From one running event director to another:
In the event world, we don’t always have the luxury of predictability. There are few constants, small margins for error, and the “exact science” of running event production is really just a continuous process of making adjustments. And, typically, these adjustments are based on the not-so-exact memories of our past race experiences – this worked, that didn’t work, and that REALLY didn’t work.
Unfortunately, there is no “one-size fits all” guidebook for producing an event, but there are some fundamental tricks of the trade that can help you get started.
Let’s think of producing a running event in terms of a recipe – there are many ways to produce the same product, but your core ingredients like eggs, flour, butter (think corrals, fluid stations, toilets) have to be part of the mix – and trust me, people will realize if they’re missing! Once you have your base, you can get creative to add that extra flavor that makes the running event your own and creates an athlete experience that differentiates you from all the other cookies out there. Keep your budget in mind as you’re dealing with all of those ingredients as costs can go up quickly.
Here’s a look at the core ingredients for race day management for a running event – broken up into three different bowls: start, course and finish:
Step 1: Determine the type of start for your running event
You have a choice between two types of race starts: Mass Start or Wave Start
1. Mass Start – When the gun sounds, all runners begin the race at the same time.
2. Wave Start – Athletes are divided into corrals (determined by their projected finish times) and the corrals begin the race according to a specific schedule.
Before you make your decision, let’s consider the following factors:
Crowd Control at the Start – Do you have a large number of athletes? Do you need an organized way to “herd the sheep”? Are there narrow paths at the start? Dividing athletes into corrals helps to provide organization and structure for the start area.
Merge/Pinch Points along the Course (especially within the first few miles of the start) – A wave start helps to space out athletes which will prevent congestion if there are areas within the first few miles where paths narrow or merges are necessary.
Crowd Control at the Finish – Spreading out the runners in the beginning, helps to prevent back-ups at the Finish Line with medals, water, and athlete food distribution. This is particularly helpful if the back of house of your finish line is not very large and/or if your volunteer numbers are lagging below the plan.
Step 2: Determine the start line layout of your running event
1. Mass Start – Remember, with all athletes starting at the same time, the area “behind” the start line needs to have enough space to accommodate all athletes at once. Count on about 4 square feet of space per person.
2. Wave Start – As a general rule of thumb for larger events, each corral should have about 800 athletes, each requiring about 4 square feet of space. Lay out and measure corrals in advance to ensure they are large enough to accommodate the number of athletes expected. Note that if your start line is narrow, you will probably need to have fewer runners in each corral, and more total corrals to make the wave start effective.
Step 3: Determine running event start timeline
1. Mass Start – Piece of cake: pick a start time. Depending on the size of the race, athletes should begin to line up about 10-15 minutes prior to the gun time.
2. Wave Start – Pick a start time for your first wave. On average, there should be about a 1 minute and 30 second interval between waves. However, the first few groups can be released at intervals closer to 1 minute because the beginning groups tend to be smaller and cross the start line faster (think: Handicapped athletes & pro/elite athletes).
Step 1: Marking the course – Different municipalities may have different requirements for course delineation, but here a few suggestions for your running event:
1. Coning – Athletes should be able to see cones at all times while on course, as a reassurance they are in fact going the correct way. For areas with two-way traffic, these cone lines should be tight. For areas with only one-way traffic, these cones can be more spaced as they are serving more as a visual than for practical/safety purposes.
2. Turn Barricades – Drop a barricade at each turn. Attach a piece of scrim to the barricade that has an arrow which points in the direction of the turn.
3. Cone Toppers/Spray Chalk/Course Marshals – For those areas of the course that are confusing, better to be overly cautious. Use cone toppers as additional signage, spray chalk to mark the roads and/or course marshals with flags and megaphones to get the attention of athletes.
Step 2: Fluid Stations – For marathon/half marathon distance races, Fluid Stations should be positioned just about every mile. Weather conditions should be considered when determining both the Fluid Station locations and the quantities of product needed. Assuming average weather conditions, here are the formulas for determining product quantities:
1. Cups – For water, count on (2) cups per athlete per pass. (Ex. 2000 person race with one Aid Station passed one time = 4,000 cups needed). For isotonic, count on (1) cup per athlete per pass. Fill each cup with 5oz of liquid. Make every effort to use waxed paper cups. Plastic cups are not ideal from a runner and clean-up perspective.
2. Water / Isotonic Gallons – Determine total number of ounces of needed (5oz x Number of Cups). Convert total ounces to gallons (hint: 128 ounces = 1 gallon).
3. Nutrition – Offering gel packets along the course of marathon/half marathon distance races is a great customer service touch point. Assuming the resources/budget are available, nutrition should be offered at the following points along the course:
– Location #2 – Mile 17-20 (the closer to Mile 20, the better). Again, prepare for 85% of the expected participant count to take a gel.
4. Tables – On a 6ft table, about 200 cups can be prepped and filled (up to 600 if you triple stacks of cups using stacking sheets). For those Fluid Stations early in the course, the athletes will be hitting the station all at once, which means little time for filling cups once the race starts. The first few Fluid Stations should have enough tables to support the majority of athletes, knowing most of the cups will have to be prepped and laid out prior to the race.
5. Trash – For the course elements listed above, be sure to have a trash plan in place. At the aid stations, the volunteers should be directed to keep the area clean throughout the race. They should have rakes, shovels and trash bags included in the supplies that are provided for each station. Coordinate with the public works department to confirm if they will assist with the trash collection or if you will need to hire a private trash company.
Step 3: Toilets – The number of toilets can make or break your running event.
1. Course – Toilets should be present at all fluid stations (to serve both athletes and volunteers). More toilets need to be placed at the aid stations early on for a few reasons: the athletes are still heavily concentrated, some athletes didn’t have a chance to go at the start line, nerves are still a factor. General rule of thumb:
– Miles 1-4: About 1 toilet per 1,000 athletes
– Miles 4+: About 1 toilet per 3,000 athletes
2. Site – While we’re on the topic of toilets, let’s talk about toilets at the site locations as well (think start/finish/shuttle locations). While hosting an event that doesn’t have lines at the port-o-johns is near impossible, here’s a handy calculator to reference.
Step 1: Determine product quantities – At the finish line for half marathons/marathons water, isotonic, bananas and some sort of carbohydrate item should be offered for recovery. Athletes usually appreciate (and expect) some sort of finisher reward/medal as well.
How Much to Order – Look back at the race’s historical attrition rates, AKA how many people typically register but then decide not to race. On average for a half marathon, this is around 15% of registered athletes and for a full marathon, it’s closer to 20%. You can order your finisher product/items based on your athlete numbers after anticipated attrition.
Step 2: Determine the finish line layout – The most important thing to keep in mind when creating the finish layout is to keep athletes moving and spread out your distribution zones (of medals, food, etc.) enough that the groups of people will not bunch up.
Be sure to have adequate volunteers / security at the exit of the secure zone. This is a location where many friends and family members will gather and are extremely anxious to see the runners. It is the first time since the runner crossed the finish line for them to re-group. It is always a bottleneck, so try to design a space where there is room for the outbound participants and the waiting spectators to move comfortably.
Last but not least is perhaps the most important ingredient of your running event – your team. Take the time to gather an all-star staff to organize pre-event logistics and an experienced crew to help execute on your race day management plans. Volunteers can and should play a role on race day to create a successful event. The quality of the meal is only as good as the cooks in the kitchen!
Here are some ideas for post-race wrap-up to consider after you’ve planned out the logistics of the day.
Christine was a contributing writer to our 44 page guide on planning a race. Download the guide on how to plan a 5K race here.
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