LAST UPDATED: 13 July 2023
The Business of Trail & Ultra Races
A behind the scenes look at the flourishing business of trail and ultra racing with veteran trail race director John Lacroix.
If you’ve been following our industry updates on race and participation growth, you may have picked up on the fact that trail running, and trail races, have been doing particularly well over the last few years. In fact, trail racing seems to be one of the few spots within racing still growing at a healthy enough rate as other areas in racing are stagnating or slowly falling behind.
So, what is fueling trail racing’s amazing growth? How different are trail races to organize, promote and grow compared to your typical road race? And, despite the robust growth, what challenges, if any, does trail racing face as it matures into a more popular sport?
With me today to cover this very interesting ground is veteran trail runner, trail racer and trail race director, John Lacroix. Through his Colorado-based Human Potential Running Series, John has been at the helm of dozens of trail and ultra races through the years, and with his help we’re going to be taking a look at all aspects of the trail racing business, from the culture and community that has been at the core of the sport’s success to the nitty-gritty everyday details trail race directors have to contend with in operations, course maintenance and marking, and, of course, safety management.
In this episode:
- The appeal of trail racing
- Improving diversity and inclusivity in trail and ultra running
- Is ultra running's inability to attract younger participants spelling trouble down the line?
- The lack of dedicated educational materials and accreditation for trail race directors
- The complexities (and costs) of obtaining permits for a trail/ultra race
- The challenge of finding and attracting volunteers
- Marking a trail/ultra running course (hint: it's not for the faint-hearted!)
- Managing risk and keeping participants safe in a trail race
- The economics of trail and ultra races
- The reality of attracting sponsorship dollars in trail races
- Marketing trail races: word of mouth, social media, race calendars, event cross-promotions
- Race director collaboration in trail racing
Thanks to RunSignup for supporting quality content for race directors by sponsoring this episode. More than 28,000 in-person, virtual, and hybrid events use RunSignup's free and integrated solution to save time, grow their events, and raise more. If you'd like to learn more about RunSignup's all-in-one technology solution for endurance and fundraising events visit runsignup.com.
John, welcome to the podcast!
Hey, thanks for having me on.
Well, thanks a lot for coming on. So you're based in Arvada, Colorado. Am I pronouncing that right?
Yeah, that is correct. We're a suburb of Denver. So we're right next to Golden Colorado. Yeah.
That's what I thought. All of those towns - I'm actually curious - like Golden, Arvada, as you say, they probably used to be separate towns kind of thing, right? And now, I look at the map and Denver has swallowed everything up.
That is true. Yeah. We're still all separate towns. But yeah, the Denver metro area is now a big sprawling mess. It's different than when I moved here 12 years ago. A lots changed in 12 years.
So you're not Colorado by birth?
No, nobody is.
Okay. Fair enough.
Yeah, we're all transients here.
But you'll go there for the mountains, I guess, and the lifestyle. It's pretty awesome. I've been around those parts - Boulder and stuff. It's pretty beautiful, as are many places in the US, but more to the point-- it seems to have a particular attraction for people of your kind - like the outdoorsy trail running type, right? I mean, how did you get to become what it is?
I think it's just the altitude. Athletes look to train at higher altitudes. A lot of folks in the United States consider this area to be "Mecca" for trail running, for lack of a better term. This area has more endurance athletes per capita than anywhere else in the world and they've all come here to enjoy the natural beauty, the progressive way of life that we have, and also to train at elevation. And so it's a big part of it.
Which of course, has the downside to it. I was recording a podcast the other day with the marketing director from the Denver Colfax marathon and he told me that, unfortunately, for a popular road race, that cuts both ways - right? No one wants to run at altitude. So their course records are all messed up because you can run as fast at altitude, I guess. But for you, it helps with the training. So then, you go down to sea level and you kick the proverbial, I guess.
Well, there's one piece of that that people forget, and that's there's no humidity in Colorado. And so typically, when we go someplace at sea level, there's so much humidity that it kills us. So, while we have the altitude training, we don't have the humidity training, so it kind of levels the field out a little bit for us. I come from New Hampshire, which is a very humid place. And when I return home now to where I'm from, I'd rather be somewhere else.
But Badwater - I guess, like Death Valley - must be your kind of place, right?
Absolutely. Yeah, we do well there.
Below sea level and super dry. You should be flying out there.
Correct. Yeah, that would be a much better experience.
Have you done that? Because before we went live, we were discussing you doing a full loop of Barkley. So have you done Badwater?
No, actually. I've applied to run Badwater. I applied when it was, like, $400 to enter and not $1,000. That was a long time ago, but I was told by the organisers that I didn't have a good enough ultra resume at the time, even though I had already run a dozen 100-mile races. They let an 18-year-old in who had never run a 100-mile before, but I didn't have the experience? It's just very weird how they do their selection. I guess you have to participate in some way in some of their other events, either as a crew, a pacer, or a volunteer so that you really know what you're getting into, which I totally understand from a risk management perspective. So I didn't check their risk management boxes when I applied. So unfortunately, no,
That's interesting. We're gonna be getting into this whole-- which is part of actually of what we'll try to convey today about all the things that are special about trail running and racing, specifically, and the business of it. When we touch on volunteers and things, you spoke about the ecosystem and how you need to be involved, it works slightly differently and we'll come across that. Before we do that, why don't you tell our listeners a little bit about HPRS, yourself, your racing company, and what you've done in the past? I mean, I looked up on your site and there's, like, a laundry list of stuff you've done. So tell us all about it.
So the Human Potential Running Series-- we are Colorado's largest series of trail races. And ultra marathons were the third largest ultra running series in the United States. We're also the only major series on the planet that did not cancel a single race through the COVID-19 pandemic, and we did that without a positive transmission of COVID reported through our events. So I've got 15 races that I direct all year round, mostly in Colorado. I have one in El Paso, Texas. I also am the race director of the World Championship Pack Burro race in Fairplay, Colorado, which is an old mining tradition here in the state of Colorado. I was an ultra runner first. I started running ultra marathons in 2005. I've run 100 miles - or more - 24 different times. I have two finishes at Western States and six at Vermont. I've done a loop at the Barkley. I've run Leadville. Yes, there's a long list. I also am the only person to have run from the westernmost point to the easternmost point of New Hampshire. It's 125 miles - it's not that far. I also attempted to run from the lowest point of Colorado to the highest in 2017. I made it 202 miles before climbing Mount Elbert in a blizzard. Professionally, as a race director, I directed the first 200-mile ultra marathon in the world in 2008 - that was in Vermont. I'm an RRCA certified professional race director. I have a risk management for outdoor programming certification through Viristar. And my degree is in outdoor education with a concentration area in recreation management and hospitality Management.
Wow, that says it all. Of all that, I want you to spend maybe a minute or two telling people who, like me, are very, very unlikely to be familiar with it, what this Pack Burro stuff is all about.
Pack Burro racing. It is the Colorado summer heritage sport, officially. Essentially, it is trail and ultra running with a burro, which is a donkey. So essentially, you run the entire distance with your burro by your side and you have to have your burro lead in your hand the entire time. And yeah, the goal is to cross the finish line as fast as you can with your burro, and this was started by gold miners back in the day who made a bet with each other. "I bet you I could run with my burro from here to Leadville, and I bet I could do it faster." And so, naturally, when you're drunk after a long day digging silver and gold, you take that bet and people started running with their burros over the mountain passes here in Colorado. So we're coming up on the 75th anniversary World Championship Pack Burro race in Fairplay. It's a very, very cool event - very different.
And who tends to win those? Is it the fastest runner or the fastest donkey?
Yes. That is the answer. Yes. It's usually the fastest burro. Whoever has the better relationship with their burro and they can cross the finish line, that's who wins.
Yeah, awesome. Of your many accomplishments, you left off the podcaster. You have your own podcast - or two, actually. How many is it these days?
I just do one now. Previously, I did the ultra stories podcast. I self-produced 144 episodes and then ended it, and restarted with the Human Potential Running Series podcast, which is just a show focusing primarily on the individuals that make up our community here at the Human Potential Running Series, people that run with us, volunteer with us, or have some kind of connection to us along the way. So, it's a little bit of a different format. But yeah, just one podcast for now. That's plenty.
Do you like podcasting?
I do. I enjoy the conversations. I think a lot can come out of the conversations, especially when we live in a world where we have our heels so dug into our own personal beliefs. It's really important to hear the opinions and thoughts of others to help us have a more well-rounded opinion in the world, if you will. So I think they're important. They're fun to do. I enjoy them.
Yeah, we all definitely can use a little bit of external opinions bursting through our bubbles. It goes to many different ways of life where that's needed. So today, we are going to be talking about trail races and ultra races - I guess, ultra trail races, so not so much ultra road races. And it's obvious that most of the people following the podcast and most of the people who are in the industry are road race directors. Trail running is a sport that continues to grow pretty strongly - not sure about ultra racing, but we'll get that in a sec, but trail racing definitely is on the up. It's something that road race directors professionally have been taking an interest in - even big corporations like Spartan see, like, the attraction of a sport, in growth, has been very strong for new people to get into it. And I just wanted to have a discussion with someone like yourself who's done this for many years and knows the business of it, and the trends within it inside out. So we can highlight for people sort of what's happening in the sport and how some things are special about the operational aspects of trail racing, the economics of trail racing, lots of different things, and also look at the common threads through all kinds of races through that. First of all, trail racing, as I said, and it's a sport I personally got into 6-7 years ago and I enjoy a lot. I don't do a lot of it, but I enjoy it a lot more than road racing. It has been growing consistently. It's been growing fast from a low base because it wasn't that popular of a sport. Why do you think it's been doing so well? And where do you think the appeal is in all that?
That's a big question. There are a lot of differences between trail and road races, and I think one of the bigger differences is what's most attractive, which is we're not putting 3,000 runners on a trail - we're talking a few hundred. Our larger races like the JFK 50 which is the oldest Ultra in the United States, they have 1,500 runners on their course, but the resource can handle that number where they're running and where they're racing. Here in Colorado, that just not going to happen. I think, the most any race gets on a trail in a day is around 500. So, I think the idea that you're more than a bib number in a trail race, you're somebody, you're part of the collective, you are recognised, you are noticed, and that that possibility is there because there are much fewer people to keep track of. There are fewer people to know. So I think that's part of it. The other is just the natural beauty and the calm and quiet that you can experience out there on the course. I can't tell you how many times I've run a trail race where I've been alone. I know there are people ahead of me. I don't know if there's anyone behind me and it's been quite a long time since I've seen somebody. So, that solitude, that opportunity to really be one with yourself and one with nature is a part of that allure cultural differences. In general. I think that trail and ultra runners don't care about the race or the competition. We're not constantly clicking our watches and obsessing over our Strava. That's not to say that all road runners are. There are definitely some nuances within the culture there that are just different in trail running. It's a lot more relaxed a lot more "bro" if you will. We're dirtbags, essentially. And I think the cost of entry is typically cheaper. Our aid stations are way better - no doubt about that. It's more than a banana, a gel, and some Gatorade - it's an all-out buffet. And I think, also, it's a lot easier on your body. Running road races, as we know, can be really painful and really detrimental to your body. And there's a lot more forgiveness running on trails, and I think that appeals to a lot of people.
It's interesting that you mentioned the trail runner there because, to me-- I also produced, like, a trail ultra, like, a few years back now and I had to go into the community a little bit because these were the athletes we were targeting and everything. To me, there seem to be more trail runners who care about the competitive side of things than your average road runner. I mean, you say people are clicking on watches. I might be clicking on watches on a marathon, but I don't consider myself to be competitive, right? I mean, I'm just horrible, but I do care whether I do it in, like, 4.00 or 4.10 or whatever, and that's not competitive, it's just keeping track. But trail runners, I see a lot of people who take it very seriously, who call each other athletes more, who have this kind of ethos of competition and "we're living the lifestyle" and identify with that a lot more.
Yeah, there's definitely some of that out there upon us. I think there definitely was a period of time in the trail and ultra running culture where we really did ogle the front runners, we did ogle, the elite, we needed to know everything, we followed them, we were what they were, and this was around the time when Anton Krupicka had come in 2010 to about 2016, and we've really started to move away from that. We're starting to enter into a time in the culture within the sport where fewer people care about that and most folks want to know who the runner is, and what their why is. They want to find a way that they can connect with that elite runner, and it's not their time, and it's not how amazing an athlete they are. It's "Who are they? And why do they do this?" So people are really looking for that deeper connection now - what we're seeing in trail and ultra. I think, for me, the big difference is-- I've always felt, when I've run in a road race, you show up and nobody's talking. It's very much you're in the zone, you're in your own lane, you're running your own race, your hands on the watch, they say, "Go," and it's "Run this thing as fast as you can if you're in a marathon. Alright, I got four hours, let's go." And that is your hyper-focus, hyper-vigilant. But when you're in a trail race, there definitely is this vastly different community feel where we are all there together, we're suffering together, and we know that it takes a village for all of us to pull everybody through that finish line. So we're not just invested in our own race, we're invested in the collective and we're invested in making sure everybody gets there and that everybody realises their potential as an athlete. Even though we're clicking the watches and keeping track of those things, it's far less important than being an exemplary member of the collective.
I guess you're saying there's a kind of, like, tribal aspect to this - like the culture and everything?
Do you think that tribe and that culture are as inclusive and accepting of minorities and women and the kinds of people who are traditionally not very well represented in our sport more generally?
No. Honestly, I think that trail and ultra running has an inclusivity problem. I do believe we have an intolerance issue. It is such a great question and very hard to answer. I mean, honestly, if you go to someplace like San Francisco, they have a very different demographic makeup of their general metro area, to begin with. And so, races in that area, for sure. They have a more diverse and inclusive running scene. But, I'm in Colorado. We do not have a very diverse and colourful running scene here. It's all primarily white people, and it's like that across the entire middle of the US. That makes sense. It makes sense based on the demographics of the area. However, I would say that we've long struggled as a sport to find the right ways to be more welcoming of underserved communities within our sport, and I think we've done well to try to find ways to bridge that gap, but not everything has been perfect and not everything is going according to plan as it were. Yeah, I think that's an honest question and a pretty accurate assessment that, for as much as this sport is growing, we certainly are not the most diverse or inclusive out there compared to road running, especially.
Yeah, I think even road running has ways to improve in that. Obviously, gender, race, and all of that is also very relevant, but I think one of the other aspects of all this, particularly for sports like ours and races, there's also the question of how welcoming events are to older participants or participants with different body types, right? I mean, it's all of that. And it goes back again to the whole elite thing, like the Krupicka, all of that kind of stuff. Like, it all ties in together, right? How welcome or comfortable would maybe a heavier runner or an older runner or someone feel showing up at the start line of a trail race, I wonder?
When I started running ultras nearly 20 years ago, something that intrigued me most about the sport was that on any given race day, you had no idea who you were going to see there, and you'd be on the starting line-- frankly, you'd be judging those around you and you'd see somebody taller than you and much heavier than you, and your first thought in your head was, "There's no way that person's running in the same race that I am. And not only do they, but they whoop you." So I actually think that is one of the beautiful things about trail and ultra running is - you can be any level, you can be any shape or size, any level of athletic ability, or what have you, and there's a place for you, especially in today's day and age because a lot of us are starting to really extend those cut-offs. Think about it. A 50K race is only 5-6 miles longer than a marathon. It's gonna take you four hours to run a marathon. We give you a 12-hour cut-off for a 50K. And so, for most of us, "Oh, my God, eight more hours to go five more miles?" You might need it. You don't know what the race director has in store for you, but that ability to have that long cut-off actually opens the door for so many people to just come out and explore, to come out and adventure, to come out and see how far their feet will take them. Because then, you start getting into the conversation of how do you define running. What is a run? Is it different than jogging? What if some people like to put a magic number on it? "You got to be running at least a nine-minute mile to be considered a runner." There are even people that define ultra marathon running as well. You're not an ultra runner till you run at least 50 miles. And for me, you're a runner as long as you're moving forward faster than a walk. That's it. You get to define that for yourself. And so, I think in trail and ultra, we have more of an opportunity to extend those cut-offs in a way that opens the door to a lot of people of different backgrounds, shapes, sizes, and athletic abilities - it has that ability to feel more inclusive and more welcoming and that's one of the beautiful things about it.
And I think you nailed it on that. It's the simple things like cut-offs that change practically the inclusivity of an event quite drastically. I've seen it in other places as well. You have an event with very strict cut-offs. It just cannot attract certain types of people. Then, you just open those up and all kinds of people feel comfortable coming in, coming through.
Yeah, I look at, like, the Leadville 100. The Leadville 100 is one of the highest 100-mile races in the nation. I wouldn't say it's the hardest by way of the actual course. It's the hardest because of their cut-offs. They're the only high mountain 100-miler in the United States whose cut-off is not 34 hours or longer. Their cut-off is 30. And they make those cut-offs really hard on the front half of the race. I sometimes theorise-- I wonder if they're, like, deliberately trying to get people to quit or be cut so they don't have to serve them on the second half and save some money. I don't know. But at the end of the day, it's one of those "Yeah, that race, because they have that tough cut-off, they attract a very specific athlete to be able to compete in that to have a chance at making those cut-offs." It almost exudes this elitist tone, this elitist feeling that has really started to disenfranchise a lot of runners within the sport. And so suddenly, for having tight cut-offs, fast cut-offs, catering to a specific athlete, and a few other policies that you have, your race is now seen as an elitist or nepotistic event rather than something that is inclusive of everybody.
So we spoke quite a bit about what's happening in trail races as such. They're on the up. More people are doing them. What's the view of ultra racing? That seems to also be quite popular on a on a growth trajectory - is that the case?
We were for sure on a growth projectory for a really long time. We had the Dean Karnazes boom where-- I mean, that was the first major boom the sport had ever seen. And I was an ultra runner before the Dean Karnazes book came out and I'm very acutely aware of how that was received within the sport. It was very controversial. A lot of people didn't like Dean for shining the spotlight on the sport, but it grew. Then, the next boom we had was Born To Run - the book Born to Run. We had a big boom out of that. And then, we had, like, a phantom boom in 2019. And I call it a phantom boom because there was no real catalyst. We just grew. It was huge - biggest year ever. COVID definitely changed the landscape. There are a number of races that never came back. I think there's been a shift in priorities in the world in terms of runners having the time to train for an ultra or perceive timed or perceived training - however you want to look at it. I don't think it's any different training than for a marathon, personally. We are on a downward trend in ultra running. And the most alarming part of it is that we are down tremendously in our number of newcomers - first-time ultra runners. That number is down. 50K finishes, 50-mile finishes, and 100K finishes are down. So that, to me, is spelling disaster for the 100-mile distance within the next two to three years. When I ran my first 100 There were 30-some 100-mile races in North America. Now, there are 230. We're not going to have 230 100-milers here in the next two or three years, We're gonna have to start unloading some. So yeah, ultra running here in the States, at least, is in an ebb pattern - definitely starting to trend downward a little bit. It'll be interesting to see how this year plays out - it's going to tell us a lot. This year will tell us an awful lot.
It's my impression that ultra-running maybe has a slightly higher average age - is that the case? And I guess you would have to because ultra runners have to be running for a while to get to that stage. But is it fair to say that it's a slightly older person's kind of gig?
Yeah, it still is. The sweet spot for age of participants is really 35 to 50 years old. That is the average age group that we have. The biggest age group is 35 to 50 - primarily male. Across the entire sport, that breakdown is, like, 63% male. I believe that would be 37% female. When I look at the trends reports from folks like RunSignup, they're reporting 58% of the sport is female and slightly younger. And so, yeah, the sport of running as a whole - that is the demographics. Ultra running - definitely predominantly male, definitely 35 to 50. Different demographic.
Interesting. I guess some of the same pathologies that we touched on with trail running previously there. Let me switch gears for a sec. It was very interesting to me when we first spoke on the phone. We started discussing about what ways trail running is different to trail racing, rather, is different to road racing from a business point of view. I was really surprised to actually hear all the different ways in which that's true. You started out - when we were discussing this - telling the story about how you went to take - which you're now certified - the RRCA race director certification course and, as a trail director, your first reaction to seeing the corpus of material that you're studying there, and how much really relevant that was to your experience. Do you want to talk through that episode a little bit?
Yeah, I've been a race director now for almost nine years, full-time. I had never taken the RRCA professional race director certification. I didn't really know how I felt about it, and that's why I never took it, and then ultimately decided, "You know what? Learning opportunity. I'm going to take that." I actually failed the exam my first time. And to be fair, I didn't study for it. So that was, like, the first time I take this exam, I'm just gonna go based off of my knowledge, my wealth of knowledge, having gone through the training that you go through to take the certification, and there were a lot of things in there that just don't apply to trail and ultras - things like getting a permit for an ultra trail and ultra running event is vastly different than getting permission from a municipality to be able to host a race in an urban setting. The risk management protocols and procedures for a trail race in a near wilderness setting are vastly different than having a police officer and ambulance on every corner every five miles, or what have you. Sponsorship is vastly different. I'm not going to get a tonne of sponsors for a 100-person trail race compared to what a 5,000-person road run might get. Oh, and by the way, we're all in town. So everybody in town is going to engage with the race too. It's vastly different in those in those senses. The way we mark the course is different. The way we work with land managers and our obligations to give back to the resource that we're using are different. The numbers are different. The finances are vastly different. And so, taking that exam, it was like, "Wow, this was great. I learned a lot. I'm really glad I did this. I'm now a certified professional race director. I can direct any road race." That doesn't mean I can direct a trail race. That doesn't mean I can direct an ultra marathon. So I've actually been talking with the RRCA. And it looks like we're going to start getting to work on actually creating an RRCA race director certification for trail and ultra specifically, and we're going to start writing a protocol that speaks towards trail and ultra that is different from road.
I think that makes total sense. And you touched on a lot of things there that I want to sort of, like, break down one by one.
Let's do it.
The permitting process-- I mean, you speak to a road race director - definitely not their fun thing - about putting on a race. Lots of headaches there.
It's not fun for anyone.
Yeah, but for you guys, it must be a near nightmare. Talk us through that. Like, how is it more complex than getting a permit for a road race?
As a trail and ultra director, my goal is to have to get as few permits as possible and to be able to put on a race. So if I can deal with just one land manager, be it a state park or a private ranch or something like that here in Colorado, that's the holy grail for me. I just need one permission. Private lands-- they either want to have you or they don't. Right? But when you're dealing with the state park, or the federal government, or the Bureau of Land Management here - be it Forest Service Bureau of Land Management - they all do this same kind of process, which is they've already done an environmental impact study on a specific trail, and every road in every trail within their jurisdiction has had that environmental impact study done. And what they're determining in that EPA is to how many heartbeats, how many people can this very specific section of trail handle in a year before the resource, before the trail, before the ecosystem of that area starts to degrade in any way. So let's say for round numbers, they determined this trail can have 1000 heartbeats this year. When you as a race director come in and say, "I'm going to put on a race. I'm going to use this trail, and I'm going to have 200 runners." What you're asking for is, "Will you give me 200 of those 1000 heartbeats you've determined that the resource can handle?" And so the land manager has to say, "Well, we know that that trail sees probably 500 visitors a year. So 200 brings us to 700. We still have room for more people. So yes, you can have the permit." But if they determine, "You know what? This resource already sees more than the resource can handle in a given year. We can't give you the permit because there are no heartbeats to give you." So this is a huge part of permitting. You got to do this dance and figure out, "Is there even space for us on that trail?" The other part is, you and I have known-- we go out for a run and you come across a trail that's unmarked, unnamed, but it's there, it's a trail. Right? You and I know that is a trail. You and I know that is a route. But if the land manager doesn't accept that that trail is an official trail as part of their official network of trails, they will not permit you on it. So you can't use it. So there's another roadblock you might run into. The other piece-- I deal with Colorado State Parks, I deal with three or four different state parks to host our races, and each State Park does it differently. Each Ranger has a different ethos that they administered permits differently. Same thing with the Forest Service. Each ranger district does it differently. They have a different point of view, a different way of thinking about it, a different way of managing their resource, and that makes sense because we have such a vast geographic area. None of the resources are the same. And so, every area is different. Where it gets really difficult is my oldest race that I put on. It's called the Indian Creek 50s. I've got to get permission from five different land managers. They're all different, they all manage differently, they all do it differently, and if any one of those say, "No," the race doesn't happen.
Wow, that's a lot of "no"s that you can get.
I need five yeses. If I get one "No", we're done. Yeah. And so, the fact that we've had this race now - this will be our 10th year - I always say, is probably our biggest miracle at HPRS. We're able to continue to get a permit from five different land managers every year to host that event. But that also can get expensive. The Forest Service ones-- they're 3% of the revenue. Then, there's a campground concessionaire that manages the Forest Service campsite. They want $6 per vehicle that I parked there, which is everybody. Then I've got a State Park. They want $2 per runner that comes onto their land. Then, the county says you can just have a permit for free. And then, the water company that manages this, "Oh, yeah, that doesn't cost anything." And so it's very different. Like, I have to figure out my budget on who's getting what cut of my revenue for these permits, and there are five people. It's hard.
When you were mentioning the whole heartbeat model, which lots of people would recognise, I think, internationally as the way that these kinds of parks and natural reserves are run - and I think for good reason - is there no way that you guys-- because I know, for instance, here in Greece, and I'm sure in other places, trail race directors contribute also quite a lot in maintaining the trails, right? Is there no way to say, "We're going to put the work to put the trail back to where it was so we can put more runners through it?" Like, can you sort of, like, find a way to expand capacity that way by putting hard work back into the trail in getting it back to how it was or even better?
Yeah. This is kind of how a lot of 100-milers in the United States-- we started having this requirement as a condition of entry that you must complete eight hours of volunteer trail work. And that was very controversial when it first came out. And even to this day, there are so many runners that still complain that they even have to do that. And for me, it's pretty simple. Use of these trails for races like ours is a privilege. It is not a right, and that "No" can come very easily. And so, at least at my series, we made it a part of our personal ethos that we're going to host trail workdays every year. We actually adopted 11 miles of US-- we're the first race series in Colorado to officially adopt trail from the forest service and we've worked that trail every year for nearly 10 years now, providing at least three trail work days a year-- I think we're up to over 1,500 hours of volunteer work digging trail, building bridges, and whatever needs to be done to improve the resource for all users, not just for us. It's for all users. And when I do those trail work days, I explained to people, "You see this trail is really overgrown. If it continues to get overgrown and nobody uses it and there's no treadway, the land manager will say, 'Okay, that's no longer in official trail and then nobody can use it'." So for us to come in, it's, "We're going to work this trail. We're going to do what we can to bring it back to life. We're going to make it usable. And yeah, it's going to add user days to that trail that we all can use, we can all enjoy it. And I think it's a pretty important and vital way for us to give back." The reality is, as you alluded to, Panos, is that so few races are doing that trail work. Few race directors are doing that trail work. Few runners are doing that trail work. I have to beg people to come and do trail work. And for me, it's a no-brainer. You should be doing trail work.
Yeah, I guess, races don't have to do much road races to the road, right? They don't go around putting asphalt down.
Just make sure your cups are picked up. Right?
Exactly. So it already gets a lot more complicated for trail races. I think that's where part of the fun is because, as you say, then you build the community and you get the people out doing more stuff than just racing. And you were also telling me that volunteers, I know, is a big headache for road race directors these days as well but, like, for trail races, it's an agony.
Oh, yeah. And that's another area where we differ so much. If you've got a marathon in the city with 3,000 runners and every runner is bringing two friends or family members with them, you now have 6,000 people to draw from for volunteer, plus everybody that lives in that local community who might be willing to volunteer to make the race of success. So you have this endless well of potential volunteers. That doesn't mean they're coming out. That doesn't mean it's easy. I'm just saying, from a numbers perspective, you've got an endless well of possibility. In a trail race, I'm in the middle of nowhere in the mountains, typically two hours from home, I've got 100 runners, most of them are not bringing anybody with them. I may have a well of maybe 200 people to get volunteerism from. And if you're struggling with a well of thousands, I'm struggling with a well of hundred or a couple of hundred, right? I've seen more races begging for volunteers in the last year, year and a half than I've ever seen in my 20 years in the sport. It's gotten really sad. A race like Western States 100 where they typically have 450 volunteers on race day for that one race and, this year, they had to beg to get the minimum to make the race a success. Nevermind to host Western States as they always have. Just to get it off the ground, they were begging. I know Boston is-- I've already seen ads here in Colorado to come volunteer at the Boston Marathon. And it's like, "Wow." Like, everybody's hurting for volunteers. And I actually blame race directors for this. We have not really pushed the notion that volunteerism is a vital part of your participation in the sport. You can't just show up and run, and that's it. You've got to give back. Races cannot happen without volunteers. Now, I lucked out. Last year, we set a record for unique individuals volunteering at our races. I had 260 total volunteers across my entire series last year, and they put in over 4,000 hours of volunteer time to make our races happen, and those are both records for our company. We pay in race credits. So, if you come and volunteer with us, it's $10 an hour that you can redeem in race credits or in our online store. There are no money changing hands at all. It's just, "Hey, you earned X number of credits. You can spend them on a race entry. You can spend them in our store. You can spend them on a membership. You can spend them on gear, or whatever it is we can thank you for helping us out," and that programme seems to work really well. We still beg. But if I put an APB out, "Hey, we still need X number of volunteers for this weekend," we'll get them.
It's interesting because lots of people-- I've heard this comment occasionally from people that, with regards to the business model of races generally, there's something problematic about an event that can survive on the back of free labour in a way, right? There are lots of people who say, "Listen, if you really paid--" and obviously there's a cost associated with volunteers. Volunteers are not free in any way whether you donate or otherwise, right? But some people would say that, even for large corporate events like IRONMAN, like Kona, and those places that, if people had to actually pay market rate for those kinds of services, it would make races unsustainable, and I wonder what really what the way out of that is, and I think that's an interesting model that you and others are trying out with race credits and beyond race credits, just pushing the ethos - because it's not even about the race credits, really. It's about people wanting to give back, race credits or no race credits. You have to foster that kind of ethos in the community. Right?
Yeah, that's kind of what I was alluding to and my last answer was that this is a cultural issue. And it became a cultural issue because not enough people are promoting the culture of being an involved member of your community. I view it as, like, "It's not an amusement ride. We're not buying tickets for a merry-go-round. We go around on the ride. We get off and go home. That's not how it works. We actually, as a sport, depend heavily on volunteer time and effort to make any race happen. We always have." I've seen some race directors here. If we don't start getting volunteers, we're going to have to hire staff to make sure that we have the personnel there, and that's going to cause the entry fee to go up. So you guys better start volunteering.
That's a pretty good scare tactic.
That's also true. But what people aren't considering is, when you have to hire staff, at least here, stateside, now you got to start thinking about unemployment insurance and you're required to pay into that. You also have to think about payroll and 1099-ing people and you may be paying for some of that, and it's time. And so hiring staff to solve the volunteer problem sounds like an easy fix, you're actually just creating more work and more expenses for yourself. And so really, it behooves us as a sport, instead of casting these threats that we're going to have to hire staff and charge more money, we should instead be using that energy to better educating people about why volunteers are so crucial. And it doesn't matter if you're nonprofit or for-profit. I think, in trail and ultra running, we definitely have more for-profit races than road races do. And a lot of people view that, "Oh, well. You're for-profit. You're relying on the hard work of volunteers, so you can make money." Yeah. And the nonprofit race is doing the same thing. We're not different in that regard. We're just different on where the money goes. So I think we need to do more work in educating and really making that part of our culture normalised again. It's gotten away from us and forgotten, and I think that's why we're running into this problem. We haven't normalised volunteering as a crucial part of you being a member and of you belonging to trail and ultra running, or running, in general.
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Ok, now, let’s get back to the episode…
One aspect of trail races - I might as well call myself a former trail ultra race director who had to learn the hard way -significantly tougher than road races is course marking of course, which I had-- so I put on 100-miler a few years back up in the mountains. I thought I would be receiving more support from some people that didn't end up turning up - I'm sure that's no news to you - and I had to, actually, for a full month or so, I had to be marking different parts of that 100-miles up in the mountain going back checking - so, like, all things considered, like - for hours, for days on end, to mark this thing. And of course, we'll get into why marking is also-- if it's not obvious, how important it is for trail races. But it is stupidly time-consuming. And in my case, at least, it was awesomely costly as well. Is that how it works, generally, or did I do something wrong?
You didn't do anything wrong. All of that is true. When you have a 100-mile race-- I got my 100-mile race - I have two of them. One is in July. I start course marking on Wednesday, and I'm lucky I can do a lot of it from vehicle. So I need fewer volunteers to make it happen. But the closer I get to race day, the more volunteers I need to bring in because we got to mark 65 miles of roads and trail for the 100 mile race. So, about 35 miles of the course doubles back on itself, right? So I only need to mark it once. But yeah, you're buying surveyors tape, which is, like, a vinyl or a plastic kind of fluorescent pink ribbon that you hang from bushes, and you've got to hang a lot of those - thousands of ribbons. So I also make laminated signs with directional arrows to help guide. I might have a corrugated vinyl sign out there at major junctions to help direct people. I buy reflective tape that typically goes on tractor-trailers.
Which is very expensive, by the way.
It is. You buy a big roll of it and you cut a square off, and then crimp it onto your ribbon. So now the ribbon that's dangling from the bush, a headlight will hit that from 200 yards away, and it'll shine and so they'll know. And that's more environmentally friendly than a glow stick. Now, if you're hanging glow sticks, you gotta have a volunteer go out and crack them all so that they're on. It's essentially marking 65 miles of trail twice or at least the nighttime sections. So yeah. And then we can't get enough volunteers to man aid stations. I'm not going to have course marshals out there directing you which way to go. So as a race director, we do our very best to mark the course to the best of our ability. But then, reality sinks in. Here in the American West, cows. There are free-range cattle that will eat your ribbons. So you've marked this three-mile section already, and the cows just ate it all. What do you do?
We had goats. We had goats in my mountains. They have very, very big appetites as well.
So they'll eat that stuff, right? What do you do? We have hunters. Hunters don't care for trail races. They've been known to take a ribbon and take it from this spot, and move it over to this spot. So now your course is vandalised. People are trying to actually cause your runners to get lost, and that happens a lot. It might not just be hunters. It could be locals. I've had people local to an area come in with a fistful of ribbons and say, "Here's your trash." "That's not trash. That's actually for health and safety of people in the mountains. Thank you." There are any number of things that can happen to those markers after you've spent three or four days hanging them and putting them out there. They could get blown over. They can get wet. They could be caught on fire. They could have cows eat them. They could have people remove them or rearrange them on you. I mean, there's any number of things. So, we also give runners a paper map that they can take with them. They can print it and take a map of the course. GPX file of the course, they can download and upload to their watch. We have two different apps that you can use to self-navigate on the course even when you don't have cell service. So we have all these other backups and we got to provide that information to the runner so that they can show up prepared because there's only so much that I can do. Now, some of that risk is transferred over to the runner. "Now, you need to do this in order to be safe and in order to find your way around the course because I can't hold your hand."
And risk, of course-- I mean, if ever there is a word that comes to mind when thinking of trail races-- that's another thing that, like, kept me up at night being a really, really green trail race director - the possibility that something really bad could happen to people and bad things can happen to road runners as well. I guess, you have people collapsing heat strokes, heart attacks, whatever. But up in the mountains, we had a couple of very sad reminders over the last couple of years, what happened in China and other places with how bad things can get when you've got weather that you can't predict, course marking that people running for 30 hours may just not see or, like, go through stuff that they shouldn't go through. Like, all kinds of things can go wrong. So I guess, risk assessment and risk planning is another obvious area where trail running gets much more complicated and a lot scarier, I guess, than road races, right?
Oh, yeah. Yeah, it's vastly different. Like I said, in a road race, you might have an ambulance every five miles. There's at least a fire station that, if you call 911, as a race director in a road race, the authorities are going to be there within 5 to 10 minutes. I mean, it's going to be quick. You're going to have somebody there in a trail and ultra setting. And you're right. If you're running in a race for 36 hours, the number of stupid decisions you're ultimately going to make in your sleep-deprived state could be catastrophic, right? Anything could happen, you could be attacked by an animal. You could fall off a cliff. And these are stories that we've heard right people have been attacked by animals. People have fallen off of cliffs. Races have endured unexpected inclement weather and rockfall. I mean, the list of things that could happen is huge. But the big difference is, if I'm calling 911-- and last year, I did. I had to call because I had two runners out-past the cut-off and we had no sign of them an hour later. There were no headlamps. There was nothing, no voices, no yelling, no whistles, nothing. So I called 911 to engage my emergency action plan and start a search and rescue operation. It was two and a half hours before one search and rescue personnel arrived. And when he arrived, we sat down at 2.30 in the morning and started creating our search and rescue plan for first light. That means that from the time I called 911 to report missing runners - and I need to engage a search and rescue operation - it was six and a half hours before a single boot started looking for these runners. And then, there was this past weekend, I was in El Paso, Texas putting on a race. I had a runner go off course. He descended the east side of the mountain instead of the West, and he called 911 on himself, told them he was lost, and the firetruck showed up and the ambulance showed up, and they're at the base of the mountain. They didn't go looking for the runner at all. They didn't go out there at all. They actually got the runner on the phone, got a GPS location of his current location, and describe to him how to keep walking down the mountain. So I think a lot of people think that, like, in a road race, somebody's just going to be there. That is not the case in trail and ultra. Nobody is going to show up. Nobody's coming to get you for a long time. You could die before anybody reaches you and then we're just recovering somebody. And I think that those realities are lost on a lot of people, including race directors. It's why I got my certification and risk management for outdoor programming. It's why I'm a wilderness first responder, realising that if anything should happen, and it will happen, I'm the first person that's going to be there and I need to be prepared to answer to that situation for my runner, and not everybody sees it that way.
I mean, there's the other aspect of all this, of course, which is that some trail and ultra races have opted out, which I think is an interesting and pretty savvy move. If you ask me, that aligns well with some people's seeking that tough race, and that aligns also well with economics and the risk transfer from a race director's point of view, in doing self-supported races, right? I mean, you get into the into some races that say, pretty much, "Listen, you're out there. Get as much stuff as you need, sort of. Like, carry it on your back" or something. And then, you should expect very little from me. Does that, I guess, improve the risk balance and cost balance from the race director's point of view in having the obligation to be there and having, like, a tighter medical plan because people are prepared that they're gonna be left to their own devices more?
So this kind of goes back to Barkley and Badwater. These are two races where essentially you're on your own. Barkley is not expensive. Badwater is - you're gonna pay over 1,000 US dollars to get into Badwater, and there are no aid stations. End of the day, you get a shirt and a buckle if you finish. They have required checkpoints. You're required to have a crew, unless you're pulling a boat behind you - some people have done that. You're required to spend a night at stovepipe wells - I think it is - or wherever there's, like, a mandatory rest point. But in general, I guess, the feeling out there, the view of it, is that the race director is saying, "All right, you're not my responsibility. You're on your own." Right? That is not true. If you organise a group run and it's not a race, it's what we would call a fat ass - like, a glorified group. You are still the responsible party. You are still liable. And you start kind of wandering into tort law and you're now you're starting to wander into law surrounding common activities and stuff like that, and it's really hard to argue these things in a court of law. So I would say to anybody who's a race director or a run organiser of any kind that, whenever you create that Facebook event page and invite people to come and run with you, you're not responsible for those people and you've got to have a plan. Even if you think, "Well, oh, it's just a group run. It's free. Nobody paid me any money." But you still created the invite, you still created the event, you still invited people, you still figured out what the route is. Essentially, you are a run director and now you are liable for those people. So yeah, I think that there are a lot of folks out there who tried to do that where, "Oh, this race, I'm not responsible for you, I'm not responsible to you. You're on your own. You participate at your own risk." But they paid this $1,000 entry fee or even if they paid $1.67, a pair of socks or whatever it is at the Barkley, right? There's still somebody at the helm. There's still somebody organising. That person's responsible for you. That person has to have a well-thought-out risk management plan for that event. What am I going to do if something happens? How am I going to get to that runner if they need assistance? How am I going to get them out of here quickly if I need to? And I think everybody-- again, whether you're a race director or putting on a weekend group run, you got to have those answers.
No, I agree with that. And that's also, I mean, a slight tangent why some people ask-- sometimes, we get this question in the group about, "Oh, do I need insurance for a virtual race?" And most people would say, "You don't run physically or whatever. I'm not there. I didn't do anything for you. I don't need to be insured." But as you say, the minute you put your name on anything, there's all different kinds of ways-- particularly, like, litigious culture like the US. There are all different kinds of ways that a lawsuit might be sprung on you. You just don't want to risk that. When you put your name on that, there's a risk attached.
Yeah. For me, the question is simple. Do you want to lose your house or not? That's what it comes down to. Do you want to lose your house or not? Do you want to lose your car or not? Because, ultimately, even if you're living in an apartment and you have nothing, they'll take nothing. They'll take the nothing that you have if you get sued. But yeah, even if you have a virtual race, you've got to have insurance. It protects you and protects your life, essentially, because if somebody gets hurt, even on a virtual run, you're the catalyst. You're the person that sent them out there. You're the person that got them to go. So in some way, you are responsible for them even if you can't see them or be there with them. You are still partly responsible for what they're undertaking.
I totally agree. Let's switch to the economics of the sport that I think is quite interesting and, hopefully, for you guys quite rich. Walk me through two aspects of it. First of all, entry fees - sort of, like, roughly where the sport is currently, sort of, like, by distance just to put a marker out there for people who are more familiar with road race pricing. And then all things taken out-- and again, these are both very open-ended questions I appreciate. Like, just roughly put something on the map. What kind of profit margin is a race director looking at for a race? Why are so many people going into trail races commercially for putting on for-profit races?
I'm going to answer that last part first. The "Born to Run" boom fooled us all. Word got out that Leadville sold for $1 million or $2 million, or whatever it is. There's another race series down in Texas, Tejas Trails. They put on the Rocky Raccoon 100 mile, Cactus Rose Bandera - they sold for a million dollars or, like, three or four different races for a million dollars. And immediately, there is this, "Oh, man, I'm going to put on a trail or ultra-marathon. I'm going to make a million dollars." What people failed to take into account is that these gentlemen that sold these races had been race-directing that race for almost 30 years before they sold it. And I like to remind people-- this question comes up a lot on the race directors group, "I'm looking at buying a race or I'm looking at selling a race. Is this too much? Is this too little?" And for me, all your permit is worthless. All you're buying is the name, a logo, an emailing list, and a reputation. So you're buying a brand. If that brand is worthless, it is worthless. So if you've been directing a race for 10 years and nobody knows about it - like "What race is it?" - it's worthless. If you've been directing a race for 10 years and everybody knows about it, it's worth something, but it's only worth what somebody's willing to pay for it. So Lifetime Fitness, they were willing to pay $1 million dollars or $2 million or whatever it was for the Leadville race series - that made sense. They made their money back and then some. In Texas, a guy paid a million dollars for a couple of races. He's not done paying them off yet and it's been 10 years. So it's one of those, like, "One was worth it. One was not." Who would you rather be? The race director that overpaid for a race and now you're a slave to the person you owe money to for the next decade before you pay it off? Or the person who paid the right price for the brand that you're buying? I just bought a race a year ago. I made my money back in the first year. This year was a profit year. That's a good purchase. I made a good purchase. If I was three years in and I'm still paying off that debt, that was a bad purchase in my world. So I'll start there. Entry fees - they're all over the map. A 50K Ultra is going to be priced vastly differently on the east coast of the United States as compared to Colorado. But I do research these numbers, at least, for the state of Colorado and I can tell you that the average entry fee for a half marathon. Half marathons in Colorado open at around $80 and the entry fee raises to around $100. Three-tiered pricing. Marathons are $100 to $120. 50Ks are $120 to $140. 50-milers are $160 to $180. 100Ks are $195 to $220. 100-milers are $350 to $390.
So that's sort of the sweet spot. Everyone should be putting on 100-milers.
Well, that's what happened. That's why we have 230 100-milers in North America is - because all these people said, "If I'm going to direct a race, it's going to be something epic. It's going to be 100-miler, and I'm going to make a tonne of money on that profit margin." Because that is your question and it is the profit margin. I can charge $350 to put on a 100-mile race and, honestly, it cost me $85 a runner for that race to go on. So we're talking about a $270 profit margin per runner in a 100-mile race. Now, if you have this idea that you're going to sell that 100-mile race out at 200 runners, that's a lot of money. But the reality is most of us only have 20-to-30 people showing up for a 100-mile race, so we're not making a tonne of money on these 100-milers anymore. There are too many. There's oversaturation. Then, it's different. Like, the cheapest 100-miler in Colorado is $280. The most expensive is $500. And that price is set based on how many land managers I have to pay. How many individual aid stations do I have? How much money do I want to make off of this? What is my insurance cost? Do I have to have search and rescue or medical on-site? Not all of us do, but some rangers require that. So now, I'm paying medical personnel. How about live tracking? Some people are paying ten of thousands of dollars to be able to live track their runners for the year. Some of us are not. So there's a lot that goes into profit margin. But I would say that if you're directing an ultra marathon and you think you're gonna make a living doing this, you're not doing it on one or two races. You've got to have at least six races to make any kind of living off of it because, in general, I would say the profit that a race director is making is anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 a race in general, depending on how many runners you have showing up.
One of the things that I see as a bit of a trend recently on with road races, on the back of having better economics - I guess, being part of it - is relays. And you mentioned that you have 100-miler. How many people are going to do 100 miles? Even if you have the margin, sort of, per mile in there, there are only so many people who can do 100-milers, right? So, is that something that's common, basically - relay races alongside, sort of, single-person events - breaking it up and getting more people to take part in that?
Yeah, for a while, that was a trend, for sure. There were a lot of 100-mile events that, in the first year or two, this isn't catching on. How do we get more people here? Let's do a relay. Now it's teams of two or teams of three, same entry fee. Now, you got more people that you're responsible for, more people to take care of. Now, it definitely transition to we're adding a lot of shorter distances. So you're seeing a lot of these races-- like, a race that just got purchased by UTMB, actually, which was the Grindstone 100 Miler in Virginia used to just be a 100-mile race. Well, now there's 100K, there's a 50 mile, and there's probably going to be a 50k. Why do we add all of these distances? Because there's not as many 100-mile runners as there used to be and we're still trying to run a business. So you add shorter distances. So it becomes more of a trail festival. And now, we'll go all the way-- I'm all the way down to 5K's now - a 5K trail race. Why? I need the revenue. I've got to add shorter distances to help pay the bills. So yeah, that was a trend for a while, but actually the relay trend has kind of passed on here in the US. I don't see that as much as I see people having shorter distances.
So you're saying, business-wise, it's moving more towards slimmer margins, but the bigger volume that makes up for that, which is really how you make the money?
Yeah, absolutely. So you could view it as "I'm gonna put on a 5K or 10K with this race. And honestly, those 5K and 10K runners are paying the bills. They're paying the bills for the race. And then everybody else in the longer distances, that's my profit. That's my gravy." So yeah, I mean, if you haven't already, you're gonna start seeing a lot of trail and ultra events adding a lot of shorter distances to the mix, and all of these races are going to become more trail festivals because it's the only way that we were going to stay alive, again, because we're lacking in newcomers. That's going to affect those longer distances over time. The market is oversaturated. How do you compete? It used to be, "Start a new race. I need to make more money. Let's start a new race." Now, let's add a new distance, add a new distance. Let's figure out, "We got to get new people here. We got to get the 5K'ers to come out and then want to run a 10K. And we got to get the 10K'ers to come out and want to run a half." So everything is about how do we get the new folks in so we can train them and teach them and get them running the longer distances later? Because that's where the biggest profit margin is. It's those longer distances. Yeah.
Yeah, I think adding a new distance sounds like a much smarter plan than adding a new race, I mean, on so many fronts - overheads, whatever, right? I mean, it's just so much more complicated. And we're having an interesting discussion on a podcast with Clint McCormick, who's the race director of the Glass City Marathon that's going out already, and he was mentioning what a huge difference it made for the Glass City Marathon to add a half marathon distance because, as you're saying, there are not so many 100-mile runners out there for road races who are struggling to get even hundreds of people through thousands. There are not really all that many marathon runners, if you think about it, out there, I mean, compared to other distances, right? The 10Ks and the half marathon. So it definitely seems to be a way forward for those events that start out as a one-headline long distance to diversify downwards with shorter distances and get some more people through which, as you say, then, lots of those people end up developing up the ladder through the distances.
Yeah. I also think of something I call race flow. So when I think about the race flow, like, I have a 100-mile race in July, as I was talking about - it's called Silverheels 100. I have a 50 mile that starts at midnight. Well, why does the 50-miler start at midnight and I have a 50K that starts at 6am? Because then, all of those runners end up on the same area of the course together, running together. And so, essentially, I'm bringing the shorter distances on to inject life into the community of the race. And so, same thing if you have a marathon and you can think of the race flow, let's add a half. Well, where can all these half marathon runners converge with the marathon runners at the same time so that we all are experiencing the same magical finish line together and that race flow matters? And so I would challenge people, as you're thinking about bringing in these shorter distances, how can you do it in a way that, logistically, is easy for you in the morning but also injects life into your event throughout the course of the run? Because that makes it exponentially more enjoyable for everybody there because we're all here to belong and we're all here to be a part of the tribe. So if you can do things that afford that opportunity, the better for everybody.
Well, you were mentioning, sort of, at the top of the podcast in your opening laundry list of difficulties being a race director, you mentioned sponsorship and how much tougher it is for you folks to get sponsors on the back of, like, having 100-200 runners. My impression is that-- and I'm probably going to be fair by, like, really headline events like UTMB and Lavaredo and all of those places, right? Basically, yes, obviously, fewer people run trail races. So that's the tip of the iceberg. But the whole iceberg under that, the whole trail running community, the people who aspire to run that race, and the people who follow that race collectively make up a large enough audience to make it a very passionate audience at such to make it very attractive, at least for endemic sponsors for, like, the apparel brands, the shoe brands - maybe not the banks, maybe not the insurers as such yet, but really passionate audience for the Hokas, the Salomons, all of those guys.
Yeah, yet most of every sponsor dollars goes to Western States, Hard Rock, and UTMB.
Right. So it's very concentrated, you're saying?
It is. But those are the races in our - sport trail and ultra - that have the highest visibility. So if you're a Spartan Race, Leadville race series, they're getting the title sponsors - UTMB, Western States, Hard Rock, and their qualifiers. If you have a qualifier for any of those races, it's going to be easier for you to get sponsors' dollars in the trail and ultra space. If you're in no way associated at all with those events, it becomes exponentially more difficult for you to convince anybody to give you any money. I don't like the word sponsorship anymore. The proper word is partnership. I have the third-largest ultra series in the nation. At this point, I think I have the second most endurance or ultra events directed in the sport's history behind only Dr.Horton. I can't get any sponsor dollars. We can give buffs or we can give disposable cups, or we can give a sample of bag balm or whatever it is to every runner out on the course that comes to your races. That's what we can do. And so, they're looking for the touch point in the trail and ultra space - the potential partners that you have. They want that touch point, they want their product to actually be in the hands of the runner and not just blindly give you money and call it advertising, unless you're one of those big races that makes sense for them, right? It makes a lot more sense for somebody to throw a few thousand dollars at Western States than it does to throw it at me. So, that's why we typically get product partnerships, which I love because it improves the experience for our runners. I give them things that are utilitarian in nature, things that they'll actually use, and not junk, not just free throwaways or whatever. We can actually dial into, well, what can we give these people that they're actually going to use and handle on a regular basis. And I think that's more in line with where the sponsoring and partnerships are going in trail and ultra the way that it's made up and the way that it's going. It's very difficult.
It's not great to hear that, even for a race series as large as yours which has been around for such a long time. Cash isn't particularly easily coming.
The only people that have ever given me cash is a marijuana company, and that's because they have a lot of it. You don't know what to do with it. You can't use the federal banks here if you have a marijuana business. And so they just have cash laying around, looking for something to do with it, and I recognise that. And so, we partnered with a cannabis brand. Now, that doesn't mean that we're encouraging runners getting high. CBD is a cannabis byproduct that is accepted by WADA as an accepted substance for athletes to use, and that's what we had - a cannabis brand with a CBD cream that runners could use. They gave us product and cash, and they're the only people that ever have in 10 years.
And how was that received? Actually, I mean, I'm totally on board with that. Obviously, I mean, very few people these days would think that cannabis, as a plant and as a substance and stuff, equals getting high. Obviously, I mean, we've moved way past that. And in the US, particularly, you guys have moved faster and further than other places. How are your runners? Just curious, how are your runners viewing that brand partnerships, specifically that one?
When we first came out with that partnership, we still were at the tail end of people thinking that all marijuana makes you high and all cannabis makes you high. So there is a lot of discussion around that. And for me, I just want to-- how many people do you know are drinking whiskey during an ultra? It's a lot, Panos. How many people are drinking beer? How many people are taking Zofran for nausea? How many people are taking painkillers to help them get through the finish line of 100-mile race? It's a lot. It's also a lot of runners who are smoking marijuana out during these courses or eating edibles. And if you think that it's not happening, you're naive. It's happening on a large scale. So that became my number one argument -like, just don't be naive. Don't be so close-minded that you think nobody's doing this. Come on. But the more that we educated people about CBD not being something you get high from and is actually good for you, and it's been removed from WADA list of banned substances, the more people started to warm up and come around to that. Our runners loved it. When we had that CBD cream, we had it on our courses at aid stations. Everybody got a small tube of it when they showed up for the race. They loved it. They use the crap out of it. In fact, when we lost that partnership-- and I still have no idea why. They just disappeared. They just ghosted us. And that happens a lot, too. You're not always going to hear yes or no, you're not always going to hear why. A lot of runners were really disappointed that we lost that partnership because they really liked the product.
It's very often that they move on to other things, for reasons that have nothing to do with your race - like budgets, objectives, they shift around quite a lot. And we've been through a very tumultuous period, I guess, with COVID and everything. So the ground has shifted so violently in so many different directions that it's very difficult to put your finger down. Like, I wouldn't think too much of that. I wanted to wrap up with a quick look at marketing for these kinds of events. My sense is, from my little experience in this both as a runner and as a race director, that word of mouth plays a big role in all this - in all events that, like, carry a lot of community, passion, and culture with them. Is that the case?
Yeah, that's huge in trail and ultra running here, especially. Word of mouth is huge, good and bad. But I also think it can help you. I think all of us races are so different, and that's what makes it unique. There's no real cookie-cutter way that we're all putting on trail and ultra-running events. We all have a different ethos, a different mission, a different vision. Our races all have a different feel. We are the wild west, for sure. We are just doing whatever we want and however we want to do it. So the good news is that if somebody's out there talking about your event in a way that, it's just not for me, it might be for someone else, though. And so, I always say there's no bad publicity right now. So if somebody's word of mouth is not kind, they still might be inspiring somebody else to check you out because some people don't like the easy, some people want the heart, some people want that race director that's got a sharp tongue, some people want to be coddled, they want to have their handheld. Right? So I mean, there's something out there for everybody and I think that's great. But in terms of marketing, it's definitely social media. The bang for your buck on Facebook and Instagram is ridiculous. Run an ad for three months leading up to your race targeted to people who like your page and their friends, and spend $150 on it. You're talking an entry and it'll pay for itself. When I do that for each race, I do that for each race three months out, $150, people who like my page and their friends, it gets 12,000 to 15,000 impressions on Facebook alone. Even if they don't sign up, that's still marketing, that's still letting people know that you're here, that you're out there and you're in the back of their mind. The other places that we get our traffic from are, like, ultra running magazine, runguides.com.
Cory's place. Great guy. I love RunGuides.
I had no idea what they were. I was checking the backend of my website one day, where's my traffic coming from in the last year, and there was RunGuides as a top three source. I was like, "Who the heck is RunGuides? I haven't done anything at RunGuides."
Well, they're Canadian that's way...I'm kidding.
So I went over and there's most of our races, but not all. Most of the information is correct, but not all. So I got to work with them and make sure this is all correct. Let's make sure all of our races are on here. Running in the USA and then RunSignup - those are our big places for getting our name out there.
That's great. So RunSignup itself is sort of, like, helping with the marketing and stuff. I mean, I try to avoid speaking about our sponsors sort of, like, openly like this. I mean, I love RunSignup. I love those guys. They've supported us quite a lot through the podcast and other places, but I don't want to overtly say, "Oh, RunSignup is awesome. Go to them all the time." But it's interesting that you mentioned them because, in the so many things that trail and ultra racing have their own things, one of those things is you also have specialist registration platforms that historically have catered more for events like yours - I don't want to be mentioning names - and it's interesting that you ended up with RunSignup rather than some of those other places. Is it like the features thing? Was there something missing that you found on RunSignup? It's interesting to just get your perspective on being there as a trail director.
I won't mention another one of the companies' names either because I don't want to. But I was one of those race directors that, for a long time, I had all of my registrations on - I will just say - usu.com, and they were great for a time, but they stopped updating the back end of the platform and there were so many bugs and glitches that even myself, as a race director, would experience on a regular basis that it just started getting frustrating. And then there were some customer service issues and I had a long list of reasons why I wanted to leave USU. But I was also, like, a lot of the other race directors out there who felt that being on USU was free advertising and it was, because everybody who was looking for an ultramarathon magnetically went to that website first. It was as if they were the clearing house calendar of all ultra-running events in the nation. If you weren't there, you are nobody. If you took yourself off of that platform, you were shooting yourself in the foot. You were going to struggle. Nobody was going to sign up for your races. Nobody's going to find out about you. We actually discovered the opposite. When we switched over to RunSignup, we had our biggest years ever. Not only that, but the willingness of RunSignup to not only receive your feedback and explain to them, "These are the things that I would like for functionality on the site, and here's why," then they'll go actually work on them and do them. Vouchers on RunSignup - that's something that I suggested. You're going to be able to see when a runner opens their emails and what specifically they clicked on when they open your emails on RunSignup. That is something I requested. Their willingness to be able to continue to work and update the platform is amazing. It's awesome. And again, they're not a sponsor of mine. I have no financial interest in RunSignup. I just know that, over these last few years, everybody used to be on the other website, USU. Everybody used to be there. For RunSignup to have 2,000 or 2,500 ultras on their platform, that's how many people have left. If we were all once on USU and, now, 2,500 of us are on RunSignup, it's okay. It's okay to not be on that other platform. And I don't think that you lose marketability. I don't think it becomes a marketing challenge at all. In fact, I think some of the things on the back end of RunSignup make it easier for you - being able to tie in your social media, actually being able to see where your traffic is coming from to get to your RunSignup page, your referral sources. There are so many different things on the back end that give you the leg up on RunSignup that I can't recommend enough. It's been a game-changer for us. We love working with them. I have no reason to go back to the other. And they call me pretty often. "We want to talk. We want to get you back." It's not happening. You're not even close to what these guys do for me. So it makes it an easy choice for me.
Another thing you mentioned to me when we were chatting offline, the whole cross-promotion assets-- sorry, the whole cross-promotion aspect of races. Back in my day, a few years back, I saw actually lots of other race directors promoting trail and ultra races and doing a lot of promotion through other events showing up in other events, like, in whatever small expo they may have, swapping fliers, swapping email blasts, and that kind of thing. And because, obviously, this community is very tight-knit and pretty concentrated, that ended up being quite effective. Is that still an effective thing within the community of trail race directors - sort of, like, tapping into each other's audience?
Used to be. That used to be huge. When I first got into race directing, I directed that first 200-miler in 2008. That was pretty commonplace. In any race you went to, there'd be postcards in the goodie bags for other local races. But the sport was vastly different then. Now, there are a whole lot more races. There are thousands more races. And unfortunately, most race directors are looking at each other as competition. Myself, here in Colorado, there are some race directors. We just don't get along. It's like oil and water. Stay away. But there are some race directors I have a really good relationship with, and those RDs, if they approached me, "Hey, would you mind, maybe, saying a little something about my races on your site or in your newsletter or whatever it is?" I will gladly do that for them just because of the relationship that we have and how cool they are. Some of them, I'm not helping them at all. And I think that's just the way it is. That's just how we are as people. But I think even bigger is, like, for me, Ultra Running Magazine, they have the most robust, thorough calendar of ultra running events anywhere in the nation, and they've just reached some kind of agreement with RunSignup where Ultra Running Magazine automatically pulls results from RunSignup on an API. Now, they're going to be automatically pulling ultra-distance races and you can click Register RunSignup button directly from the ultra-running magazine website. That's something that never happened with the other brand.
Lots of race calendars have been doing that - like, Running In The USA does that. I didn't know that Ultra Running is going to actually bridge that last gap and allow you to register from the link on the ultra running calendar, but Running In The USA and a couple of other ones - RunGuides, I think, is also a few of those big ones - also pool races using the API.
And that's amazing. I don't pay a dime for Running In The USA to be able to do that. They just do it. So for me, it's one of those. We should be reaching out to RunGuides and reaching out to RunningInTheUSA.com. How else can we work together? Because they're already helping you. Help them. That makes sense. But yeah, it's an interesting time where race directors-- we used to work together. We were careful not to have a race on the same weekend. We were careful not to put on a race in the same geographic area within so many weeks because, ultimately, we're fighting over the same runners, the same volunteers, the same permits, same resource, and now it's a free for all. Now, it's good luck.
Yeah, well, I have to say that this hasn't been a great advert for going into trail races. We've gone through an endless list of problems, slim margins, congested trails, sleepless nights, and long days marking courses. We've done a lot, but I feel that somehow lots of people would still want to get started in all this. So, having done this for a decade almost professionally, what would be your advice to race directors who are looking to get started putting on their first trail race or maybe buying a small trail race and building it up?
The best piece of advice I could give for those folks is, don't - no, I'm just kidding. I love my job. I love what I do. I love how we do it. And I recognise we're very different. We're different than a lot of other folks out there. And I guess that's the first piece of advice is - become an apprentice, become an assistant race director first. Go out there and work under somebody. Work with somebody to learn the ropes firsthand. Get that experience for a year or maybe two - more than one race - even if it's just volunteering at as many races as you can. Volunteer for the race director personally. Just go in and see the job firsthand, not just running an aid station, not just running in the race. Those are two perspectives that everybody gets. You want the perspectives nobody gets. What does the job really entail? And so, I would suggest anybody to become an apprentice first. Then, I would say keep it simple stupid. That KISS method. So many times, I've seen people get into race directing and they start with seven races right out of the gate. You're gonna die a very quick death if you're gonna put on seven races out of the gate. Start with one or maybe two. Get your feet under you. Continue learning the things you don't know that you thought you did. Get that experience. And as you gain the experience, as you find your rhythm and you find your personal ethos, then you can start expanding and start adding races. I think another mistake I see a lot and I would caution people against if you're going to get into this is don't start this 100-mile race when you've never run 100 miles before.
Well, that's me.
Definitely, don't ever ask people to do something that you wouldn't do yourself. And also, the other part of that is-- when you're putting these races on and you're trying to get them going, it really is a good practice for you to not have too many aid stations. Because you think about, in a trail race, if I have an aid station, I need folding tables, canopies, water coolers, ice chests, and then all the food, and we're like, "It's an eating and drinking competition. We just so happened to be running." So if you have 21 individual aid stations at a first-year race, you need to pay for 21 different aid stations worth of infrastructure and that gets expensive really quickly. So consider putting on some kind of loop course where there's one or maybe two aid stations so that you're lowering the amount of overhead that you have to pay for and improving-- I mean, that's just going to help you improve the experience because you can focus on just these two stations rather than 20 over a massive amount of miles and, then, next thing is you find yourself in a financial hole because you bit off more than you can chew out of the gate. All things cost money, so start small, get your feet under you get the experience, apprentice if you can and, over time, grow. Don't come out of the gate like you're gonna be the next Aravaipa or UTMB. It took years for them to get where they are.
Well, that was my mistake. I thought I would be the next UTMB and I almost died. So, I know exactly what you're talking.
So, good advice.
It is good advice, which I hope I had before I went into that whole thing. They say, "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger," only marginally so in my case because I almost nearly died. I hope I'm a better man for it. How can people reach you, and learn more about your races and the things you're doing? Give us some contact details.
So you can check out all of my races on my website, www.humanpotentialrunning.com. We're also on the socials, @HPRunningSeries. If anybody out there wants to email me directly, I certainly welcome it. I love to have conversations, I'm happy to consult or just be a friend and help. You can email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'd love to hear from you and just be race directors together. It'd be great.
Don't tell me you've also been a sherpa.
That is a trail name that was given to me when I live back east here in the United States. In the East Coast hiking circles, typically, you're known by your trail name, and they named me Sherpa John because, yes, I carried things for people.
Interesting. Okay. Well, let's end on this trivia. I want to thank you very much for your time and for sharing all of this great information with us on trail and ultra running.
I would urge people to hit up your podcast. I'm sure we have - because I've listened to it, and it's great. I think I've probably listened to the one that you killed, but I'm sure the one that's alive is also pretty good. And I'm saying so because lots of the people listening in would likely be trail and ultra race directors. And, as you say, they're all also trail and ultra runners and there's lots of great content coming out of that. So thanks again for your time. Thank you very much to everyone listening in. And we'll see you guys on our next podcast.
I hope you enjoyed today’s episode on the business of trail and ultra races with Human Potential Running Series race director, John Lacroix.
You can find more resources on anything and everything related to race directing on our website RaceDirectorsHQ.com. You can also share your thoughts about the joys and challenges of being a trail race director or anything else in our Facebook group, Race Directors Hub.
Many thanks again to our awesome podcast sponsor RunSignup for sponsoring today’s episode. And if you enjoyed this episode, please don’t forget to subscribe on your favorite player, and check out our podcast back-catalog for more great content like this.
Until our next episode, take care and keep putting on amazing races.