Trail Race Safety
On May 22nd, tragedy struck when severe weather hit the Huanghe Shilin Mountain Marathon in China. Caught between checkpoints along the 100km race course, runners found themselves exposed to hail and freezing rain at 3,000ft. When rescue teams finally reached the area, 21 people had died.
In this episode, we're talking to Lindley Chambers: race director, first aider and former Chair of the UK Trail Running Association, about what went wrong in that fateful race and how trail race directors (and race directors of all kinds of races) can work to better prepare themselves and their events for when the worst happens.
In this episode:
- Huanghe Shilin Mountain Marathon: What went wrong?
- How to write a sound, common-sense risk assessment/emergency plan for your race without going overboard
- Deciding on how many safety personnel you'll need
- Will runners be happy to pay a premium for a safer, but more expensive, race?
- Things race directors can do to better prepare participants for risks they might face in a race
- Should there be more regulation and/or special certification requirements for high-risk races?
- What should go into a participant mandatory gear list
- Using GPS trackers for tracking participants during the race
Thanks to GiveSignup|RunSignup for supporting quality content for race directors by sponsoring this episode. More than 21,000 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.
Lindley, welcome to the podcast.
Hi! Thanks for having us on here, Panos.
Well, thanks a lot for coming on, particularly today. I know it's late May bank holiday in the UK, a pretty special bank holiday. It's also Memorial Day in the US. We are probably one of the few people working today. So, thanks a lot. I'm sure you have better things to do. This episode we're doing today, which is on trail race safety, is something that I did mean to do with you a bit later down the line of podcast episodes. As people would know, we had a pretty tragic incident - I think, quite unique, in terms of my experience, at least, in China a few days back, with several people being killed in a mountain race. So, I thought we could bring this episode forward, and have a chat about trail race safety now. Before we do that - and we'll get into the details of the incident in China, and then move on to discuss trail safety more generally - I think, it'd be really helpful for people to know a little bit about you. I know you wear many hats. Honestly, I couldn't think of anyone more qualified, to bring on today, to discuss this. You're a race director. You run your own events. You're also a qualified first aider, and you do quite a lot of that. In fact, you were just telling me earlier that, you're actually, now, out at an event offering your first aid services. And you've also been the chair of the UK Trail Running Association.
Yep, that's correct. Like you said, I wear a few hats. Trail-running wise, I got involved in running events as a competitor, maybe 22 years ago when I ran my first marathon. I eventually migrated from road running to trail running. I found that more interesting and enjoyable. As that went on, I've picked up some experience doing that. But I've also-- in my own life and career, I've been in the military, fire and rescue. So, I have a viewpoint from the side of safety, which can be quite useful, about how things can go badly wrong, if that happens. I have first aid qualifications. Like you say, one of the things my company does is provide first aid for events. We provide medics for mostly trail running events, and mostly fairly small events. Like you say, I was for a while Chair of the UK Trail Running Association until last year, for about three or four years. That again, gave me a nice viewpoint on the sorts of stuff that happens at the higher levels of the sport. So, involved with the UKA, going to meetings, dealing with incidents that get reported, and trying to give some direction to race directors. I think that's quite useful, from the point of view that I haven't just seen things as a runner - I see things as a race director. I have twelve races of my own that I manage, ranging from half marathons up to hundreds of miles. I have seen things from an organizational point of view, and I also see things from a medic point of view, that go wrong. I think, it gives me a reasonably good, all-round, balanced view. It's not just a runner's view or a medic's view or anybody else. This view gives me a balance to see things, hopefully, look at it with different eyes from different angles, and see how things could go right or wrong, or maybe be improved. And the final thing is, obviously, this which we spoke about before, is the Spine Race. I've worked on that event for the last few years in writing the kit list, working with the race team, trying to review stuff each year, and eliminate some of the things that happen by using kit and education, and trying to make sure that people have the best tools, to make the best decisions on the event.
Yup. And I think actually, of all the things obviously - I've also followed you online, on race directors group, and other places, and I know how carefully you approach things. I think, the balance in all this, the perspective that someone like yourself brings into this discussion is the most important thing, because sometimes - we saw this with COVID as well - when you're trying to weigh, for instance, the economics of it, which you would as a race director, against the safety concerns, which you also do as a race director, but maybe more so as a first aider. It's keeping that balance, that sometimes is so challenging in discussing safety in races, particularly, since it comes at an expense, right?
Yeah, absolutely. Everything comes as an expense. If you want trackers, there is an expense. If you want to hire medics, they cost money. They have to be paid. How much do you want to charge your runners? How much will they be willing to pay? It's not just what you want to charge, and what you want to provide. How much will those runners be prepared to pay for a 50 kilometer race? If it's £50 or €60, that might be acceptable. If you suddenly say, "We're going to have all these safety features, which will be excellent, but it's now going to cost you €150." That might mean that those people could do three other less expensive races, and you may well find your business-- that model doesn't work and you don't get the people no matter how good your event is.
What went wrong in the Huanghe Shilin Mountain Marathon tragedy?
Exactly. And I think, this is a good segue to discussing what happened in China. I was reading an article on Outside Online, which is-- we'll add it on the show notes. It was a pretty comprehensive article of someone who has experience both of China and of ultra running. They were mentioning that, at least, in the China situation, the recent running boom, and the rush for new events to get out there and attract runners - perhaps, the corner cutting that came with that - was, perhaps, one of the aggravating factors in us ending up where we did with this race. Just to give everyone a little bit of context into what happened, on 22nd of May, there was a race held in China, various distances, but the longest distance was 100 kilometers, over quite challenging terrain. It's in Gansu Province in China. People went up a mountain. Around kilometre 30 they were caught out by severe weather. We're talking hail, freezing rain, storm, and gale force winds. They were very lightly dressed. They hadn't really prepared, as part of the mandatory kit they had, with warmer clothes. So they were caught out in the mountain wearing just very light clothing. They started suffering hypothermia. Some of them found a cave, just to get out of the elements, but most of them didn't. When the rescue operation started, it started with - people report - 1,200 rescuers at some point. There was a landslide that further prohibited people from being reached. The aftermath of all this was, sadly, 21 people dying in this race. As far as I know, it's probably the worst disaster we've had in racing of this kind. I know you're very keen not to be speculating. There's obviously things and an investigation going on, as we speak. In terms of the contingency planning, and of the things you've read about what happened in this race, is there anything obvious that you think went wrong, in terms of the planning that happened around this race?
Yeah. I think, it's more a calamity of circumstances, and probably several things and factors put together that caused the final severity of, unfortunately, 21 runners who didn't expect to be losing their life on a trail run not coming home. I think it's a collection of stuff. I think, it goes from the planning side of things, that perhaps, if I was asking questions, I would ask, like you say, "Was there a contingency for what if the weather is bad or...?", as indeed happened. I understand the bad weather was forecast before the event. But it seems like there was no contingency plan, or like you said earlier, you alluded to this pressure to have races and get them out there. People have paid money. So maybe perhaps that wasn't taken as seriously as it could have been. Or they simply didn't want to send everyone home because there was bad weather coming. So they decided they would take the risk, perhaps, we can't really say what the decision making process was. Maybe they decided that we do that. They had no plan for, perhaps, like a lower route, like you'll hear UTMB do some years. Or just all out cancel it because they don't like the risk. There's that. There's the mandatory kit that we know-- the only thing I'm aware of that was absolutely mandatory was a foil blanket, which means that, for the mountains, in any country, in any mountains, you get bad weather and that sort of storm comes in, and the temperature's gonna drop, and exposure is a genuine risk. Did they have a contingency that they've sent to the runners and said, "Look, if it's bad weather, we'd insist on full waterproof body cover and a hat", rather than most of them running in short-sleeved T-shirts and shorts, from the pictures that I've seen? Should we say to them, "To protect themselves, please bring that kit. We'll decide on race day to make sure that's mandatory, if the weather's poor"? Maybe that wasn't done. My understanding from reading stuff is that, it's run for three or four years before. It's always been very temperate, very nice weather. So, perhaps, that was unexpected. It wasn't part of the thought process by the organizers at some point. Should they maybe have better communications? Should they maybe insist on a mobile phone, if there's network in the mountains? Had they warned local authorities about the race and possible risk? We simply don't know that. By the sounds of it, they got a lot of people out on the course fairly quickly, so that may not have been a factor anyway. China tends to be very good at deploying resources very quickly. I think that's useful because it's mostly state-run emergency services. That's one bonus for them. But did they consider all these things? Did they sit there and go, "Maybe we have to cancel this." I think, like you say, the pressure was that they needed to have the race, or that's what it felt like and read like. The runners can potentially take some blame themselves, in that they were told, obviously, they only needed to carry a space blanket, but they could have looked at the weather and the mountain, and said, "You know what. I'm just going to tuck a windproof into a bum bag, or a small pack. Maybe I'm going to bring some extra snacks so that if I'm cold and hungry, or if I twist an ankle, I'm going to sit still, for a couple of hours till someone comes and finds me." Like I say, it's maybe all those four or five things that have come together with the, for want of a better phrase, the perfect storm of situations where the weather was that bad that it made a big impact and then all those other decision making processes have come together to create that calamity. Normally, one of those things on its own may not have caused any problems. Someone might just have got a bit wet, if it rained or just-- without the landslide, they might have been found quicker, if rescue organizations could get on the hill quicker. The foil blanket would have been fine if they were just sitting in dry weather with it wrapped around them. But now they're really cold. So foil blankets aren't so good when it's cold. A bivy bag, for example, would be a much better item. We can sit and speculate. We may or may not hear the full story. But I think, it's the joint responsibility with everybody. Perhaps the race organizers planned for a good weather event, and maybe didn't plan for what could go wrong - for the "if".
Yeah. There's a couple of things you said that are quite interesting that I want to touch on. I should say, just for the record - it might explain some of my perspective into this discussion - back in 2016, I organized a 100 mile mountain race in pretty harsh terrain. I think, I actually reached out to you, back then, for some advice. Some of these things, it might be that, there's a different perspective in China. I should say, when I organized this race, it was the most stressful thing I've ever done. Endless sleepless nights just because of this kind of thing, right? The worst nightmare that, "What if I send people up the mountain, and then something happens, God forbid, something really terrible happens?" From my point of view - and again, I should say, I'm not really that experienced - you bring people into the race, usually when they travel to the race, they have warmer clothes with them, right? That may not be part of the standard mandatory kit. Then, I would think that, there's the pressure of not canceling, which, I understand as an organizer. But then, there's also the pressure of, "Why would I take a risk?" Send them up the mountain with more kit, right? They had - apparently, I was reading - they had a severe weather warning, from the day before the race. Why wouldn't they just send them up with more kit? They don't care. Just for them to be sure that nothing would happen.
Yeah. Even if the runners had turned up without much kit, like you say, they might have just a warm jacket they traveled in. They might have some trousers that they traveled in, and some light running trousers, or something. Why not do that? Even as the race-- if you think we've got 250 people here, can we go somewhere local the day before, and buy a load of emergency shelters, or a load of small bivy bags, or a load of long sleeved T-shirts, and just give them out at the start? Yes, it's an expense. If we can't do that, if we can't cover the potential new scenario, yes, we're going to have to pay refunds. We're going to have to give people money back, or we're going to have a lot of complaints. But me personally, I would rather feel bad and horrible, lose a lot of money, and have a lot of complaints than be phoning someone's wife or husband or children up, and being able to say to them, "Look, this has happened. Your person is in the hospital, if you're lucky. Or the person is in the morgue." That's something I don't think I personally could get over as the guilt, for the sake of potentially bankrupting my race or my company. That's a much smaller issue for me. I say, we don't know the pressures at the time. But I would much rather suffer that.
Race director responsibility vs trail runner responsibility
Absolutely. I mean, yeah. To be realistic, everyone who puts on events, they have to be doing this kind of risk management all the time, right? It's easy for me to sit here and criticize people, "What if they didn't do this or that?" But it is always very tough taking those decisions. The other thing you mentioned that also came out in this discussion is, I was reading an article somewhere of a female Chinese ultra runner, who was also saying something along the lines of what you mentioned, which was the athletes had to bear some responsibility for, perhaps, not going the extra mile, knowing that there might be severe weather or just at the off-chance that there might be severe weather, they didn't decide to pack more themselves. From your point of view, where should the line be drawn between what the race organizer needs to advise people to do? And then, what athletes may choose to do on top?
Yeah, it's very difficult. I think, with this particular race, most of the people who were severely injured or actually died were from the front end of the field, were the faster runners. They're generally the runners that will want to carry less anyway, because, obviously, every kilogram affects your pace and your speed, and makes the difficulty higher. So they don't want to carry that. Even if you put in a bit more mandatory kit, they would use the lightest, most brief piece of equipment, that they could find. We understand that. That's where the race has a responsibility to say, "These are the potential conditions. What do we feel, in our experience, and advice we've taken elsewhere-- what do we think would be the minimum that we would require for them to be able to-- Even taking the weather out of it, if someone twist and break an ankle and is unable to walk, they can get cold very quick, even in dry conditions at altitude. So what's the minimum we could do to make sure that we're expecting it to take three hours for a rescue team or vehicle to get there? Therefore, what equipment-- thinking backwards, what equipment would be required to keep them relatively warm and comfortable to the point of staying away from hypothermia, in the expected conditions?" In this case, that will probably be waterproofs, and maybe a bivy bag, or even just one of the little lightweight mylar solar bags - the solar bivy bag - would be perfectly fine. It's 113 grams. It's not very heavy. It can go into a pocket on shorts. Maybe that would have been enough. It's easy for us to say now, maybe that would be enough. The race organiser, maybe, has a duty to do their best to educate people. Because if these people in this event-- I don't know the demographic of their experience. If these people were all fairly new to trail running or ultra running, which, like you say, it's a fairly new and upcoming sport in China, maybe those people don't have the experience or skill set to say, "You know what? I've been in the mountains, and I've got really cold. I'm going to bring a jacket. No matter what anyone tells me. I'm going to bring a jacket." Sometimes, you have to protect the runners from themselves. You have to say, "Look, we're the experienced ones. We organize the race. I want you to carry this." If they choose not to enter the race, that's what they choose. If they choose to flaunt it and not carry it, then that's their decision. At least you can hold your hands high and go, "We tried. We did our best. We gave them the best information." They should have made their experience. From all the pictures I've seen, I haven't seen anybody with a pack on, or with any sort of bag, but maybe, we're only seeing the pictures from the front. I simply don't know. But yeah, you have to have some responsibility yourself. If I said to you, "Go on this run up the mountain, and you only need to wear a pair of shorts and flip flops." You will probably go, "Well, that's stupid. If I go up that mountain in winter, it's going to be really cold. Why would I do that? I will put some warm clothes on and then I'll go up the mountain." We can't always blame someone else for a thing, if it's reasonable that we should we should look after ourselves as well. I'm not saying the race organisers are free from blame. I think it's-- both should have worked together on, "Well, actually it's gonna be really cold, should we bring more?"
Yeah, yeah. And we had people in my race back in 2016 who would walk on a very thin line, in terms of the mandatory kit. They would carry the absolute minimum, and sometimes find extremely creative ways of telling you that they have all the mandatory kit, when you were checking who had everything. But then, you were thinking, that's not really the spirit of what we're proposing here. Because you can tick the boxes, but then you find yourself up in, like, 7,000 feet or whatever, and then it's a different discussion, right?
Yeah, very much so. I think, particularly elite runners, they have the skill set. They have the speed. They have the experience. They can keep warm because they're moving quickly. They're expecting to have a great performance and a good race. They're not thinking, "What if I slip and I need that warm stuff?" They're thinking, "How do I pass kit check?" It's a phrase we hear a lot. You see on your race directors group on Facebook, "What do I need to pass kit check?" Not "What do I need for the cold weather?" Or "What's the best jacket that's going to make me comfortable?" They're just, "What do I need to pass kit check?" And people will say, "Well, this is the lightest thing." We've even seen in races, people cut the foil blanket down to a small 10 by 5 centimeter rectangle so it looks like it's folded. They just poke the corner out of the bag and go, "There's my foil blanket."
But that's ridiculous.
It is. What are you saving? Five grams? It's not a lot of money.
Exactly. It's stupid.
It is silly. We see that all the time and sometimes, you have to protect people from themselves. We understand why they want to do it. Everyone goes with a positive thought of everything good happening, but perhaps the slower ones at the back, or the older competitors with more experience, have maybe had a bad experience and they turn around and say, "You know what? I'm going to carry a jacket no matter what. Generally, even in somewhere in the mountains, I will carry a lightweight waterproof, and an emergency bivy bag, just for walking up a fairly normal mountain. It's only going to take a few hours. Just because I can slip. Everyone can make a mistake." Or you can help someone else. That's always a possibility as well.
Should volunteers be trained to do more in emergency circumstances?
Exactly. One other thing that actually struck me as interesting about this incident, slightly odd, I would say, was the fact that, those guys were caught out in between checkpoints. There was one checkpoint: Checkpoint 2 at 24 kilometers. The next one was at around 32 kilometer, Checkpoint 3. Obviously, these kilometers, up the mountain, they don't mean anything, because a kilometer could take you hours to go through it, depending on the conditions. But was it noteworthy to you that, there wasn't any attempt, perhaps, by volunteers, or that you wouldn't have the kind of volunteer in checkpoints that might be able to at least attempt to go out and find these guys in between checkpoints, before the rest of the rescue team would go in and reach them?
Yeah. I think it very much depends, I suppose, on what they set out as those roles. If they were just your average runner, or possibly non-runner from a local organization, that's simply handing out food and drink, and talking to the runners as they come through and log in their numbers or details, then maybe they don't have the skill set. Maybe they're not even runners themselves, or maybe not even fit for them to go out in bad weather between the checkpoints. They might become a liability themselves. But then, it comes back again to the race plan and the risk assessment as in-- well, if we put these people at Checkpoint 2, and there's a problem between Checkpoint 2 and 3, it's going to take three hours for a proper safety or rescue team to get there. But it might only take 15 minutes for someone from the checkpoint to walk down that hill, and at least make someone comfortable, or wrap them in a blanket or something. Should we put people in that checkpoint, at least a couple of people, that are maybe first-aid trained, just for normal first aid at work, or whatever equivalent in your country, and say, "We can send them out, and they can provide some early assistance. But should we make sure that they can read a map? Should we make sure they know what the route is, or they have GPS, or that they have warm clothing themselves?" Because if they leave a potentially covered checkpoint area to go out into that storm-- if they haven't been told, "You know what? You're going to be on a checkpoint all day." and they haven't been told to bring warm clothing, raincoats and spare stuff, then, they will become a liability. They can't help anyone if they're a liability. So my assumption, and it is just an assumption, is that those people didn't have the skill set and the ability to move out. Maybe they needed to be there so that the people still coming in to Checkpoint 2 who ultimately stopped, they could manage those people at that location. They simply couldn't spread themselves too thin. They'd be maybe leaving and abandoning those people coming into the checkpoint, in order to go and help somebody that they don't really know if they can, or if they need it.
Emergency planning for races
Yeah. Again, all very tough decisions. I mean, I shouldn't trivialize. I'm not pointing out that they should have done that. It's just something that struck me a little bit as odd. I guess, those checkpoints would probably be at the toughest part of the race, since they were caught out there by that weather. I mean, again, looking back, of course, they would have done that. But, unfortunately, that's behind us now. So, I don't want to dwell too much on what happened on that mountain. I'm sure people will draw their lessons. There's already an ongoing-- in fact, there's a clamp down on races now in China, in terms of trail races being canceled. I think it's-- people have their own feelings about China. To be honest, something like that happens in any country, there would be questions. You would want an interim to reassess things, for sure. Now, moving on to the bigger picture of planning a safe race in these kinds of conditions, trail and mountain races, which we all enjoy, and I personally love. What is - before we go into specifics, we're going to try and give people some tools and tips around this - what should be the spirit? What should be the attitude of a race director going into planning for a safe race, like very high-level? How should I approach the task?
I think you need to consider what your aim of your race is. Are you trying to have a very competitive race? Are you trying to have a race where you just get a lot of participants in an experience? Are you trying to make the race extremely difficult and challenging? Because that might mean that you'd have like, such as the Spine Race, very difficult, very challenging, 30% finish rate. That means, you know, that 70% are going to stop. A good proportion of them are going to stop, or have difficulty on the course. Therefore, you need to put in more stuff to manage. If you've got very generous cut-offs, and very short distances, the likelihood of that happening on course is much slimmer. So it's a whole big pile of decision-making processes. You need to have your target for your race. You need to plan what you want the race to achieve. Is it gonna be fast? Is it gonna have strict cut-offs? Is the route going to be technical and difficult? All those things will lead you into your risk assessment, and then the control measures you're going to put in for those risks. More technical terrain means you're going to have more risk. You're going to have more potential for sprains, strains, falls, trips, and just the normal stuff that happens on difficult terrain. Then, you have to look at all that. Well, how can we manage them? Can we have-- again, to use Spine Race as an example, they say, "Right. We're going to have actual medics and doctors at the checkpoints from a company, called Exile Medics, who provides doctors to large events. And then, we're going to also have safety teams, which will be vehicle mounted, can roam around the course, meet people at road crossings, check on their welfare, and get early warnings of stuff. They're also capable of going out onto a course to walk out and find people. In the case of the Spine, again, they choose to use trackers, so we can see where people are. You factor all of these things in and build-- you sort of start, from your aim of the race, or certainly I would, from the aim of the race, all the way up. You factor all this stuff into-- make sure that you have the things that you feel are necessary, that allow the fast people to still race fast, with the minimum amount of kit required to keep them safe for, as I said earlier, the time it's expected to maybe affect the rescue. With the Spine, it's in the winter. It's a sleeping bag and bivy bag, so they can get into it, that can keep them warm for several hours until rescue happens in the winter. In the summer, there's no requirement on the Spine. There's only a light bivy bag. There's no requirement for a sleeping bag, because it's very unlikely it will be hypothermic, in temperate summer conditions, in the time it will take for rescue to happen, because access is easier, the weather's nicer. It's making sure your risk assessment is relative to the risk. Also, the type of runner you're getting. The longer the distance, usually, the more experienced runner you get that's more capable of looking after themselves, and taking care of themselves in the environment, and more likely to make good decisions about care. If you get a 40 year old, very experienced runner, they will have a very different opinion and attitude to selecting kit, and have more experience in their life than maybe a very good 25 year old athlete, who's come from running road marathons and suddenly wants to run a 50 kilometers on a mountain trail. It makes a big difference. I think you just have to start from the start, and work all the way through. That involves a lot of editing. I'm sure it was the same on your 100 mile race. You work all the way through, and then you've got, "Actually, this is going to be a problem because this cut off isn't going to work, or this kit isn't going to work. So I need to keep going and change it." It's a constantly evolving, refining process, until hopefully you get something that you like. Maybe you use other people like your race directors forum, or other race directors or runners, to have a look over it. Don't have an ego you're right all the time, cause you're not right all the time.
How to strike a balance in your risk assessment
That's one of the aspects of a good risk assessment, I suppose. It's sharing it, right? It needs to be transparent. You need to open it up to other people and emergency services. They give you an opinion on things. When I did my race, again, I was super leaning and erring on the side of caution, because I was just petrified of things. Actually, one of the things about risk assessments, I found, because I've read a couple - you must have read hundreds - is that, in a way, although there is a very common sense approach to them, which is, "Left column, what can go right-- what can go wrong? Right column, how do I fix it?" kind of thing, like very common sense. They do still tend to reflect the attitude of the people putting them together. For instance, in my race, I remember, perhaps because-- speaking with other trail race directors at the time, they were saying, "Oh, you absolutely need, for instance, to take account of exposed roots from trees, so that fast runners won't trip over. You need to somehow highlight them, so that people don't end up knocking into them." Then you'll talk to other people who would basically swing to the other side of risk management. They'll tell you, "Come on. They're adults. They're in this race. They know what they're getting themselves into. Only take care of the really high-risk stuff."
Yeah. I think, you can get, sometimes, a saturation of stuff. If you highlight every route, every rock, every turn, every potential thing, just like looking at Facebook, people will only scroll through the first dozen posts. After that, the rest just goes into a blur. If you-- if your risk assessment has 120 items on it, people are going to stop reading after 20. So, focus on-- my risk assessments, generally, have about 15 items on, about two A4 pages or so. They have some detail in text afterwards, if people want to read it. Generally, the main items are that long, because I'm trying to only cover the ones that I would consider relevant to the event, and I believe are going to cause the largest risk - the things that affect life, limb or injury. Highlighting the roots, as an example, if it's fairly flat terrain, and there's one big root sticking out, you might want to highlight that, because it's unusual for that section. If you're going up a mountain pass that's rocky, scree, stony all the way, they're going to realize that it's rocky, scree and stony, as soon as they're on to it. Do you need to tell them? It's because they'll just switch off to it. They won't look at all of the risks. Only highlight the ones that are most prevalent and are, perhaps, unusual for that piece of trail. In the case of weather, if there's known to be flash floods that cause a problem, then highlight that. If it's perfect summer weather in Greece and it's 36 degrees, do we need to include stuff about cold weather? If there's never ever been bad weather, the weather forecast is good, there's never been a storm, and you're running through nice, flat land, then is there really any point in covering risks about mountains and stuff? You might more want to worry about traffic crossing in a road, or something like that. It's making it relevant and practical, and people are actually going to pay the time to read it. If it just looks too wordy, like any documentation, if it looks too wordy, people will just turn off, they'll skim it, and they'll miss information. I think, it's very difficult keeping it tight. Like you said, one race director will tell you one thing, one will tell you another. Each race director has a different set of experience and skills. Some race directors have run lots of races, but never organized, so they have a very different opinion based on just a runner. Cause they're not worrying about what goes wrong. Other race directors will be very nervous. Other race of directors will be, "They can just take care of themselves. They're all grown ups." That's why it's good, sometimes, to bounce it off other people. The big thing, I think, which should be done is, you have that one race, like you had your race, if you go the next year, there should be a review process. You should look at it and go, "What injuries did we see? What happened? How many people got lost? Is there something we can do to mitigate that next time? Can we improve it by adding a piece of equipment? Can we improve it by doing some education, or changing the route? Or changing the timings? Is there something we can do to affect that?" If the answer is no, then that's fine. You've done what you can. If the answers were actually-- a good example from the Spine is, we had one year where lots of people, lots of hail and freezing rain, and people got eye injuries because they were wearing tinted goggles and at night, they're not very good to see with a head torch, especially in the UK where we don't have much snow in the winter. So, we just changed the rule next time to, all your goggles must be clear, no tint whatsoever. Then, what happened is, the head torches work better at night, which meant they kept the goggles on, which meant the wind didn't hurt their eyes. We went from 26 eye injuries one year, to only a couple of eye injuries the following year. They could be traced back to people removing their goggles still. The race did everything they could to fix it, and it worked. We learned, and we review it every year, and we look at what happens. Can we make this better, without affecting the race and people's choices? Can we make it better? Not every individual runner will agree. Sometimes, you have to accept that you're not going to please all the runners. Some you will upset. Some you'll make happy. You have to make sure the race is doing what it can to be responsible, if that makes sense.
How many first-aiders/emergency personnel do I need for my race?
Yeah. As you say, I think that's super-crucial advice. The whole risk assessment is a living document kind of thing. First year it's a guess, right? I mean, it's just finger in the air, and putting down what you think the risks might be. But then, you have experience with a race, and you'd go on and amend that. The area where, I guess, things get a little bit more fuzzy is - where also the economics come in and could complicate things - is personnel requirements, first-aiders, numbers, kits, and like having a chopper, radio or whatever. All of that kind of stuff. What's the common-sense equivalent approach to figuring out how many people you would need, realistically, without going crazy about spending money on it?
Yeah. I think it's very difficult. I think it depends on several factors. It depends on how remote is the route. How would you access it? If it was 15 miles into the forest with no roads and no tracks, then you might genuinely have to speak to the local rescue services and say, "Could we give you a donation, so that you made available one of your helicopters, on a shorter standby time. Instead of maybe taking an hour to get it deployed, could you have those pilots nearby and we will pay you a donation to your charity or whatever?" It might just be that you choose the people, like we discussed earlier, with the checkpoints. You start asking some basic qualifications, and you say, "We're going to make sure there's a basic first-aider at each checkpoint. As the race, we're going to buy a basic first aid kit." At my races, there's a first-aid kit in every checkpoint, even though there might not be a first-aider there. At least, it gives people the ability to do something, to patch themselves up with some equipment that they maybe aren't carrying. Or we insist runners carry a basic first-aid kit themselves, so that when people get to them, they know what they're carrying. Or you can talk to them on the phone. I had a guy, last week, phoned me in a race, and he was very confused and didn't know what to do. I was on that event. I was the race director on that event. He was just very tired. Because I had a set of kit that I knew he had in his bag, I could tell him exactly what to get out of that bag, and how to put it on, and he laid down on the trail. He had a sleep and we got to him. He was absolutely fine. If I didn't know what was in his bag, that would be a much more difficult conversation. We sort of have to pick that. Getting back to considering stuff, what's a reasonable time for an ambulance to reach you? What's a reasonable time to get to a hospital? Again, working backwards, what kit do I need to give them then? Or what people do I need to have nearby to help make sure that outcome is good, until that point? If you're in a mountain, whether it's Greece or the UK, and it's taken three hours for people to get there, maybe the checkpoint needs some first-aiders, because those first-aiders will only take 30 minutes to walk there. Therefore, the potential outcome is going to be much better. Yes, that's going to affect the economics. Do you pay those people or do you try and get volunteers to do it? Volunteers, sometimes, are excellent. Other times, volunteers have out-of-date skills. Or they're not as experienced or not as frequently trained. They may do their first aid course, and never do another one for three years. Whereas if you're picking-- if you can get the local mountain rescue team or the local fire service, for a donation to come and help, then you'll get in very well-trained, very looked-after people. But that means you've got to factor in that donation, that cost. They might want you to pay fuel for vehicles. Or you might have to hire a private company like myself to come in, and we're going to charge you money, because we're going to want to pay wages to our staff, because we want our staff to be trained, and we've got vehicles and we have to pay that. That's going to affect the cost. If you're a brand new race, and you've got a very tight budget, you're not charging a lot of money, because you want people to come to your race to see what it's like, so you keep the price low. That may or may not be something you can afford. I don't think there's any right answer. I think, you have to think if the worst thing happened, in the worst possible place, in the worst possible conditions, how long would it take us to get there? If that's what would be considered an unreasonable time, maybe you need to put other processes in place, to take that time down. In a city, an ambulance in 10 to 20 minutes is a very reasonable time. In a city, one hour for an ambulance would be considered unreasonable, and there will be people in the papers complaining. On a mountain, two hours for a team to walk to you, four hours, might be acceptable in a remote area. Therefore, no one will complain. If it's going to take you eight hours to get there, then, maybe you need some sort of interim service or interim group of people that can get there quicker, and have a localized safety team that are near to it, or trained personnel on checkpoints, or vehicles nearby, or whatever. You need to think, "What do I need to make this safe?" It is ultimately, like you said, a finger in the air to start with, cause everyone-- I've been caught out short-staffed because someone's dropped out at the last minute and we haven't got staff. And you think, "Oh no, we've got the wrong staff. This person doesn't have the skills that they said they had." It's very difficult. Most of the time, you get away with it, and it's fine. But yeah. Making sure that you have the right equipment as close to the people as you can. On a long trail race, you can't be around every corner, but can you make sure that you've got someone within 10km or 12km that can get there? Then, you're only looking at an hour's walk. That should be reasonable, hopefully.
Yeah. Actually, what you said there was exactly our experience, putting on the 100 miler. We found very enthusiastic support from local rescue teams, and other nonprofits, who are really specialized in the kinds of skills that we were lacking as a race. They were more than happy - because that's their reason for existing, right? - they were more than happy to come in and offer their expertise, both in the planning of the race, but also on race day, on execution and with numbers, against a very reasonable donation for their cause. They were very happy to be out there. We had people who were like radio enthusiasts doing our communications, and we had mountain rescuers, Red Cross people, so it was really-- it might feel daunting, I think, at first. It definitely felt daunting to me, but there are ways of actually putting together a very safe event, but, as you say, still at a cost. Even volunteers cost money, right? I mean, I keep telling people sometimes, saying, "Oh yeah, volunteers..." Volunteers won't go to an event, particularly a for-profit event, even a nonprofit event, without being paid, at the very least, for expenses. Most of them, if they work for a cause, then some kind of donation to their cause. I mean-- it makes perfect sense to me.
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Ok, let’s get back to discussing participant safety in races with Lindley Chambers...
Will runners pay a premium for a safer race?
Okay, then. As a race director, I've done everything I have to do. I've done everything right. I've spent money, gone over the plans, hired the right people. Now, the question is, "Will the runners appreciate that?" Would the runners be willing to pay for my safer, more robust, better equipped race over another race, that probably hasn't spent as much as I've spent on my race? Do runners appreciate all that? Are they willing to pay the premium for a safer race?
Yeah. I think, it's a very good question. I think probably 10% of people, in my experience, will automatically assume everything's expensive. Because they've never needed rescuing, they've never had a problem on the hill or the mountain, they don't understand why you would need to spend all that money, because it's fine, you just walk down the mountain if it's wet, or if the race is canceled. They weren't-- there will always be 10% that you'll never keep happy. The rest of them, I think, if you can make it visible, sometimes, that means a little bit of self promotion about who you are getting to help. For example, your race, if you put the badge of the fire service and the mountain rescue team on the website, and you say, "These people are giving their time and we are--" Don't be afraid to say, "We've given a donation per runner of one euro or two euros or whatever." People can see the numbers - they can see where the money is going. I think, they're more comfortable. If you've got a race such as the Spine again, I'll use that quite a lot for reference, but it's-- every checkpoint, they're seeing medics and doctors patching people's feets. Out on the course, they're seeing the safety teams just pop up and check if they're okay. They can see where the money has been spent. They can understand, and they're getting help from those teams. Therefore, they feel like it's been spent. You could maybe spend it on a race, but keep your teams at arm's distance, and the runners never see it. It's perfectly as good a team, and it's perfectly valid, but the runners never see it. Therefore, they haven't seen where their money goes. As a race director, I get people, sometimes, saying, "Oh, this race costs £100. How's it that expensive when this other race that's the same distance 50 miles away is only £70? Where's the extra £30 going?" Sometimes, I'll answer. Sometimes, I won't. A lot of the time, I'll say, "Well, we have good insurance. We have medics that we pay. We have vehicles we pay for. This is my full-time job. I'm not doing one event a year as a part-time thing. I'm trying to make a living out of this. Race directors, I think, sometimes, people begrudge them a living or an earning. They see things as, "Ah, they just see 100 people, at £100 each or €100 each. Well, that's €10,000. They must be making money." They don't understand that, every medal is €10, and every T-shirt is €10. That money disappears very quickly for insurance, donations, vehicles, and fuel. So, sometimes you have to blow your own trumpet a little bit, I think. You have to tell them where the money is gone. Don't be afraid to write an email back to someone and say, "This is how it all adds up." Not saying give them all your accounts, but say, "This is what we're paying." Then, they might go, "Okay, sorry. I didn't realize it cost that much." They might be okay. Don't be afraid to show them where the money's gone, but you'll get-- 10% won't believe you anyway. That's fairly normal, I think.
Totally. You know what? The one thing, and that's something that frustrated me with this incident in China, is because of the 100 miler we put on-- I have lots of friends-- because of running in the community here, I have lots of friends who do trail races and stuff. The attitude that you get, I mean, you get in all races - this attitude of, "Oh, the race director is somehow profiteering or something." Right? The total lack of understanding that lots of runners have, the majority of runners have, about the economics of putting on events, must be really frustrating, to most people doing this - either pouring their heart into it, or just doing it as a business. With the Chinese tragedy that just occurred, I was following some online trail running magazines, who were reporting this, at least, in Greece, on Facebook. You'd see like 50% of the comments would mention something along these lines that, "All those guys. It's all about big bucks. They were profiteering." and stuff. Maybe there was some of that in China, I guess, seeing as it's a booming market, but it's not at all. It should never be the starting point. People who know how these races are run-- and actually, there were other people on those posts, putting the counter argument that were saying, "You're so far from the truth, most of these races breakeven, if not, make a loss most years." So, it's very frustrating to have this kind of attitude.
It is. And I think if you compared it to some other physical sporting experience, for example, if you went to a Premiership football match, you would think nothing of paying £100, for a family to go to a football match, but you don't want to pay £100 to run in a pretty park that they've had to pay the privilege to run in, and have food every 10 kilometers along the route for you, and someone move your bags, and have a doctor to look after you if you get hurt, and a minibus to take you back if you have to stop, and they're going to give you a nice T-shirt, and they're going to give you a nice medal, and all of that experience. We would pay for a theme park. We would pay for football. We would pay to go to the gym every day. We would pay five pounds for a coffee, but we begrudge if a race charges five pounds-- from one year to the next year, it raises the price in five pounds. I get people all the time, "Why is it more expensive this year?" Well, because fuel is more expensive, because the medal costs more, because-- I think, it's probably still because trail running, in general terms, is still, compared to other running, maybe a fairly new sport. Even in the UK where it's been around for a long time, it's still, perhaps, in its first generation, its first 25-30 years where it's become very popular. People don't see that it's a viable job or a leisure industry as such. Therefore, they don't see the race directors, because it all used to be clubs that put the races on - small clubs which don't need to make a profit. They're just trying to put the best race that they can, and have ample volunteers and resources from the club. Then, race directors maybe don't deserve or shouldn't get a wage from it. I think that's slowly changing. People are understanding. If you want a better event, you'd want more tracking because it's great on social media, you'd want to have better equipment, and a nicer T-shirt at the end. You don't want a thin cotton T-shirt. You want an actual Montane technical T-shirt or something like that. You turn around, you've got to pay the money for that. That doesn't come for free. Nothing's for free. Sponsorship's not for free. You have to do something for it.
Do race briefings help?
Exactly. In terms of looking at the race director's role in all of this, we uses, again - for my race, many races do that - we used to have like a formal race briefing before the race. We did actually two, depending on when people arrived for the race. We would walk them through the sections. I mean, not everyone can keep every single turn in their head, but at least you highlight some of the risks they might be aware of. Is that something that helps? Are there any kinds of things like that, that the race director can do to help educate people about the risks in a particular race?
I think, yeah. I think, race briefings, either on the day, or within a few days of the race have-- they're used for highlighting new things, reminding people of emergency contacts, reminding people of the locations, of support and checkpoints, and reminding people of any changes in emergency procedures, or stuff like that. Again, I think, you can get sort of fatigue if you're sitting there for an hour and a half, in the race briefing. I remember at the Spartathlon race briefing many years ago, when I sat there, after an hour, you're not really listening very much, because there's so much to go through. Obviously, the one we went into was in three languages, so it became challenging. You drifted away from paying attention to the information. I think, it has its use, but I think it needs to be kept relatively short - 20 or 30 minutes, maybe, maximum. Just the important stuff that's either changed, or really needs highlighting, like emergency contacts and severe risks. I think, most of the information, certainly for me, is trying to get that further away from the race, at least five or six weeks out from the race. I think, the danger of, with a lot of last minute changes, is that you don't give the runner any time. If you tell them that morning that, there's a route change, or there's a new risk, or they have to have a new piece of equipment, or a new skill, then they're not going to be able to do that. You're telling them something that they simply can't do. All you're gonna do is cause them stress or cause a problem in the race. If you can make those changes six weeks out, and say, "Look, you're actually going to need a compass now. Go and learn how to use it." They've got a chance to acquire some skills, or practice it, or learn how to work a GPS device. If you tell them, they suddenly need waterproofs, they've got time to buy or try some, or get some advice on what to buy. If you suddenly switch from a windproof jacket to a waterproof 24 hours before, some people genuinely won't have one, or won't have one in good condition. That's going to cause you, potentially, problem further down the line, or just a kit check. You don't want that difficult conversation, "Well, you changed it 48 hours ago. Now, I don't have the right thing." Try and do that earlier. I think, putting as much information out on the website, about the risks, the terrain, the course-- these days, we've got a lot of technology that can help. You can use websites like Relive, Strava, and you can use Google Earth to virtually travel down the course. If you put those GPS files out and all the information quickly, people can look-- Link to blogs, where people had good experiences. Also, link to blogs, where people had bad experiences where they got rescued. Then, they learned about what they actually needed. They twisted their ankle, and they realized they really did need that sleeping bag or that bivy bag. Don't be afraid to share the bad stuff. Even the stuff where maybe they were a little critical of the event, because then people can make a judgement on what they need to pick. Try and do that, maybe, as early as possible, and have as much of that available, at the start of a new race. If your race has been running a while, have that available at the point of entry. Some people enter races, and then two months before, they say, "Well, I didn't know I needed to carry all that equipment. I wouldn't have entered if I then have to spend £500 on equipment." Make that available right at the start. Make it explained. Give them the opportunity to withdraw from the race before they spend their money, because, maybe, if those people won't spend the money, or they really don't have the skill set or experience, for that particular event. As a race, as an event organizer, you might want the money. But do you want the risk? Do you want the difficulty of an inexperienced person in your race? I can guarantee you, the extra £100 pounds you get is not worth the extra hassle you're going to get from somebody that's either going to argue about everything, or that is not at the experience level required for that event. They're just going to be a difficulty. It's not detrimental to those people. They may just not have the experience for that event, at that time. I think it's better to filter-- the phrase you used in one of the questions was, to filter those people out, as early as possible, so that you can get everyone on the same system, and understanding why they're doing it.
Should there be stricter athlete vetting for extreme races?
Exactly. That's something that lots of events do. So, you consider it, then, a valid tool for a race director to have - those mechanisms to weed out the people who may not be suitable for the event? You're not of the opinion that, "At your own risk, you're free to choose if you go and do like a 100 miler." You would actually put, maybe, qualifications, or ask people to, basically, think whether they're capable of entering an event like that, right?
Yeah. On my events, I don't put strict qualifications, for example, but I will put a piece of advice that says, "If you're going to do my 100 mile race, it would be-- I would suggest that you've already completed at least one 50 mile race, and that you would be able to complete that within 12 hours, to give you a realistic chance, to be able to complete my 100 mile race in 30 hours." That would be considered reasonable. My 50km or 30 mile race-- I have a seven hour cutoff on that. It's quite a fast race. I say to people, "If you are able to complete a marathon in six hours, you should be able to complete this. If you have difficulty completing a marathon within six hours, there's a very good likelihood you're going to come to that event - unless you've trained a lot more - you're going to come to that event and be successful, which gives you a bad experience, and gives us more challenges at the event." I don't want to have discussions and time people out of the race. That makes them feel bad. It makes me feel bad. It doesn't give them a good experience. Sometimes, you have to be honest with yourself, and honest with the runners, and say, "Maybe this isn't you." If they maybe emailing you and asking lots of very basic elementary questions, and they didn't own a waterproof. They did a mountain race, and they never owned a waterproof or waterproof trousers. They don't have a pair of trail shoes, and they're asking lots of advice about trail shoes. Maybe you need to have that discussion and be responsible, and say, "Is this really the race for you at this time? Why don't you do one of our shorter ones, or a different short race, and build some experience first? Because I don't want you to have a bad experience." That takes a certain level of honesty with your runners and, maybe, not concentrating on the money. Some race directors will do that very well, and some won't.
Should trail race directors be certified?
Yeah. I suppose, reflecting also on what happened in China, one of the first instincts in these kinds of tragedies is for people to think of regulation - right? "We should be controlling who puts on races, and what conditions they put races under", that kind of thing. There are, both in the UK and the US, a handful of certification programs for race director. They're not mandatory. You don't need to be certified to put on a race, but for certain types of races, like the ones we've been discussing - like really high-risk races, that require a certain type of experience and expertise - would it make sense to start thinking about requesting some kind of formal certification from people to put on these events?
I think, it's a very difficult question, because you would have to create many more questions. So for example, in the UK, we have the Trail Running Association. Internationally, you have organizations like the ITRA - they give a lot of advice, although, they're not actually a governing body, in any sense of the word in each country. You have IAAF. You have UKA. You have fell running, and mountain running associations in various countries. How challenging would it be to get all of them to agree on one set of procedures or one standard? I think, that would be extremely difficult. I think, they'd all have very different views on how they would rate a mountain, a fell, or a trail race. What distances-- there's so many differences. Who would-- I'd be asking, "Who decides the standards? What experiences that person has to decide the standards?" Does that mean that we end up with less variety? Does that mean that, we only have a race model that's the same as UTMB? Would we lose events such as Spartathlon, or the Olympia Race in Greece, that are both very different and challenging, in very different ways? Would we lose some of the more exotic American races, like Badwater, Laz's Backyard Challenges, and stuff like that? If we tried to make one version of everything, we'd end up with a very same effect. So, I'm not a big fan of regulating everything. I think, given direction from governing bodies-- in the UK, the Trail Running Association has a guide to trail running. It just gives some things to tick off that, you should consider as you go through. I think, that sort of thing - speak to landowners, plan this, have a look at the risk assessment, like we discussed earlier. Look at other people's risk assessments. Ask them to share them. Do that on your Facebook forum, if you want to, and people can say, "Well, this is what I write for mine." I see some organizations literally wanting to copy someone else's risk assessment, which is a dangerous thing, because that person-- some-- I've seen in the UK, particularly, there are some third-party companies are writing risk assessments for race organisers. I don't particularly like that, because that person's never seen the course. They don't understand the risk there, but they're writing a risk assessment that's a legal document. What would happen? How would you do it? Is there going to be a sports governing body? Or is there going to be a local authority, because we all know that local authorities have very good civil servants and very good planners, but those people may have no experience. They might, just simply, see that going up a mountain in the rain is a risk that's not worth the expense. We have the balance of allowing race organizers to have very, like we just mentioned, very varied events, very challenging events. Some of the events I have, are extremely difficult with low finish rates. Loads of people would not consider that as a sensible risk, unless they understood runners. I'm sure you get the same with the 100 mile that you did, where people were, "100 miles in one go on foot off a mountain - that's just dangerous. That's ridiculous. You shouldn't be doing that. That's-- You shouldn't be allowed to do it." So yeah, getting back to the point, I think, advice, rather than strict regulation, and making sure that - it certainly is my opinion, it might not be everybody's - making sure that we have good advice and good resources to learn from. Maybe not regulating it strictly, because regulation like everything, can get out of control, and very prescriptive, and can damage sport. You don't want it to be like Formula One or cycling, where every single degree of everything is regulated within an inch of its life, which I don't think helps diversity in the sport.
What should be included in a trail race mandatory kit?
Yeah, absolutely. One last area, I'd like us to spend a little bit of time on, before we wrap up, is - particularly because it was relevant in China. It's relevant in all of these races - it's the so-called mandatory gear lists that you get from an event. For people who are not familiar with that, what happens in these kinds of races is that, an organizer would say that, "In order for you to take part in a race, there is a minimum of equipment you need to carry with you." This is mostly for safety reasons, and other considerations. Depending on how self sufficient or otherwise, the race might position itself to be, that list would vary considerably, in the kinds of stuff you need to carry. Actually, not carrying those items for most races, would be a reason for being disqualified. So, you need to carry this stuff with you. Again, I think, it's going to be one of those questions where, it's like, "How long is a piece of string?" But a race director approaching the question of what should I include in my kit list - what should be the the approach on that? What should be the high level thinking around that? What should these kits include, for mountain races?
I think, it's a few sort of headings, that is stuff that we've discussed before. What clothing do I think they're going to need for the weather conditions? Are the weather conditions going to be changeable enough that it's going to be wet, then it's going to be hot, in which case, you probably need a spare set of heavier or lighter clothing, depending on if they're starting, like the race in China, in shorts and a singlet. But you know, there might be rain expected. Then, you need to make them carry something that's doing that. Most runners will choose to do that. Most of them will be sensible - the experienced ones. The elites and other people will tend to not make that decision. Not all of them. Some of them were very good. If they're in a race, and they're carrying a waterproof jacket, and the person in front of them isn't, they'll be worried that, they're going to be two seconds, every mile, slower. They might not be competitive. So, they want to do the same. Then, the potential is that, everyone copies the elites. Then, nobody wears the right stuff. Yeah, I think, clothing for the weather conditions. How much access-- can you get to them for rescue, should someone twist an ankle, should someone feel sick, should someone just trip up and bump their head? How quickly can we get there? If we can't get there quickly, what equipment would we need to keep them warm and dry for that period? Do we need a bivy bag? Do we need them to bring a lightweight down jacket, so they can keep warm? You know, that sort of stuff. Do we need-- if we got good mobile signal, do we need to make sure they have a working mobile phone with them? Do we need to think, there's no mobile signal out there? Do we need an emergency locator beacon? Or do we go for GPS trackers where they can press an SOS button, and then we can be alerted they're in trouble? They come down to cost, obviously, because they're quite expensive. How much self-help we want them to be able to give? If they slide down a hill, and scrape their knees, and scuffle their skin off, can they patch themselves up to keep their wound clean? Do we insist they carry a few dressings? If they feel sick, do we-- if they have stomach issues, do we ask them to carry Imodium? Do we ask them to carry some basic anti-histamines, if they fall in some bushes that cause them an allergic reaction? Do we make sure they're carrying medication that-- if they have their own medical problems, do we make sure they're carrying that medication? If they have angina, do they carry a GTN spray, that sort of stuff? Do we need to check that? How can they help themselves? I think, most of it revolves around that, as in, what if something goes wrong? What if the weather worsens? How do we ensure that they've got the right equipment? Most people will make good decisions, as we said, but some people, for various reasons, will make inexperienced, bad decisions, or make deliberate decisions because they want to race. With the best will in the world, I'd love to write a kit list and guarantee that everybody will carry it all. The reality and experience over the years is that, that won't happen, which means you need to mandate some kit, and it makes us feel comfortable and-- it doesn't make the race safer. That's always an argument if someone will still trip, they will still fall, they will still bang their head. But what will happen is the outcome after that will be better, because they have equipment to keep them warm and dry, until someone gets there, rather than lying in a ditch, soaking wet. Yeah - the race isn't safe. They won't stop from falling over, but, the outcome, the result, will be better, hopefully, for all concerned.
Do GPS trackers help?
And you mentioned GPS trackers there. You mentioned the two very important things about them. We had GPS trackers in my race. The two important factors, of course, are that they are fantastic, but they're also quite expensive. On the balance, I mean, we were a 100 mile mountain race. I think we were, probably, either the first race in Greece to use those indiscriminately, or one of the first. I was really terrified about something going wrong, so we used them a lot and they proved invaluable when people were getting lost during the night. It was very easy for us to recover them. Do you think, if you were advising an event like the one that took part in China, would it be part of what-- because the trackers were part of what the Red Cross rescuers suggested to me, as a good to have, then, I thought, "Yeah, let's go for it." Is that something you'd advise events to include, as part of the planning, for these kinds of events?
I think so. I think, when you're picking a tracker, the overriding thing I would see as, "Is the route and distance remote enough that we don't have very easy access to check on them? Or is it so long, that fatigue is going to make poor decision-making, and things like that?" So, I don't have trackers on any of my events, that are less than 100 miles, my own personal events, just because most of those are in relatively accessible areas on low-level paths, and most of them have very good mobile signal. On a lot of them, I simply insist that they carry a working mobile phone, that's charged at the start of the race, and we check it. That covers an emergency communication issue. For my really long ones, my 250-mile race and my 600-mile race that happened a couple of weeks ago, I insist on trackers, partly, because, it's easier to absorb a £30 charge for a tracker into an event that's costing £250, than to absorb it into a race that's costing £60 or £70, because now you're adding a third to the cost. That's very challenging from the economics. I would love to have trackers on every race, but it would make many of them financially difficult. I think they're an invaluable tool, like you said, for locating people who get lost. They're great, if they can press an emergency button on them. You get a text message with a Google Map link that says, they are here, they have a problem. That makes life so much easier. They're not the be all and end all. Sometimes, they break or they go wonky. Sometimes, you get loads of phone calls from family, every time they go off course. Those negatives are, I think, canceled out by the positives of having a very good thing. They also allow you, from a staffing perspective-- if you've got trackers, you maybe don't need sweepers on the course, because you can see where they are. You maybe don't need as many people at the checkpoints, because one person at HQ can be monitoring the trackers rather than having people log in them through the checkpoints. You might not need one person each at the checkpoints log in the numbers there, unless you want a backup system. Most of the trackers will log them. They'll geo-fence them through 500 meters around the checkpoint, or whatever distance you set. Sometimes, whilst they initially have a very high expense, they can actually save you logistical problems later, and save you an expense, because you're not so worried about having a longer gap between checkpoints, for example, because you can monitor them. Maybe you have a checkpoint over 15k's rather than every 7k, because you can supervise them much better. There are lots of good points. As technology moves on, it gets better and cheaper. Well, the companies are getting more competitive with each other. There are apps now on your phone that will last a reasonable amount of time, although, I personally am not very comfortable with phones for GPS. Because the minute you ask your phone to do a phone, and a GPS, and record it on Strava, the chances of your battery making it, on any race longer than sort of 50 kilometers, is pretty slim. When you come to call, you're going to have a problem. But yeah, stuff is getting better. I think it should be considered, particularly, anything long or anything remote, or anything that has high risk. I think, you should definitely consider them. Potentially, if you have to factor that into the cost, you have to. I know some races, especially in the UK, give you the option to hire a tracker, from a third party company, as part of the entry fee. That's good. Sometimes, at the race we've just done this weekend, sometimes, that means half the people have trackers, and half the people don't. So, the only people you can monitor are the people that have trackers, and not the people that don't. That can cause a sort of conflict of systems, which maybe isn't always ideal.
Yeah. The other thing, as you said, trackers, they're going to get cheaper. I mean, they have become cheaper, ever since we used them, as well. They're going to become more widespread in adoption, and they have the slight upside or side benefit, which is that, also, spectators can track people remotely. It creates an interest, particularly among the very tight-knit trail and ultra running communities, broadcasting some of these races. It's really fun for the event as well, people to be able to locate and track who's first, the leaderboard, but also, just friends and family, really, in the race.
Yeah, it's a fantastic resource for that. The event that we did, a couple of weeks ago, we've just had five runners doing 600 miles or 990 kilometers. They have 14,000 unique views watching them, which is, a large amount of money, a large amount of people, for just five people on a very long trail, doing a very long run. That was pretty impressive. I think, it also helps with, again, checkpoints. If you've got lots of spectators turning up at checkpoints, in some races, particularly in the UK, I've seen where everyone just goes to the checkpoint, and might wait an hour or two hours, for their runner that they're supporting, or crewing for, coming through to the checkpoint becomes very congested. You can say to them, "They have a tracker. Only turn up at the checkpoint 10 minutes before they arrive." You then have less carpark blockages, traffic problems. I think, if you put it into your strategy, you make it a planned part of your strategy, you can actually get that savings back, or at least get less hassle at locations. You put in your plan, and I think, you can negate the cost on 100-mile plus races quite quickly.
Yeah, absolutely. I think, this is, comfortably, the longest podcast we've ever done. Thanks a lot for your time again. Special day today. You're out in the field. There was some road traffic there, but I think people will excuse us, because you're out working on a race. Last thing. If people want to reach out to you, Lindley, how can they do that?
My race company is called Challenge Running. They can go to the website, challenge-running.co.uk. Or they can email me on email@example.com. As you said, I'm on your forum. I'm on Facebook on many of the running groups, so they can usually just write my name in, and it will tag me on one of the groups somewhere. If it doesn't tag me, someone will know me, if they mention my name, I can usually respond to things very quickly.
Of course, they would. And your first-aid website, that is challange-firstaid.co.uk. Is that right?
Yes. Challenge-firstaid.co.uk. But if you go to any-- if you go to the challenge-running one, they link across between the two. We're happy to give advice on what people need, and if we can help, we will do if we can.
Perfect. Well, thank you very much again. It's been particularly special for me, since I get to reminisce about my race-directing days. It was full of tips this episode. I hope people take it to heart, particularly, people organizing these kinds of races. We'll speak soon - I'm sure on Facebook and elsewhere. You enjoy the rest of the long weekend. Thanks again.
No, thank you very much. It's great to discuss these things, and I think, it's better to talk about stuff, than to ignore it.
Cheers, Lindley. Thanks to everyone listening in, and we'll see you all next time.
I hope you enjoyed this episode on trail race safety with Lindley Chambers.
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