Nailing Race Day
It’s probably fair to say that when it comes to a race director’s calendar, it doesn’t get much bigger than race day. It’s the day your race comes alive and a day you and your team have been working towards for months.
Whether it’s your first race or your hundredth, everyone goes into race day a bit like a standup comedian walking on stage for their first gig - with a mix of excitement and, well, dread is probably a good word for it.
A million things are going through your head. Does everyone know what they have to do? Are we going to run on schedule? And what do I do if this or that happens?
Today I have the pleasure of being joined on the podcast by Crisp McDonald, a race director and timer with more than a thousand races under his belt. Crisp is also RunSignup’s RaceDay Expert and, as such, has been training race directors and timers on what to expect on race day and how best to prepare for all the curve balls a live event might throw at you.
In this episode:
- Planning your event site and start/finish line
- Setting up a clear line of communication with your event team
- Balancing how much you do on race day vs setting things up in advance (e.g. pre-marking your race course)
- Figuring out how long tasks take on race day and when to start setting things up
- Making people aware of the big picture, and sharing resources across different tasks throughout race day
- The importance of team leads/captains
- The effectiveness of seasoned volunteers, and how to inspire loyalty among volunteers to your event/brand/cause
- How to reduce volunteer no-show rates, by recruiting volunteer groups instead of individuals
- Inspiring volunteers to take ownership of their work, through fun race day volunteer competitions
- The importance of recognizing and thanking volunteers before race day
- Contingency planning: being prepared for switching your in-person race to a virtual race, if necessary
- Emergency planning: figuring out what to prepare for, depending on the race type, accessibility and season.
- The role of onsite EMS units, and where to station them
- Having a plan/protocol for tracking runners who drop out of the race
- Putting together a key person contact list with contact details going into race day
- Anticipating weather changes and what to do when the weather shifts rapidly
- The role of cancellation insurance for races in higher-risk locations
- Race day morning team meeting: going though the plan of attack
- The task matrix: who's doing what when on race day
- Setting up a race HQ/command center
- Communicating with your team in the field: phones vs radios vs apps
- Race day registrations: what you'll need to be able to take registrations on site on race day
- Dynamic bib assignment: what is it? how does it work? what are the advantages over pre-assigned bibs?
- Packet pick-up: pre-packing packets vs putting them together on the fly
- Mailing packets out: working out your ordering and shipping schedule
- Setting up your race course: what order to do things in
- Tearing down your race course: the benefits of a rolling tear-down
- Shipping out race results to participants after they finish the race
- Debriefing after the race
Thanks to GiveSignup|RunSignup for supporting quality content for race directors by sponsoring this episode. More than 22,000 in-person, virtual, and hybrid events use GiveSignup|RunSignup's free and integrated solution to save time, grow their events, and raise more. If you'd like to learn more about GiveSignup|RunSignup's all-in-one technology solution for endurance and fundraising events visit runsignup.com.
Crisp, welcome to the podcast!
Thanks so much for having me.
Well, thanks a lot for coming on. This is probably your second time on the podcast. I think we had you on our Bluetooth timing episode for a very short interview on RaceDay Scoring - right?
So today, we're going to cover a lot of very interesting ground - I hope. We're gonna talk about the most important day on any race director's calendar - which is race day - and how to make sure that people go into race day prepared so that they have a smooth and successful race. For that, we will be touching on a lot of very interesting and practical tips based on your experience. Before we go into all of that, I think we'll need some introductions. So tell our listeners a little bit about yourself - your background, GO Race Productions, and also your involvement with RunSignup as their RaceDay Expert.
I'm the owner and head timer of GO Race Productions. We're a full-service event timing and event production company on the east coast in the US. And we time, produce, and consult with around 80-120 events a year. And we have been in the industry and actively producing races since 2008. Before that, we've been in the industry with another company since 2003. We do all types of events from your small local 5K to 15,000 person national-sized events. We specialize in triathlon but we also cover other events from regattas to corporate events. And, then, I also help out on the RunSignup team as a RaceDay Expert where I help train new timers on the RaceDay products. And so, with that, I actually have a lot of communication with hundreds of timers across the US. And we bounce ideas off to each other which means that best practices get shared quite frequently. So I think, on my end, we probably have a pretty good idea of what the average race is doing. Obviously, there are anomalies that requires specific setups or timelines or things. But we have a pretty good understanding of what's happening in the average event as we were involved with over thousands of events at this point.
And as part of your work with RunSignup, recently, you also spend a lot of time training and talking to race directors and timers about the kinds of best practices that we will be going through today. And I think it's fair to say, from what I hear from a friend of mine at RunSignup, RaceDay Expert is your official tag.
But I think you're known by a different name as well, aren't you?
I think someone called me a ninja...
Yes. Race day ninja is what I've heard people call you. Okay, that's going to be really helpful today. I think we can use the skills of a ninja here because navigating through race day can be a tricky thing. It's sort of like the culmination of a race director's efforts and their team's efforts over several months. So what I want us to focus on today is-- races take a long time to produce and to plan. And there are things that you need to do before race day, like putting your orders in, insurance, permits, and all kinds of stuff. And I don't want us to focus so much on that because that's the kinds of things that people probably do. I want us to focus on the kinds of things that can go wrong and can be avoided around race day, best practices around race day, and the kinds of things that are specifically pertinent to ensure that race day is a success. So I wanted to look at a couple of things starting from before the race day. First of all, lots of people go into race day, having tried out very few things, having done very few experiments around things like how the event site and the start/finish line is going to work. So, some people have made some plans on paper. Then, they show up on race day and they start putting stuff up. And, then, sometimes, when you do that on race day, some things don't work. So from your point of view, what are some good things to keep in mind for race directors around planning their event site and their start/finish line - so they can sort of avoid some of the common headaches that people face - when they actually go into race day and try to do that for the first time?
Sure. So, it goes without saying that over-planning goes a long way to mitigate issues on site for race day - over-communicating, over-planning, and having support to help you with every aspect of the race. As the race director, your job on race day is almost nothing. You should just be the conductor of the orchestra. The conductor's not playing any instrument. They're playing the orchestra. And so, as the race director, you're in that same spot. In theory, you shouldn't be putting out turn signs, you shouldn't be setting up tents, you shouldn't be out on course, and you likely aren't checking people in. And this does change with the size and scope of the event. So, for smaller events such as a 100 person 5K, you might be doing all of those things but I would strongly advise against it. If you're the race director, maybe you're helping with some part of packet pickup, or training people in packet pickup, or maybe you might've the day before gone out and pre-marked the course. But for your event day to be a success, having people or leads in those positions that you can count on is important so that your brain space and bandwidth are not eaten up by things that aren't really important. So having a volunteer lead, having a packet pickup lead, having a course lead, having a start/finish line lead, having a timing lead, all of these things are really important. And even in a 100 person event, your course lead might just be one person that has one other person under them. And it's not that big of a deal for your 5K. You put out a handful of cones, 25 signs, a couple of aid stations - no big deal. And so, when we talk about these leads, we're not talking about an army of people. Now if this is a mid-major marathon, your course lead is going to be very similar to a small race director or even a big race director there. They're going to coordinate large teams of people doing lots of different things. And they're going to have other people that are underneath them. So make sure that you have those leads that you can count on that are aware and understand what their jobs are on-site and have a clear line of communication with you on race day. That way, if your leads have people underneath them, they're the point of contact for those people. That way, even for 100 person 5K, as the race director, you're not getting calls from 15 different people. You might be getting calls or texts from four or three persons. Texts work a lot better because you can get multiple texts from multiple people at the same time. So that would be a starting point. Also, in terms of race site, flow, and things like that, having overhead maps that you can diagram how you see things going and, then, taking those maps out physically to the race site - with those maps, a lot of times, we'll be able to take cones to kind of get a visual of where the start/finish line is expected to be. And for a number of events, the backdrop for the photo opportunity at the finish line is like a key point. Make sure that you place the finish line in that specific point for that photo opportunity without bottlenecking other parts of the course. Or do people have to walk across the finish line to get to the start line from packet pickup? And will that be a problem? So really, look at what the flow will be. And again, that changes significantly with the size of the event because in a 100 person 5K race, you can usher 100 people across a parking lot in a matter of a few minutes. But in a 5000 person event, you're likely going to have corrals, waves, you'll have to move people in groups and they'll have to start at specific times. And so, it really changes the way your flow for the morning and for your athlete management. It changes significantly.
Some great points there. I want to return to the very important issue of delegation and team leads in a second because I think that's definitely a key part of success on race day. With regards to the race site, from experience, are there things that people should think about setting up prior to race day? Like how do you keep a good balance between not doing much on race day but making sure you don't do things before race day on the course that will be like a waste of time because they're not going to work, or they might change, or they might be liable to people moving them around?
Right. That actually goes back to that delegation side too because the more people you have, the more you can get done in a shorter amount of time. So if you only have one person to help you on course - I hope that's not the case - when you're doing a marathon, that person will have to start much, much earlier to complete their task. There are also issues with your permits. So if your permit says that the roads will not be closed until 45 minutes before the race, then you really can't build any structure on the road until that happens. You can't just say, "Well, I'm here. I'm going to shut this down because I feel like it." I mean, if you're in a small town, maybe they don't mind as much - you can just cone it off yourself. But the reality is if anything happens and your permit says that you don't have access to do that, then you could be held liable which, obviously, you don't want to happen. A lot of times, we'll request for the ability to shut down the roads around three hours ahead of time. For a medium-sized event, it gives us plenty of time to build a finish line. Now for a large event, you will likely need hours and hours if you're building an 8-12 meter wide truss structure with Coro, barricades, and stuffs like that. Again, although you have a team of people working on different parts, it still does take time. And most of those instances, you'll have to set up your finish line area at around 1.00am or 2.00am for an 8.00am start because it's going to take 6-7 hours of X amount of people working. So you start looking at man-hours - how many man-hours is this going to take to complete and back that out with how many people you have because that will take 20 man-hours to do. If you got 20 people, maybe it'll only take an hour or an hour and a half. But if you're by yourself, it's gonna take you a day. So you can start doing calculations on how long it's going to take for some of these things to happen. But yeah, in terms of setting things up in advance, like obviously, your course certification will not happen on the same day. So that will happen weeks or months prior, if it's not already a pre-certified course. And then, a number of people will go to pre-mark if marking chalk is allowed. They'll pre-mark the day before or the evening before as there's less traffic on the roads. And that way, when they get there on-site, they can just put out signs, cones, and aid stations,
You mentioned that it's always a good practice to try and calculate in advance how many people that you'll need to make sure all the tasks that are ahead of you are like properly assigned. When you do those kinds of calculations, would you give yourself some kind of margin of error? I've seen a lot of people being caught off-guard by strict man-hour divisions and stuff like that and, then, when something goes wrong, they're off by like 20-30%. Do you advise on including some kind of margin for things taking longer or like unexpected stuff popping up?
We don't do specific man-hour calculations. We have good estimations for each task that we normally do on events and how long each will take. So for a 5K course, if we have this many turn signs, we know it's going to take these 2-4 people this amount of time and, then, they will leave after that - we will not see them again. And so, that margin of error can get reabsorbed unless you're just doing a horrible job of underestimating everything. If you're underestimating some things, you're probably overestimating others. And so, keeping everyone on the same page that the end goal is not to complete your task, the end goal is to have a successful event. And so, if for instance, let's say the barricades are done 30 minutes early but the truss is running late, your volunteers that helped with the barricades can go help with the truss, like we tried to share out all of the tasks and all of the times. So everyone has a good understanding of not just their responsibility, but everyone's responsibility, or a general overview of everyone's responsibility. So if they complete their task early, go help someone else. Don't sit down. You can sit down after the race is over. Or if it's like an ultra event or a long-distance event, you're going to have downtime. But that pre-event setup, that's rarely the downtime that you have. Like a lot of Olympic distance triathlons, once most people are out on the bike, there's a lull definitely in Half Ironman distance races. Or in a marathon, once everyone started and everyone is on the course, there's still work to be done but that acute stress from setup and getting things going has decreased slightly.
That's a really great tip, actually. So basically, you're saying that everyone knows what they have to do. And of course, having some kind of specialization is important. You have your volunteer lead and all the different people. You set up the course, you do the start/finish area and everything. But as you say, it's really important for everyone to also keep an eye on the big picture. So if you need to share resources across those tasks, it's possible to do so. So that means when you train all of those people or when you communicate what they have to do before the race, you sort of brief them all as a team so that everyone sort of knows what the bigger picture is around the tasks for the event.
Yeah. The team leads would get that sort of information. So the specific volunteers - like if there's an aid station volunteer or something like that - they're not necessarily going to get trained on packet pickup for instance. The leads would all get trained. That way, the lead for that other area could, then, kind of give a brief overview because it is rare for people to be brought in to wholly manage or support other teams to help them catch up. And that happens a lot with the packet pickup where queues are starting to form and you need to scale packet pickup quickly. And so, someone that might not have been involved with the early packet pickup process - they're not expected to know everything - they might now be in charge of something like handing out a shirt, which is not a challenging task conceptually. If runners say, "Hey, I need a small T-shirt," they can pick up the small shirts over there. It's something that they can quickly and easily be trained on. And they're not expected to know everything from top-to-bottom. So those team leads are kind of the ones that ideally-- or in a lot of our scenarios, we have staff as those leads. And so, our staff are trained on all parts.
I guess, for you guys who put on a large number of events - some of them sort of around the same area - do you find that volunteers who work on events more than once - sort of like the veterans - are a lot more productive, and a lot more confident, and are able to carry out different types of stuff as they attend and work on more races?
Sure. And a lot will go to other people's events too. Sometimes, it's positive. Sometimes, it's negative. This is how we did it with so and so. And they can bring a lot of value to the table by having other experiences. You can also have to break some habits that you don't implement at your events. But yeah. We definitely see volunteers that are doing multiple races a year. They definitely step in and step up more easily. Instead of giving race shirts to volunteers, we actually give our company-specific volunteer shirts to volunteers. That way, volunteers can reuse those shirts for other events. And so, we have less cost associated with that. And it's also brand marketing for our team. It also makes them feel like they're a part of our team because they are. Like without question, they're a part of our team. And we wouldn't be able to put on races without those volunteers.
That's another great tip. So speaking of volunteers, one of the things that I hear people talk a lot around with frustration is that, sometimes, when you go into a race, you have like 100 people who signed up to be volunteers. Then on race day, there are only 65 volunteers who show up and, then, you find yourself in a real pickle because you don't know where to find 35 other volunteers, particularly if you don't have provision or some margin of error for that. So going into race day, is there any kind of like clever tactics or communications you can employ to make sure that that dropout rate and no-show rate from your volunteer team is as low as possible?
Volunteer leads are a great resource, especially if you have one singular point of contact that might be like a president of an organization - finding individual volunteers can come and go a lot easier. Granted, when an individual volunteer out of a 100 doesn't show up, you're down to 99. And so, it's not as painful as having an entire volleyball team not showing up to volunteer - now, you're down to 80. And this is from personal experience so it happens. But having a really good relationship with that coach, or with that organizer of that group, and also incentivizing the group to be there-- I think most events would agree that they make donations on behalf of the volunteer group to help encourage those groups to come in. I know that there are a number of other organizations that gotta have a set number of volunteer-hours, so being able to provide those volunteer-hours through this event is really nice for a lot of these groups. So this is our procedure for your volunteer timecard sign-offs. And, then, a number of other people have competition within the event for the volunteer groups. And you could get creative. We've done voting by athletes for Best Dressed aid station. And each aid station is 'sponsored by this volunteer group.' And so they come out and get crazy and it does bring a lot more height to the event because, now, you've got a whole other group bringing energy in for a whole other purpose. And presenting some sort of award or an additional donation to that group that wins - again, incentivizing them to really engage with the event - all-in-all, it makes the event experience for everyone, the volunteers, the athletes, and the event itself, because they're getting more exposure for it. It elevates all aspects. So it does mean that your volunteer coordinator is going to need to be more prepared and more active. And so, it's not just going to happen. That scenario that I just spoke of doesn't just magically happen by itself. So if you go to an event and see that happen, someone on the back end has worked very, very hard to put that sort of encouragement out there to the volunteers.
Basically, based on what you said, I think there are some really concrete tips for people to follow, I think, particularly on what you said around, essentially, making volunteers-- I mean, first of all, drafting them from groups and organizations definitely helps because those people have their own internal structures and hierarchies - right? You don't need to have individuals and train every single one. But also, what you said about taking ownership of those aid stations, taking ownership of all of those bits in the race so they can take pride in saying, "This aid station is supported by us or whatever." And it's a different kind of ballgame when you do that. I think it would definitely help people show up. And if they're part of a different organization, there's this whole peer pressure of them showing up because when the race is over, they'll be like, "Hey, Kate, why didn't you show up?" Or like, "What happened?" So it's a different kind of, like, peer pressure atmosphere in there, I guess.
That can go the other way too. Positive recognition goes a long way as well. So being able to say in advance, like on social media, "We appreciate the Boy Scout troops being out here or coming out this weekend to help support our great cause" or recognizing them on-site, if you're doing a presentation or something like that, point out they were there and also thank them. This is how the event benefits them too. And so, this event is doing a lot for the community outside the 5K or whatever your race is. It's making an impact with other organizations that are helping to either promote the sport or provide a moral compass to our youth. So, again, it just brings the event back into your community. And it's a really important part, especially if you're trying to drive more registrations and more volunteers to show how much you're doing for the community.
Yeah, definitely. I mean, I think it's one of those things - thanking people after the event - that is so often overlooked. And it can be so massively effective without costing you anything or without having to take up too much of your time or anything. Just acknowledging all the people, the volunteers, all the different organizations and local authorities - who help out every single person in there - is such a massive incentive for them to keep coming back and keep supporting the event. I think people should absolutely never forget to do that. One other interesting carve out in what you were saying there was that some volunteer groups come in with the requirement to do some mandatory volunteer work to basically have some volunteer-hours. That's an interesting carve out for people who are looking to recruit volunteers. What kind of groups would those be - so that people can reach out to them to beef up their volunteer teams?
Contacting local high schools and colleges. So the high schools usually have the National Honor Society and Beta Club. Sometimes, there are other sports teams that require those volunteer-hours. Like, a great place within the colleges and universities are the Panhellenic Council and Fraternities. And that can be very effective. They can get very, very excited about being involved. And it can be very popular. You can also have trouble with some of those groups. You have to be honest with yourself and say, "Alright, we're gonna ask these people to be on-site on Saturday morning at 6.00am." Sometimes, it's a little harder for--
For college students...
Yeah. Especially if they have like a Friday night game or something like that, that might have encouraged them to stay out a little later than they should have. We were all there so we understand. But you do need to be honest with yourself about the possibility of some of those groups not showing up. So we run into that a lot less with the high school groups. However, with the high school groups, you have the chaperone situation and things like that. The rules are different in different places in terms of who can volunteer as a directional volunteer on a corner by themselves. A lot of times, the volunteers can be 16 years old. In some places, they have to be 18 years old. And so, you need to work out the local rules and regulations with their coordinator. At not time do you need to have a child on a corner by themselves without a chaperone. That's not how things need to go. And a lot of times with younger volunteers, we do put multiple 18 years old volunteers. We might have 2 volunteers there so that if one of them needs to make a phone call or if anything happens, they'll have another person to back them up. With adults & college students, you don't have the same requirement necessarily but, then, your college students are maybe not as keen to show up early for an event.
And you have all those other risks, I guess, with college students, which are always understandable. As you said, we've all been there. So yeah.
We have nothing against college students. We did the same thing when we were at that age. So yeah. You just have to be honest with yourself.
Exactly. So moving on to other things - preparing for race day. So protocols, contingencies, contingency planning, emergency planning - what kinds of things should I go into race day armed with? Do I need to have an emergency plan? Do I have to do contingency planning for something that might happens? What's a reasonable balance of stuff that I should have thought through and prepared for and like formally documented - going into race day?
Emergency plans are a must. Any race that tried to happen in 2020 learn very quickly that having a contingency plan in place is critical. And obviously, in some places in the US right now, things are shutting back down or haven't opened back up. And so, permits have already been applied but things are not open yet. And so, with the hope that as the event date approaches, they will actually be able to hold the event. And so, I know a lot of events - and at RunSignup, we've talked about this a lot over the past 18 months - that is going with a hybrid event approach so that you have both in-person and virtual options. Most people are targeting the in-person registration but with the caveat that if the event needs to be canceled for some reason, we still have the ability to pivot over to the virtual event. You'll still get your shirt. We'll still do the donations to the nonprofit. We'll still do everything else that-- RunSignup provides a lot of great tools for tracking, scoring, and things like that. So it does allow those athletes to get value out of something that is virtual - like physical tangible value. So that's a great starting point in terms of if the event is actually going to physically happen or not. And people have said it's 'cancellation-proof' - it's not necessarily that. It's just keeping people engaged with the event and removing that stress of, "Are we still going to participate in this thing? If we are going to participate, this is how we are going to participate. Are we going to be there in-person or not?" Obviously, a lot of events are happening in-person. And so, the emergency plan doesn't need to be in place. And this could be as simple as making sure you have an EMS unit on-site, or having a physician or a nurse on-site, with some basic medical supplies. The type of event can dictate what you'll need. For instance, if it's the middle of the summer, and you're doing a Half Ironman distance triathlon or a marathon, you're probably going to need a lot of bags of saline there for dehydration and, maybe, a handful of scrapes, broken bones, and things like that. I mean, you do plan for the worst. Going back to putting people in place, I'm not a medical professional-- and so, what I'm going to do is I'm going to find one that can be that lead, and we're going to lean on their experience and their knowledge. And I can provide them with historic data for things that we've experienced in these races because if they've never been to a 5K - what should they expect in a 5K? Well, do we need saline bags? Probably not. Are we going to see cuts and bruises? Potentially, yes. Things can happen out of the ordinary but having that plan in place is a great starting point. We try to have EMS unit on-site at every event, like your emergency plan is the EMS unit is going to park in this place and this is their direct line out of the event space where they can get out quickly. And so, that's your standby unit that you've paid or donated for. Obviously, 911 is there for a reason. Even if you have an EMS unit on-site , it doesn't mean that if you have an incident on the course, that on-site unit will be the one who responds. They might actually have a plan in place on their end to call in a response unit so that they don't leave their post at the start/finish area. As events grow in size, the scope of your emergency plan increases a lot.
We've had events where we have two different Life Flight landing locations for helicopters - mobile field hospitals. We're just preparing for the worst because the worst can happen and if you're not ready for it then, obviously, things go very, very poorly. And as much as you can prepare, things can still go wrong. So the best you can do as a race director is to prepare as much as possible. Like if you're doing a 5K, you don't need lifeguards on-site - that makes sense. But if you're putting people in the water, having safety boats and lifeguards is very, very important. If you're doing a cycling race, you're going to focus on very specific types of injuries that come along with cycling. And you're going to make those people on-site who are in charge of medical acutely aware of what to expect. If they don't believe you, you can just turn on the Giro or the Tour or something like that and they can watch what happens during those races - then, they'll believe you that it can actually happen. And, then, having a communication schedule and handing that out to your volunteer leads - a lot of times people will make lanyards with like a name badge or what have you on the front for the person and, then, at the back, the timeline will be at the top, and the emergency contact list will be at the bottom. And that way, you don't necessarily have to go through the emergency plan with every single volunteer. Instead, they now have a contact list of-- if somebody is going to drop out, that's not an emergency but you do have a contact point to let the timer or the race director know with maybe just a text of, "The runner with bib number 123 has dropped out at mile 50." And so, there might be a sag wagon or a meeting point for those people to be pulled out from the course and transported back to the start/finish area. It's very important to have those plans in place. Those plans are as diverse as the events themselves, but it is very, very important to have plans. And the beauty of those plans is, if the event doesn't change much year over year, then your plans are likely not going to need to change much year over year. It is something that you want to review with the teams that you have in place so that everybody's on the same page with what the expectation is. Like, again, we do a lot of multi-sport. And so, we have an extraction point on the beach where a jet ski or boat would bring someone in. And for some of those situations, that might just be that the athlete didn't feel like they could complete the swim, and other situations like they might need medical support. And so, that's where our EMS at the beginning of the race is waiting. And that way, they can transport the athlete directly to the EMS unit. And, again, it changes wildly with events, but it is very important to have them in place.
So I want to touch on a little bit - I want to skip forward a little bit - into actual race day stuff. You mentioned briefly about what should volunteers do if someone drops out. And we had a couple of posts on that in our Facebook group the other day, particularly in trail running races and mountain marathons - like really, really tough events. I guess it's really important to have a process in place to make sure that people who drop out are properly accounted for even in road races - right? Because at the end of the day, you want to know that the person with bib 1234 who didn't cross the finish line didn't cross it for a reason that you can actually account for and they're not like injured in a ditch somewhere.
Right. And the longer the event, the more likely something like that can happen. We've done trail ultras before and we've set up checkpoints along the way. And as much as I'm a timer, I would love to throw maps and timing equipment on the ground and make this super official. But the reality is it doesn't work out in a lot of those locations because you're well out of cell phone range and you don't have satellite communication there. And so, we've actually had situations where we have a tent, volunteers and they quite literally have printouts of the participant list. And they mark when and what time those people came through and, then, they have ham radios that they would communicate by relaying one message from one station to another so that the start/finish area is aware that these people have met these checkpoints. And so, at checkpoint one, it might be less of, "Bib number 123 has passed through this point" and it might be more of just a count, because the likelihood of somebody dropping out on a 40-mile mountain trail run in the first three miles is pretty low. But at the 25th mile where people are coming in much, much slower and not in groups of 25 or 30, it's more of a, "Okay. Bib number 123 has passed through this point." And that way, it is very manual but it's effective. And it also allows the same volunteers to usually have access and contact with support. And in most of those scenarios, we try to have a trailhead somewhere nearby periodically so that if we needed to extract someone, we could. So yeah, I mean, when you get out into the wilderness, it does become increasingly more challenging. I know a number of events have started using tools like RaceJoy to track athletes along the course because they connect to GPS and then they backfill the GSM data or the data through GSM as it comes through. So sure, the devices might drop out after a period of time, but it does allow you to put checkpoints along the course, all electronically. Obviously, the problem is you do need people running with their phones and having battery backup. I think it was Alaskaman that had people just way in the middle of nowhere and they required everyone to carry a battery backup and use the app. And so, they were able to track people through the wilderness at all times. And it was a very effective way of managing those people out on course.
Okay. So in terms of contact details that a race director needs to have going into race day, what kinds of things should he have? Should he have like liaison with the police or EMS? Like, what should be on his contact list?
Yep. So the leads of each one of those are great. So if you do have different teams-- we have a lot of different longer events that run through multiple jurisdictions. And so, a police lead might not be the only singular contact point. So if you leave a city and go into a county, you might shift from your local city's traffic control department - where you have your lead - and, then, you go into the sheriff's deputy who is the lead out in the county. And if you're going through multiple cities and counties, obviously, you're gonna have those leads throughout. And, then, you're going to have your EMS or on-site safety lead. You're going to have your lifeguard lead - depending on again, what type of event you're doing. And, then, I usually try to keep a contact of the local hospital - it's just me personally, depending on the event size. Now, if it's a 5K or a bigger event, a lot of times we'll reach out and touch base with the local hospital, just so they can triage faster, because if they know a marathon or half marathon is going on, they'll be better equipped or possibly faster equipped to handle whatever might happen. They usually have a pretty good idea of what to expect from any medical emergency happening during the event. So, yeah. And, then, it's also not a bad idea to have a contact from the city planner's office or city manager's office in case you need public works to do something such as providing cones or barricades, or maybe letting the meter maids know that they're not supposed to ticket this parking lot for this period of time. It's not so much an emergency response but it is something that can create chaos very quickly when you've rented an entire parking lot and magically all your athletes are getting parking tickets that they aren't supposed to. Just by having a shortlist and a Google doc or something like that, that you and your team can share is very helpful.
And, then, on the flip side of that, who should I make sure has my contact details on race day?
All the team leads. Basically, if you've got their number, they need to have your number. The beauty of that is, in most scenarios, the people coming out through the permitting agencies have your contact info from your permit itself. So if you are the primary contact, then leave it as it is and touch base with them. And make sure that they know that you're the point of contact on-site a week or two in advance or a day or two in advance. If you're delegating that out, make sure that they both have your contact info in case they need to escalate, but also have the other person's contact info that's like a safety lead or something like that. And usually, at larger events, you might have like a command center or something that has all the tracking data of all the athletes, the timing information, like they have an athlete database and a contact list of all the leads. And, then, you would also have radio communications throughout the entire event. Now, this is not necessary for your normal small 5K but when you kind of graduate up to those mid-major marathons, those mobile communication links are really important. Usually, your city county or something like that has a bus or something that they can bring in and help manage communication around a large area. And, yeah. They should have everyone's contact information.
Okay, great. Well, one other thing that is notoriously volatile, I guess, when going into event planning is the weather. There have been cases where the weather has really caught people out quite dramatically a day or two before the event. What can a race director do to stay on top of weather changes, or anticipate, or plan around like severe weather striking out of the sudden?
Well, obviously, we can plan but we just have to kind of go with the flow. We are a passenger on that train. However, communicating clearly to both athletes and all of the teams that are involved in advance is very, very important. So I live in a coastal area where we experience hurricanes. And so, anytime when there's a named storm during our rainy season, we start that communication plan. It might be via Facebook or email. We stay with that communication plan. Otherwise, you're going to get calls non-stop, "Are we doing this? Are you watching this?" As soon as you start getting those calls, that's when you need to start implementing this plan - actually, before that, ideally. But if you begin getting those calls, you need to begin communicating out what your plan because there are probably 10-100 athletes who are curious. And it goes a long way to get that information out, "We are monitoring the weather as it develops. We're still 21 days out. There's no way for us to know what's going to happen on-site right now. We will make sure to keep you informed as more information becomes available." And, now, you've started that communication. And so, a few days later, just check back in and say, "There have been no new updates. We're continuing on as planned. Please stay tuned. We will make additional announcements within two or three days from now." And just keeping on that communication plan so that everyone knows. And, then, being in personal contact with all of those agencies-- for instance, if your start/finish area is flooded, come up with a plan as fast as possible to shift that into a place that's not flooded. The funny thing is what happens more than the weather is a DoT crew will go out and shut down a road when you show up on-site, and now you have that other issue - so you have to be able to quickly shift the course as needed. All of this is still going back to that communication plan. It's changing your normal plan to a new plan B - or at this point, it might be plan C or D. You have to communicate it out so that everyone knows these changes, that these changes need to be made, and that this is the plan to change that.
Speaking of weather, actually, I am quite curious to get your professional opinion - having been doing this for such a long time - on cancellation insurance. We had like an actual full podcast episode on that. I think it was actually the first episode of the podcast on race cancellation. And it was mostly based on the experience that people have now with COVID, which brought all of those issues to the fore. But more generally, like the discussion there was that, going forward, COVID may not be such a big issue, hopefully, in years to come. But severe weather - as you were mentioning hurricanes, and all of that stuff - will continue to be an issue. Do you see value in people exploring the options of race cancellation insurance for things like that?
Absolutely. We had to cancel several events due to hurricanes previously. Actually, I don't know if we've ever-- I've never fully canceled any event. I rescheduled events due to hurricanes - now when I think about it. I have a number of friends especially in the triathlon world that had to cancel events. And if you are considering getting event cancellation insurance, and you do live in coastal areas, it is something that you will want to do well in advance. And the reason being, if you go and get event cancellation insurance, almost all insurance riders say that you are not covered under a named storm - if it's already named - because at that point, it's already known that it is a storm. So in most scenarios, that means two or three weeks out, because that system is rolling off of Africa. And if they begin to track the hurricane and name it, and your event is subsequently canceled because of it - and I am not an insurance agent but I just know that there have been issues with this especially this time of year during the height of hurricane season right - getting that insurance early is important if you are moving in that direction. Now, for those that aren't affected as much by hurricanes and severe weather, I don't know if it matters as much but I'm sure if that system is already building across the US, then you would have a harder time filing a claim. But I do know that a very good friend of mine had an event canceled due to a hurricane and it was fully paid out. And so, it worked out very well for them. They were potentially going to lose hundreds or hundreds of thousands of dollars but everything was paid out. So we also offer individual insurance and event insurance in most of our events. And that allows people - that have things that might come up, whether it'd be work or any other reason such as an injury - to be able to file their own insurance claim and get refunded.
As we wrap up our chat on preparing for race day and moving into race day itself, you'll be hearing a few things about race day registration, managing packet pickup, dynamic bib assignment, live results and a bunch of other things you may or may not be currently doing on race day.
The reality is you can run your race without all these things. Sure, you'll miss a bunch of people who want to register on race day, and maybe check-in will be slower, and maybe you'll be left with a bunch of bibs you don't use at the end of the day. But - really - why let that happen? Technology has moved so far these days that you can have all the same tools and conveniences a 10,000 or 20,000 or 40,000 person race has for your race, whatever the size of your race and at no extra cost to you or your participants.
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Okay, I hope you've enjoyed the first half of our chat with Crisp - that was preparing for race day. Now let's jump into race day itself with some great tips on running a smooth, stress-free race...
So we've made it into race day morning. You show up at the race site. What's the first thing you would do? Would you get your team together and brief them? Like, what kinds of things would you cover first?
So on race morning, I actually just have this personal moment of Zen at a race site first thing in the morning before many other people get there, before my staff gets there, before athletes and volunteers get there. It's just this-- I don't know. Maybe it's just years of doing it. It's just this peaceful moment that it's quiet, my coffee is hot, and I've done the work. And it's kind of like as an athlete, I guess toeing the line or showing up to the race site with the expectations of how the day is going to go and I just take a moment personally to go through how I want the day to go in my head. As an athlete, I did a lot of visualizations. And as a race director, I do similar things just to kind of put me in a good place mentally. And, then, shortly thereafter, my team shows up and we go through the plan for that morning and just double check to make sure nobody has any questions. Usually, my day starts out with everyone working together on a common or a big task that needs to be handled, whether it's powering everything up and getting lights and power to all the different things. And it also just kind of reminds everybody that we're all there together and lets me know that everybody's there. Because if everybody dispersed immediately, I might not be aware that we're missing someone, which is rare on the staff's side, but it can happen from time to time. And, then, as soon as that happens, we do have kind of a task matrix of what everybody's supposed to be doing. And so, step one in that task matrix, everyone's there. And so, we can start doing step one. And from there, everybody kind of disperses out and starts on their own specific tasks, and then that kind of morphs from there.
Yeah. And I think we will share a link to a sample of your task matrix in the show notes because I think it's quite helpful to people. Just to describe it, basically, the first column contains dates and timestamps - to know when things need to happen. The second column contains what needs to happen. And, then, you have a separate column, I guess, for each of the team leads or the individuals who would be doing that task so that, basically, everyone knows the order in which things need to happen, what needs to happen, and who's taking care of that explicitly.
Correct. Yep. And people might end up working together on other things as we've talked about before. It's so that everybody knows what's going on so that everybody knows that if they finish early, they can help elsewhere. And obviously, if it says, at 5.05am, go set the course. And somebody else is at the start line, they're not going to be going up to set the course because they physically can't get out there, because in 10' they need to be doing something else. But it might be that, "Oh, packet pickup's being set up." And so, they can go over and help with that setup process.
What's your formal opinion on keeping an actual headquarters? You mentioned like the command center earlier - is that a good idea to basically have like a fixed physical point where you and some core team members may be and where you would be expected to be found by other people? Is there value in that?
There can be. So I do feel like the race director should always be able to be located. And that might be somewhere in between the start and the finish line assuming that the runners start and finish at the same general area. Point to point race might be a little bit different. But my location is also on that task matrix so that my team knows where I am. And the expectation is that the race director is reachable and you can physically see me. If you are the race director, especially for smaller events - although I said "You don't have a job - you need to be prepared to do anything and everything. I've taken out the trash and unclog toilets. I've moved porta-potties. I've helped with packet pickup. I've helped to address "Where is there an issue? And how can I solve the issue?" And in some scenarios, you have resources like additional volunteers that you can ask to go handle these things. In other scenarios especially in smaller events, you do not have those additional resources. And so, there's no use if you complain about not having more volunteers. You have to go handle it because it needs to be handled by a specific time. But at the same time, you're not going out on course and you're not disappearing. And that's one thing that I see with a lot of new race directors or smaller race directors. They try to do too much. They overextend themselves and then they are gone. And I work with those race directors a lot as a timer. And guess who is stuck answering race-related questions? That's us. So if you ask where's this headquarters for the day, a lot of times, it's the finish line or the timing tent. And that's not to say that the race director needs to sit underneath the timing tent but it's a good focal point to find someone because if you are a race director, if you go to the finish line to find your timer and nobody's there, you kind of like, "Oh goodness. Where's our timer?" So timers have to go use a restroom and things like that. So if they step away, usually they'll let the volunteer or something like that know. It's the same for the racetrack - you don't necessarily need to have a physical headquarters, but they should know where you are and you should stay in that area. Now, in the times where you do have like a mobile command center, the race director is rarely in that command center. What happens is, people have two-way radios, shortwave radios, ham radios, or whatever, so there's a communication path to reach all of these people. And so, again, just make sure that you are reachable - you have your phone on you. You have the radio on you. Sometimes, you have multiple radios on different channels on you - you might have an emergency channel., you might have a race ops channel and you might have a volunteer channel. And so, there are other scenarios as the events grow in size. Or if you quite literally have an assistant, you can walk around with purpose while your assistant walks around with all of your communication devices. And they might filter out a lot of that information as to whether or not that information is pertinent enough for you to address. And so, if someone needs to be picked up at mile fill-in-the-blank, maybe you don't need to turn around as the race director and answer that question. But if there's a message on "Hey, the chief of police needs to talk with you," then they'll hand you a phone or that VHF radio to speak with that person. And so, again, it changes with the type and size of the event or what resources you have available. But I don't necessarily think you have to have a physical race headquarters. You just need to be reachable and be in a general area.
And in terms of the modes of communication with the rest of the team, you mentioned phones and radios. I know lots of people - it's been discussed in our group before - have moved on to using WhatsApp, particularly because, as you say, with messaging you can have multiple people sending you stuff without cluttering the phones. What's a good way of handling all that these days? What kind of combination of devices and channels would you use to communicate with people on the field?
Cell phones, VHF radios, two-way radios, ham radios. Again, it kind of depends on what you have available to you. Ideally, everyone has a two-way radio that you can communicate in every single part of the event space - from the turnaround all the way to the start/finish and everywhere in between. That's the ideal scenario because, then, you're only communicating with amongst yourselves, and that's usually the best. The reality is that's not available most times, because even if you buy like a very nice commercial Motorola or a radio, you can't reach that far because you don't have a repeating network. That is where those command centers come in because they'll place repeaters out, they have a stronger signal, and they manage that communication network at your event site. So those are helpful. They also have their limitations as well, partly because they're usually being used by the firemen, EMS, police, etc. So as a race, you might not have access to use that technology. What everybody does have at this point is our phones and text groups - WhatsApp, whatever that works quite well. You just need to make sure that your team has a phone - which most people do - and that it's charged and you're not going to lose communication at some point on your course. I've done plenty of races where everything's great up until the farthest point where there's no towers out there. Or if you're up in a mountainous area where it's not remote - just a mountainous region, like Asheville, North Carolina, for instance - you might have great communication on one side of this bike course until you go around the bend where your cell towers' blocked. And so, you no longer can communicate by phone to that person who is five miles away around the bend. So it really depends on where you are. Usually with some of those phones, especially with like iMessaging and WhatsApp, you can pull that onto your computer as well. So you can have someone - it's kind of a communication station - monitoring that on a computer, which is a little bit easier to use to communicate.
Well, and again, I think particularly with things like radios - going back to the principle of testing things before race day - you would want to just go around the different parts of the course and try to communicate with other parts of the course and make sure that you don't have any dead spots or being unable to get through to people at different points on the map - right?
A lot of times, your timers will know that as well if they're putting out a split in those locations. I know when we go out to a new site and we have splits all over the place, we will actually take test equipment out to test signal strength for remote communication to our decoders. And so, if you're not sure but you do have a timer that has gone out to check, you can reach out and ask them what the service is like at those locations. I personally would probably go up and check myself because most timers are using like IoT cards and not voice cards. And so, they might have a different communication path than you do. So checking that is really important especially if you have someone in a remote location.
So I have a couple of really specific areas about race day that give people lots of headaches that I wanted to get your thoughts on. One is check-in and the other is race day registrations. So lots of people seem to get a little bit intimidated by the prospect of continuing to take registrations on race day. They feel that they can't handle that on race day. And from what I understand, it's a bit of a missed opportunity because, particularly, for some of the smaller distance races, you could potentially get lots of people just walking in and signing up for the race. So my first question is, is keeping registrations open on race day worth it? And how many people, like if you have any idea on that-- how many people take that option? And from my point of view as a race director, if I wanted to keep race day registrations open, what do I need from a technology and research point of view? What do I need to think about?
Yes, it's definitely worth it especially for smaller events now. So let's not necessarily focus on your 5000 person event, but a 1-to-500 person 5K. When we're one month out, we expect a doubling of total registrations. Some people might think, "Oh, that's not that many." But it is. You are doubling your numbers in the last four weeks. Now, that being said, we would expect somewhere around 25% more people to register in the last week. How many people coming on race day is kind of all over the place dependent on your location, distance, and weather. So it's very dependent on what is actually happening on race day and where you are. You might not have that many runners on race day. In my opinion, it's missed opportunity if you shut off registration. And a lot of races - and this is not specifically what you asked, but it causes a problem that we are talking about - will say, "Oh well, we're going to shut off registration on Wednesday of race week and that will allow us to prepare things on Thursday of race week for the packet pickup on Friday. And at 3.00pm on Friday, we start packet pickup." Suddenly, all these people show up for race day registration. And so, in your head as a race director, you're like, "Oh my gosh, there's just so many people that want to walk up and register." Well, that's not necessarily the case. I look at registrations as like a flow. So let's talk about it as like a garden hose - the water is just coming through. And on Wednesday, you crimp that hose. So what happens when you crimp a hose and you leave the water turned on? As soon as you un-crimp it, it explodes out. It's the same thing on Friday or Saturday at packet pickup for on-site registration. So the moment you start shutting that down, you've got all these people that are going to do one of two things - they're going to pile up and wait for registration to open, or they're going to find something else to do. And neither help you that much as a race director, because you've either lost an athlete or you've overloaded your volunteers in this very small period of time - those three or four hours of packet pickup on Friday or on race morning where you might have 90 minutes. And those athletes want the same race experience as everybody else that registered three or four months ago. So leaving online registration open allows you to never crimp that hose. Now, it does provide additional challenges. So one of it is as a race director, if you're looking to go down this path, you need to have this conversation with your timer and say, "Hey, can you handle this? Are you able to get this data in because if you don't have internet access at your race site, whether it'd be 3g or MiFi or something like that then you need to leave online registration off. It is not going to work if you can't register or if you can't pull this data down." And so, the timer also needs to be able to pull this data in. So even if they don't have a direct link into your registration platform, you'd have the ability to pull this information down onto a thumb drive, hand it to the timer, and they can import it into their scoring software. So all of these are viable options. At RunSignup, we have a great solution that you can bi-directionally sync all of this registration information into the check-in app. And, then, if the timer uses RaceDay Scoring, they can pull it down seamlessly. You don't have to have a runner or anything like that. So it works really, really well. And other platforms have similar tools. It's just that we happen to use these tools.
But if you don't mention this to your timer and you show up on race day and say, "Oh yeah, we still have registration open and there's no WiFi on-site", you're gonna run into a world of problems because there's no way for you or the timer to pull this data down when people have registered that morning but no one knew. So a conversation about what the plan is needs to happen for all of this to work together. The technology works very, very well, but everybody has to be on board, and everyone needs to understand how to use it. On the RunSignup side, again, we have a lot of training for these RaceDay tools. And I do a lot of that training. We've also produced a lot of videos and things like that so that you can learn how to do it. So it is quite helpful. And the benefit, in my opinion, is the athlete experience. Yeah, it might be a headache for the race director on some things. It might be a headache for the timer on some things. But at the end of the day, we don't matter. It's about the athlete experience. And so, someone can wake up at 6.00am and say, "Hey, I want to participate." They go into their phone and register just like somebody did six months ago. And, now, they've signed a waiver. All your finances or your financial reports are in the same place so that you, as a race director, can run those financial reports a week from now, and that person has been accounted for. If you have sales tax or anything like that in your area, it's all been taken care of, so it's not something you're worried about. If you're taking cash on-site, theoretically, you need to be prepared to pay sales tax on that. Now, I know a lot of people don't, but it is something you need to be aware of. And, then, in terms of check-in, the app pulls and dumps all of those people into the database. And so, they don't have to go and stand in a separate line or have a separate procedure. If your online registration platform allows for inventories, it also manages their expectation in advance of whether or not they're going to get the T-shirt size they want, which could really change their attitude on race day when they know that there are no shirts available. If they have to select a no-shirt option in the app, they know they're not getting a shirt. They're not going to show up angry because they've selected that. You can show them where they selected that. And so, again, it really sets a tone for how their day will be because that late registration is going to be treated just like an early registration. Everyone's getting into line the same way. It's just that, maybe, they had to pay more. Now, what do you need on-site? If you plan to provide kiosks then you need WiFi on-site. You need Chromebooks on site. You don't necessarily need laptops. You could have laptops but refurbished Chromebooks are a lot easier and cheaper. Especially if you're registering online, you need to run specific programs through a laptop. But in most scenarios, that will not be the case. If the timer doesn't have a way to pull this data down, you will need a USB drive or something like that to physically take this information over. Otherwise, you're left with your runner having to take paper registration forms over to the timer. And a lot of timers these days charge extra for manual data entry just because there are all of these other options on the table.
And am I correct in thinking that if you want to keep registrations open, is so-called dynamic bib assignment sort of compulsory for managing your bibs?
Not necessarily. It's a great option. What you can do if you leave online registration open, you can have an automatic bib assignment. Again, with RunSignup, there's an automatic bib assignment by registration date. And so, when you turn that on, you can set the bibs in advance with whatever you want it to be - you can assign it in order of age or alphabets. You can import them. And, then, after that, you can set up the next bib available. And that way, if I'm at home and I wake up at 6.00am, and I'm the 700th person to register, I'll get bib number 700 or whatever my bib sequence is. And so, when I show up, my bib is assigned. You can also do it, like you mentioned, with the dynamic bib assignment, which in my opinion is a great tool to use. Again, it's something that you do need to talk with your timer about because if they don't have the ability to pull this data down, you're going to run into issues. But dynamic assignment speeds up the packet pickup process immensely because you're not telling everyone to get in line by their bib number, or by their last name or whatever. What happens in those situations is let's say you have a 1000 person event and you have six or eight lines or something like that for packet pickup and, then, a family of 20 people with "McDonald" as their last name show up, they all get into the MC or the M line and, now, that one line is completely overloaded. And so, you have volunteers at other lines who are bored while you have these 2-4 people that are working as hard as they possibly can to thumb through bibs or thumb through packets for the different people in the MC or M line. Whereas with dynamic bib assignment, you can have people go in any line. We can all spread out - two or three people per line. And we could be managed one at a time. And the longest we have to wait with dynamic bibs assignment is for two other people - because the third person is only behind two people - whereas the longest somebody had to wait for the MC or M line was 15-20 minutes because there are 25 people ahead of us. And so, it really, really speeds up and like amortize the work across everyone rather than having one specific line get overloaded. And, also, on average, you should expect a no-show rate of 12%-17% at your events - you can probably go back and check. I know in RunSignup, you can run the facts over in the reports and you can run year-over-year reports as to when people checked in and how many people didn't check-in so that you can build expectations for your team for next year's event. And so, I know for a fact that some events have hard caps of like, 500 due to space. They also know that they're going to have a 15% no-show rate. So they might oversell their event by 10% because they know that even if there's 10% more people showing up on-site, they're still going to have 5% under cap. And so, they don't have to worry about issues on-site with those actual in-person caps. This will allow them to increase the register slightly and bring in more revenue. And, then, they can also scale those apps very, very quickly in case they do see a number of people show up at once. Additional people can jump in, like what we talked about earlier with volunteers that don't have anything to do or team members that have finished their other tasks-- those people can jump in and scale up very quickly because there are no lines or specific names or bib numbers.
And, actually, I was talking to a race director here in the UK the other day and he was telling me that since races are coming back - and I can't expect that it would be any different in the US - those no-show rates have gone up to almost like 30% in some cases because it's a very volatile season. People are not turning up. And you definitely don't want to be left with like, 30% of bibs being unused and that kind of thing - right?
I would 100% agree with those no-show rates for 2021. However, I think that there's a different reason behind those elevated no-show rates. It's not singularly on what's going on right now. It's that so many athletes are deferrals from last year. And so, I do think those numbers will drop back down to our normal rates in 2022 and later in this year because the later we get into 2021, the less likely registration will remain open for a very long time in 2020. And so, we had some events that were at the end of 2020 and their no-show rates were up to 50%. And early this year, we saw them kind of holding on at 30%, like you were mentioning. And as time goes on, that number has been kind of steadily dropping back down. And here in the south, we're kind of seeing it stabilize back to where it was and part of the reason is because here in September and October, races hadn't been-- when COVID hit last year, it was March. So in March of 2020, not all of our races like Thanksgiving were open at that point. And so, they weren't worried about deferring people over. They might have held an event last year but it was virtual, and so they don't have this huge deferral group coming up. So if your event did have deferrals, you're going to expect a much higher no-show rate because people just aren't going to show up.
And moving to packet pickup, from a discussion we had the other day, I think, contrary to what people might think, you also favor a kind of lean, just in time kind of approach to packet pickup and assembling all the stuff you need to do for the packet, similar to dynamic bib assignment. So you're not very much in favor of pre-packing stuff?
Yeah. It's kind of two different schools of thought there. If you're mailing packets in advance, then you have to put everything together in advance for those mail-outs. But my personal opinion on packet pickup is to leave the variables out - like the bib number is a variable unit. So I'm not going to put the bib number into a bag. And a lot of times, we do dynamic bib assignments so those bibs are going to be sitting on T-shirts. T-shirts are another variable unit. You might get a large and I might get an extra-large. So if we start packing these bags, it's a lot easier to transport boxes of large T-shirts - folded or unfolded - and boxes of extra-large T-shirts versus packets with pre-packaged shirts and things like that. And a lot of people will argue, "Yeah, it speeds up the packet pickup process." I don't disagree with you but that's if it's a very quick handoff. But if you have to transport these things, and they fall out and whatnot, like how long does it take to put a T-shirt into a bag immediately? So in many cases, what we do at a normal run is we'll have the bib number in front of the person who is checking people in and we'll have boxes of pre-assembled bags that have all that sponsor stuff, the goodies that are going into the bag are pre-packaged, and those are sitting there. And, then, the T-shirts are spread across the table in different areas by T-shirt size and you might have a runner that's in charge of the small T-shirt. And so, the person checking somebody in will say, "Okay, your next bib is number 123." After that, you'll assign bib number 123 to that athlete who will then say, "I need a medium." And, now, the shirt person grabs a bag, puts a medium T-shirt into the bag, hands it to the person in front who puts the bib in, and hands it to the person. And so, it's a very quick process. I mean there are other events that are enormous that the shirts can't be given out in the same location. So those shirts will have to get picked up later down the line. Maybe, if you're in an expo area of a stadium, there might be the next set of tables over after you pass through the sponsors. And so, that's managed slightly differently. But when we talk to races, as much as everyone wants to say, "There's a 5000 person race," the reality is most races fall into that 100-500 person range - and that's not to insult anyone. It's just kind of where the average race size is. And with races of that size, that packet pickup method is very effective.
Right. And I think it's a good qualification to mention the size of race because, maybe, if you are the 5000 person race, spending that time assembling that stuff before race day may make some sense. But if you are the 100-200 which, as you say, is the bulk of races - and there's no issue with that, all races are great events regardless of size - maybe it does make sense at that point to just assemble them on-site to just be a little bit more nimble that way - right?
Yeah. Well, a lot of the big races don't pre-assemble - they just do packet pickup in a completely different area or in a completely different room, or like 20 yards away, where you have to take your bib and they punch a hole or something like that to confirm that you've picked up your shirt with your size. There's no point in spreading things out for a smaller event. You will just dilute resources. But once you get to the point where you do need to spread things out, it makes complete sense to have the shirts farther away so that you can keep checking people in and move them through. If you look at how the big races do it, if you basically do the same thing at a smaller race in handing that shirt out individually, you're just doing it all at once because there's no need to have everything on different tables down the line. Everything fits right here. If you go to a 10,000 person race, more likely, you can't physically fit the T-shirts behind you unless you're in a huge gym, stadium, or something. So it might be that they're gonna store them over on this other area.
Is mailing packets sort of like falling out of fashion these days? I know it has its pitfalls - right? I mean, people show up with no bibs and timing chips. I mean, things can go wrong. But are people doing lesser packet mailings than they used to?
To be honest, I would be willing to bet that there are more packet mailings right now than there used to just because there are still a lot of restrictions due to COVID guidelines. And if you can mail something then there's less human-to-human contact. And with the advent of UHF tags where they're disposable, you can easily fix the tag to the bib and have people show up and go. Like you said, there are pitfalls such as people losing their bibs, or forget to bring it, or somebody gets the wrong shirt size and needs to get that sorted out. The other side of this that a lot of people - that are doing bib or packet mailings for the first time - don't think through is your entire process for ordering shifts backwards, like earlier, to whatever day you need to receive things to begin preparing. So if your race is, say, on Thanksgiving Day, and normally you prep whatever you need to prep that Monday. And so, that means you need to get everything delivered on the Friday in the previous week. And so, that means you need to order three weeks before that. But if you're mailing things and you're expecting these people to receive them and show up, you might need to give a week or a week and a half before that so that everybody receives it. Now, we're not talking about virtual events - we're talking about like they're actually physically coming to the race. They need to receive those days before the race day - so you have to ensure this. The logistics side of shipping and receiving right now is questionable. So you really do want to give a little bit of extra time for people to receive things so you might want to shift your ordering process two weeks before which means, now, you have to project your orders two weeks further out. For smaller events, 50% of your registrations are coming in the last month and you've just pushed things out two weeks before. And so, you really have to get good at projecting if you're mailing things out. Otherwise, you're going to run out of stuff. There are pitfalls but there are benefits especially in the COVID world with getting things out to people without them having to come to packet pickup and be exposed to others and stuff like that.
So let's spend a little bit of time on course setup and teardown. And specifically, for your typical road race where you need to do a number of things on race day - some of which take the same amount of time and some of which are sort of conditioned and others - what kind of order would you do things in setting up a course and then tearing it down?
So again, depending on the distance and size of the race, most of the time, we get the start/finish lines set up first. We kind of joke about the idea of no one wants to see what the guy underneath the Mickey Mouse head actually looks like because it takes away the magic. And so we feel kind of the similar way about the race and that we really would like to have the start and finish areas set up before the bulk of athletes show up so that the race still has that magic feel, because most participants never consider what it took to get everything set up. They're just taking those pictures - even before the race, underneath the finish line, or next to a clock, or something like that. And so, we tried to get all of that set up in advance. And part of that is also because a lot of times, there are heavier things that need more hands, more muscle, and more man-hours to get everything set up. And then, at that point, once all of that is done, we kind of split or divide and conquer to people setting up timing equipment, people setting up the course, and people setting up packet pickup on site. So all of that happens simultaneously. And usually, as the race director, I'm usually getting notifications from my team as to what they've completed at certain marks on the course just like you would want to know where the athletes are on the course - where's my first guy and last guy? I like to know where my team is on the course as time goes on. That way, I need to know if I have to look up jokes or something like that, to tell with a microphone, at the starting line. (I'm joking about that.) But the idea is that you might have to hold things up so that everything's completed - and hopefully, that's not the case but things can go awry like an event we had in March whereby half a mile in on the course, we had a train parked across both certified courses. And so, here we were at night, probably two hours before the 5K & 10K, we had to go create two new 5K and 10K courses. And so, the timer and race director got together, they sat down, pulled up Google Maps, and started to map things out, and it's like, "Okay, I think this is gonna work." And now, the contingency plans are communicated to the athletes like, "Hey, things are gonna be different. Nothing's certified. We're doing our best." And we made it all work although we started five minutes late. Having good staff and having a contingency plan in place helps a lot. But once you actually get to the course setup itself, pre-marking in that train situation wouldn't have helped-- pre-marking, if possible, helps your staff if they're not as familiar with the course, because they can double-check that, "Oh, mile one does go here. It says mile one." Because at a certified course you might have pins dropped to where things need to go. So, putting cones out way in advance before your team goes out helps them see things because it's probably going to be dark. Make sure they have course maps - we used to print out all the course maps for the staff - now, we email it because everyone has a phone now. And, then, on a shorter race, basically, you will have starters and finishers coming in at almost the same time, so the entire course needs to be set up before you say go. For longer distance races like a Half Iron distance triathlon, the entire run course is probably not set up when you start the swim because even if you've got pro athletes, you've got several hours to set up before the first person gets out onto the run course. And if you put all the ice and stuff like that up there, it's just going to melt. So the course setup and everything like that depends on the timeline of your event day. And we do a lot of calculations at our events as to what our expectations are for the fastest and slowest people. As a race director, you only really need to care about two persons, which is your fastest and your slowest, because everybody else is in between. And so, everybody needs to be treated the same. And so, doing those calculations to figure out when your first and last person is going to pass certain points, setting that up with the city manager and stuff like that can really help out with the planning processes and getting notifications from your team on the course if you're not using utilizing things like remote splits or RaceJoy style tracking. And, then, for the teardown, we use a rolling tear down strategy which is, let's say you're doing a big loop that never goes back on itself for a 5K, we start the race, everybody's on course, and about seven minutes or so later, we send our team out to begin tearing down. We never want to catch that last person. So sometimes, we'll drive incredibly slowly or park for a bit. That way, when the last person crosses the finish line, my team is sometimes 100 yards away, sometimes half a mile away, but they have torn things down so that the city or the event space can open back up and we have less of an impact on the greater traffic patterns of the event. And, also, our team gets to go home earlier. So that's a huge plus for our guys because a lot of times, they don't get paid by the hour - they get paid for the event. Other people do it hourly. It's kind of your decision to make. Personally, most people want to wrap it up as soon as they possibly can so that they'll not complain about clearing the course after the award ceremony happens.
And, then, you'll have your course cleared. It makes a lot of sense to do it on a rolling basis. Another really important thing after that is getting race results out to people on time. So going back to dynamic bib assignment - technology has made some significant strides in that - a lot of people these days, even on smaller events, have come to expect results to be delivered to them by email or text pretty soon after they finish the race. What kind of technologies and setups do I need on the ground to be able to deliver all of that to people?
As a race director, you need to find a solid timer if you're not timing in-house. Most of us race directors aren't timing in-house. And for the race directors that have a good timer, they'll probably see what these timers do and think to themselves, "Oh yeah, they just click some buttons and it looks easy." But it's a very, very stressful thing. And it looks easy because the person doing it is pretty good at it. And as a timer, how do you do it? Number one, you really want to have an internet connection if possible. And at bare minimum, you'll want to make sure that your data stream is live - you're assessing the data in real-time and not having to wait until everyone finishes. And then, ideally, you're using your internet connection and your scoring platform to push those results live into the web. Again, we use RunSignup quite a bit, if not exclusively. And we push all of our results live into RunSignup through RaceDay Scoring. And the beauty of that is we have the ability to text and email athletes usually about 30 to 45 seconds after they have finished. They get a text and email notification through the RunSignup system. They do have to opt-in - that is a requirement in the US. But other than that, it's a really seamless process. But one big thing that we've talked about a lot internally with other timers is, as a timer, testing your reports and testing to make sure everything's going to come through like you want it to. A lot of race directors look at a timer almost as a magician because all of this stuff just happens. And as a timer, don't look at yourself as a magician - it's not just happening. You do need to test things out. You do need to make sure your reports are clean and good when putting test data in. Double-check that if you're pulling a live data down, it is connected and it is working. If you're doing a CSV import, getting a test CSV file, and pulling that in to make sure everything pulls the way you want it to. Double-check with your race director to make sure that the specific age groups, overall awards, and any special categories are in and present it in the way people want. Double-check if there's any double-dipping. Double-check that if there's prize money, that prize money is set up in the appropriate hierarchy. As a timer, there's just a lot of pieces to that puzzle to make everything work well. It takes a lot of equipment to do it. I mean, having good timing equipment, having a stable internet connection, having a reliable scoring platform, and understanding how it all works together with the registration database is daunting at first, but practicing and testing go a really long way. And as a timer, I always kind of feel like I'm having a good day when I get to sit back and either drink a soda or coffee and have a conversation. Or maybe, it's not a great day but it's a hard day - when I don't get to have any conversations and I'll need to face the computer typing feverishly to make everything work - which is the way some days go. You can plan out everything but you can still have that human element of, "Oh, I wore my daughter's bib and, then, I just won overall female." So things just happen and as the timer, you need to be very prepared for it.
Yeah. Things would be too boring, otherwise. I mean, you need a little bit of excitement.
After the race are wrapped up, do you do any kind of like formal debriefing with your team - people coming together sharing stories of incidents, stuff like that? Do you even like, document stuff formally? Do you do race reports or stuff like that?
Yeah. So it's kind of a mixed bag on these things. A lot of times, what I'll do as the race director is I'll touch base with my leads and kind of say, "How did your day go?" And I don't want the answer, "Oh, everything was great." I really want to know what worked and what didn't work. And if the general consensus is, "It was good and we only had this runner who ran the wrong way because they didn't listen to the five volunteers, course markings, barricades, all of these things", then we'll not waste time and energy on somebody who just did not pay attention. But if we had other issues with maybe traffic control or something like that, we're gonna have those conversations with the officers in real-time. And I also make it a point to touch base with that lead officer, "How was your day? How did it go?" And they really appreciate that. A lot of times, they'll turn around and, hopefully, tell you that it was a very a well-run event and they didn't have any issues. Sometimes they'll say, "Look, we had some problems at this intersection." And we'll make a note of it and say, "Okay, do you have any ideas right now? He'll answer, "No, but we can talk about it." Usually, we'll do a debrief later if we need to reassess that specific intersection or whatever happened. And it might mean that the course needs to change." And, then, in terms of medical, we absolutely do debrief with medical if there were any medical issues. A number of insurance companies require you to put together an injury report, even if it's a null value, that you didn't have any injuries and they shouldn't be expecting any claims or anything like that through their event insurance. So yes, we definitely do it on the safety's side, especially with triathlons where you're going to touch base with the lifeguards or your swim leads, and ask, "How many people were pulled from the water? Were there any issues?" Things like that because we do report all of that back to the national governing bodies. And, then, if there were any medical issues, as a race director, do you need to reach out personally to make sure everything's fine? And it's not the worst move to just see if everything's okay with that person because things do happen. We're all human, and it's good to have that personal interaction with the athlete.
Indeed. Well, Crisp, I think we've been chatting for a while and I can't thank you enough. Actually, I know how horrendously busy you are with so many hats you're wearing. I want to thank you very, very much for the time you spent with us. I'm sure our listeners would be furiously writing down tips on all kinds of things. Before we go, how can people reach out to you in terms of the stuff you do with your event production and timing business and in your capacity as the RunSignup's RaceDay Expert? How can people get in touch with you?
Perfect. Any last words to aspiring race directors going into race day? I mean, sometimes when we do these episodes with so many tips, I sort of, like get stuck on how helpful they are. But I guess they can also be a little bit intimidating, particularly to some junior people hearing all of these many, many things that they need to sort of, like, keep on top of. Do you have any last encouraging words for people?
Sure. I would just suggest if you're an athlete and you're a new race director, you need to wear a different hat. You're not going to be an athlete on race day. You're gonna be on the event production team. And so, find some events to go volunteer and see it from the other side and experience what other events are doing. You're not stealing intellectual property or anything like that. You're helping out an event. You're learning and growing as a race director. And, then, talk to other race directors and see how they do things and what they would suggest. Make sure you over-communicate with your athletes and with your leads - not to the tune of micromanaging things, but just stay in touch. It's very important to have those open lines of communication and then just take a deep breath. It's an acutely stressful morning. And I think the goal for most of us in the race directing business is to have the biggest impact in the community throughout the entirety of the year and to have the smallest impact on the community on race day - like, h. And so, just try to hold a safe and fun event, and wrap it up on race day and, then, have the biggest impact for the rest of the year on the community, whether it be with running groups, or donations, or empowering people to get to your finish line. And, then, just generally having fun. If you're not having fun doing this, why are you doing it? You've got to take a step back and make sure you're having fun doing it. So, yeah. It's a lot but it can be really, really rewarding. And it's definitely a different path to take as either a volunteer position or as a profession for sure.
Absolutely. And surely, people like you have been in this through thick and thin for some decades now. Crisp, thanks again very, very much for all your time and all these amazing tips. Thanks to everyone who had the patience to sit through this couple of hours with us. I will see everyone on our next episode.
I hope you enjoyed this episode on preparing for race day with race day ninja, Crisp McDonald.
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