotted from that or you can just hand draw. Again, Google Maps creates a map and you're off. So what I love about it is that I'll do what I call-- I have a public-facing map and I have an internal map, and it's exactly what it sounds like. I have an internal map that I share via just a Google link with the city, stakeholders, and police. I share it with my traffic control company, anybody internally who would benefit - volunteers looking for that water station pin drop that they have to get to in the morning. And then on the flip side, I'll take that map and I'll kind of pare it down, take out information that the public doesn't need to see. But I'll come up with a virtual map that has water stations, medical stations, and any other pertinent information - maybe parking, something like that and we can make that public-facing via a Google link and embed that on a website. But like I said, it's free, it's shareable. And the other really fun tip about it is that you can use it on your phone too. So I can build out a whole race course that I think I like, and then I can pull the map up on my phone and just follow it on my phone. If it's a city, maybe, I'm not as familiar with or whatever it might be and use it from my phone, I can send pin drops to the water station that you're working at. It's just a really incredible shareable tool that any person can use. So I definitely recommend anybody looking to map fiddle around with it. You'll come up with your own style and how you like to use it. And I'm certainly happy to provide examples and some links for you and any viewers who kind of want to take a look at how that all shakes out. And maybe you're going, "But Meryl, I built 20 courses in MapMyRun and I don't want to redraw all of them," that's fine. You can go into MapMyRun, you can download as a GPX or KML and you can import all that stuff over to Google Maps and start adding some new fun tools to it. 

Panos  1:08:46
Yeah, absolutely. We should coordinate to get a couple of those links to Maps. We're going to add it on the show notes. Because I've seen your maps and they are a piece of art - some of them - if art were to get quite complex. I've seen them and there's, like, tonnes of stuff on them. And actually, this is an important point, what you were saying earlier - really with a map, you can really put a whole race plan on the map, right? Because you can add comments, you can add any level of detail. So like, sky's the limit in terms of what you can accomplish and I know you're a big fan of layers as well - like layering everything up like a cake, so you can turn things on and off. 

Meryl  1:09:28
Yeah, you can turn different layers on and off. Now, I will say, for someone who really does love mapping, and I love to take my brain when it comes to the course and put it on the map, I'm also a huge fan of paper. But sometimes, you can't update the paper on race week or the designer that was doing your course maps doesn't have time to make the edits, so this is just a really great quick tool to make a small edit. I was at an event a few weeks ago that we weren't sure construction was going to be moved so we went on and we said, "Okay, well, we could do this, this, this," and now we had an updated map instantly. So I still think paper is really important and documenting is really important, but when all else fails, I tell people, "If you have my KML, you have my whole brain, so you will be good." And we use the hit-by-a-bus theory. If I get hit by a bus and I can't show up, I promise you everything that's in my head is here on this map. So it's very user-friendly and easy to share with people and just another form of documentation. 

Panos  1:10:29
Indeed, I used to remember, like, Google had this feature where you could do, like, a fly-through kind of thing. So you can almost, like, see yourself driving through the course. Is that still around? 

Meryl  1:10:42
I think the Plot A Route will still do that. I think it has that flyover feature. If you do the Plot A Route, it will take you and fly you over the course. Google Maps is a little bit more basic in that sense. It doesn't have all those bells and whistles, but it gets the job done for me. And like I said, I can text message you the link to my course. So it's come in very handy on course rides with a vendor who's dropping portable restrooms and things like that. They love it. They can click on my pin. They go, "Oh, great. I'm putting six portable restrooms here. Great, I got this. No problem." So it's a great resource. I'm a big fan of it. And I'm super happy to help anybody who wants to get started and figure out how to use it and share the wealth to make your event planning and planning your routes a little bit easier on you. 

Panos  1:11:33
Oh, that's awesome. That's very kind of you. We are going to add a couple of links actually just so people get an idea of what a professional well-thought-out design on Google Maps of any race course would look like. I think there's going to be, like, a good pointer for people the level of detail that someone like yourself goes into. Speaking of helping others, how can people reach out to you? 

Meryl  1:11:55
People can reach out to me at And yeah, ask away. Happy to answer any questions and point people in the right direction, set up calls. I always tell people, "I'm a map geek. I love maps. I'm happy to geek out over maps with anybody else who wants to do the same thing." 

Panos  1:12:20
Oh, that's great. We need more people like you. Thank you very much, Meryl. I really enjoyed this chat. There were so many things we touched on. I hope people were furiously taking notes because there were lots of, like, little quickfire tips here and there about putting on a course. So thank you very much for coming on.

Meryl  1:12:38
Yeah, absolutely. I feel like we barely grazed the surface of the things that we can talk about when it comes to race courses. So maybe we'll need to do a part two and figure out what that one is, what the viewers want to hear. So it was fun. Thank you for the opportunity.

Panos  1:12:57
Well, thank you. Absolutely, we're going to do that. It was, as you say, a little bit of, like, a mile wide and an inch deep kind of thing. But there are so many things to cover. And I guess we weren't through a lot of, like, the first time or questions would have. We should definitely do, like, a more advanced podcast on race course mapping, which is really interesting. Thanks again for taking the time. All the best for the rest of the fall season now coming to a close. And thanks to everyone listening in and we'll see you all on our next podcast.

I hope you enjoyed today’s episode on designing a race course with DMSE Sports’ Director of Events, Meryl Leventon.
You can find more resources on anything and everything related to race directing on our website You can also share your thoughts about some of the things discussed in today’s episode or anything else in our Facebook group, Race Directors Hub.
Many thanks again to our awesome podcast sponsor RunSignup for sponsoring today’s episode. And if you enjoyed this episode, please don’t forget to subscribe on your favorite player, and check out our podcast back-catalog for more great content like this. 

Until our next episode, take care and keep putting on amazing races.

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