Marathon Mailbag: Questions You’ve Always Had for a Race Director

By Kevin Liao

November 21, 2017

Here at Citius, we do our best to give the people what they what. So as part of our coverage of the USATF Marathon Championships, we wanted to help answer some of the questions you’ve always had about road races: Why can’t you mail me my bib? Why are there never enough porta-potties? What’s wrong with banditing, anyways?

Helping us with this task is Eli Asch, California International Marathon race director and the director of race operations for the Sacramento Running Association. Eli is a veteran of the race directing scene, always has insightful thoughts about the world of running, and is an overall good dude. If you enjoyed this musings here, give him a follow on Twitter at @Eli_Runs for insights like this:

Why can’t I get my race number in the mail?

At some races you can. But you almost always have to pay for it and usually more than you want to. Races that don’t allow you to get your number in the mail — like the CIM and other Sacramento Running Association races — have done the calculus and decided that, as an organization with finite resources (both in money but more importantly in staff time, especially during race week), they’re going to focus those limited resources on improving the runner experience in other ways.

I will say that there is a business opportunity for someone entrepreneurial here. I know of one company (Events Southwest, another best-in-class race production and operations shop based in Texas) that offers, along with their other suite of services, a large-scale bib mailing solution to the events they work with. If someone were to launch that in the Sacramento area, I think it could do well. Of course, they would have to quickly establish themselves as a competent, reliable organization for RDs to trust them with something as precious as our runners’ bibs. If someone like our timer Capital Road Race Management were to provide this service, we would consider it. But without a reliable outside option providing its own bandwidth, system, and expertise, very few race organizations have enough staff time race week to execute something like this on their own.

As an SRA-specific aside, at our non-CIM events we solve this issue by having race morning packet pick-up. We know some people can’t make two trips, so as long as they make it to the race site race morning (with at least a few extra minutes to spare before the gun) our unparalleled registration and participant services director Kris Benach and her team of volunteers will make sure they get their bib and any other race swag before they toe the line (or after they finish for everything except the bib, if they’re cutting it really close). At the CIM (where due to sheer volume race day packet pick-up isn’t an option), based on a post-race survey of participants the vast majority of our runners view the CIM Expo as a value-add, with its race merchandise, expert speakers, vendors, and general race weekend excitement, so mailing packets has never been a high priority. I imagine this is the case at many other major events that don’t mail packets, although you would have to ask their staffs to confirm this.

Lastly, for those who just aren’t able to make it to the CIM expo, on our expo page there is a Race Packet Pick-up Authorization Form which, when completed, allows someone else to pick up your packet for you. This has been a successful solution for the past several years for those who just can’t make it to the expo.

I’m sure you could go on and on about this, but in your view, why is banditing wrong?

To be entirely honest, under normal, non-litigious circumstances (more on that later) no single bandit is going to ruin a race. However, in order to protect itself and to keep a mass of bandits from descending on an event and turning it into chaos, I support any race in its decision to take a strict “no bandits allowed on the course” policy. Because no good deed goes unpunished, and if a race started saying “sure, hop on our course and get in your run for the day” to anyone who asked it would be creating a “tragedy of the commons” situation just waiting to happen.

But wait, what if I don’t take any race resources, you say? No shirt, no medal, maybe even no support from aid stations, not event a free beer in the beer garden. Well, there are at least three major issues with that.

First, have you considered that parking, medical staff, portalets (which all runners know you can never guarantee you won’t use — unless you use someone’s yard instead, and RDs want that even less!), and in some races maybe even space on the start line or in the finish festival are limited resources? Just by showing up you’re taking some of those limited resources.

Second, great, you say you’re not trying to weasel your way into a shirt or medal, and you won’t be taking any support from aid stations, and I believe you, but do I believe the dozens — or, depending on the size of the race, hundreds or thousands — of unregistered runners I’ve invited onto the course by publicizing that bandits are welcome? And if I don’t believe all of them, how do I assure that I have enough of these limited resources in place to support an unquantified but large number of bandits? And why should I have to have enough of these cumulatively expensive resources in place to support runners who didn’t pay for my race? I shouldn’t!

Third, by not having a “no bandits” policy I would be inviting people onto the course for whom I don’t have any information — a lack of information which, if something goes wrong, makes it difficult if not impossible for the medical team to provide appropriate care. But many lawyers whose pictures you can find prominently displayed on your phone book would say we are obligated to provide appropriate care to anyone we’ve invited out there, and that the lack of a specific policy stating that unpaid runners are not invited is the same as an invitation to those unpaid runners to participate. I don’t like that logic, but I’m an RD and I expect lawyers to defer to me on race directing matters, so I defer to the lawyers who tell me on this lawyering matter that we need to have a “no bandits” policy in place.

And one more reason beyond the three promised ones: On a race day you have infinity-minus-one options of where to run for free — anywhere except the race course. By choosing to run on the race course you’re saying that you value running there above anywhere else you can run, i.e. that the race is providing something of value to you. So you implicitly agree that the race is providing something valuable, and other people are paying for it while you’re taking it for free. We have a word for that: stealing. Bandits are thieves. Don’t be a thief.

If you want to run a race, pay for it. If you want to argue that you’re not getting anything of value by running in a race without paying for it, prove it by running somewhere else on race day.

How do you prioritize getting a quality field together while also making the experience appealing to the masses who pay for the race?

I don’t view these things as in conflict but rather as working in concert. Yes, both require resources, but we’re lucky enough to have a board that supports us expending substantial resources in both places and in having partners that work with us to achieve both goals.

Also — and this is part of why CIM aligns so well with my vision of a major event — because CIM is a performance race (we had the most Boston qualifiers of any non-World Marathon Major American marathon last year), more of our runners are interested in the types of race race day elements that will allow them to perform at their best: things like abundant portalets at the start line (more than three times the industry standard), not just one aid station with CLIF Shots but four spaced appropriately throughout the course, and a pace team consisting of performance-oriented runners themselves that understand how to best support their group.

Beyond that, the support we provide professional field — smooth logistics both in arrival to the city and on race day, elite fluids, pacers tied to the Olympic Trials qualifying standards, bonuses for certain performance standards (kudos to our elite athlete coordinator Danielle Domenichelli for this) — sets the stage for them to perform their best and to run times that enhance our brand as an event where all runners can run their best, whether that’s finishing under five hours, running a PR or Boston qualifier, or qualifying for the Olympic Trials. I encourage any race to think about how they can support performance running in a way that enhances their experience for the non-elite, and then to find the resources to do it.

How does one get to be race director for a major U.S. marathon? What’s the career path?

It used to be — 25-40 years ago, when many of the now-major marathons started — that the race director (RD) was the local runner who started the race. I’m part of a new, younger generation of RD’s who knew from the outset that working in mass-participation endurance sports events was a viable career path, and that’s because we get to stand on the shoulders of these giants (Carey Pinkowski in Chicago, Fred Lebow in New York, John Mansoor here locally in Sacramento, etc.).

As for what my path was, I was a decidedly mediocre D-III cross country runner (Missionaries! Missionaries! We’re on top!) who knew I wanted to work in running, so I enrolled in the San Diego State University Sports MBA program right out of undergrad. While there, I interned at the Chula Vista Olympic Training Center and at Competitor Group working on Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego, and as a capstone project for my MBA I interned at Conley Sports, a race operations and production company based in Austin, Texas which at the time owned and operated the Austin Marathon.

That internship turned into a job, and at that job I gained great experience there working with and learning from some people who are the best in the country or world at what they do. Little known fact: RaceWorks, which is a one-man operations shop out of Austin run by David Grice, is the secret weapon behind many major races’ finish lines. Then when the opportunity arose to direct the California International Marathon — a non-profit, community-based event that also does more than any other comparably-sized marathon to support the sport of performance running — I jumped at it.

I think many of my peers in the new generation of RD’s have shared a similar path: a passion (although maybe not a huge talent for) running, experience volunteering or interning in an unpaid capacity with an event or organization they believe in, some time spent in the event operations space professionally (directing smaller events and playing supporting roles in larger ones), and then seeing an opportunity emerge that aligns with your personal vision of what a major event can and should be (like the CIM does for me) and going for it — and then working your ass off to continue to make that event everything you know it can be!

The reason you want to be an RD can’t be because you want to be something, it has to be because you want to do something — for the event, for the sport, for your participants. At the CIM, what we want to do — from our board and executive director, to our operations and marketing staff, through what we call the “big team” of almost 150 part-time staff, contractors, and key volunteers that it takes to put on the CIM — is provide every runner, from the front of the pack to the back, with the forum to run their best marathon and then celebrate that accomplishment. Being able to play a role on a team doing that is what drew me to this race. I bet if you asked any successful RD, they could tell you what it is about their major event that drew them to it, and it won’t just be “being the RD.” The job isn’t glamorous enough to just want to be it. You’ll spend way to much time slinging fence, in the back of box trucks, and jumping into dumpsters for that. You have to want to do something specific through those efforts.

I’ve seen you in the chute of a race berating a race volunteer for doing something stupid. What’s the most furious you’ve gotten on race day, and what did they do?

I think you’re talking about the “little black backpack” incident of 2014? [Editor’s note: Yes, that incident.] This is not one of my proudest moments, and was actually stupider on my part than the volunteer’s. It was my first year directing CIM and we also had a new medical partner that year: the UC Davis Medical Center, who is still our medical partner and who we are very grateful to. About 15-20 minutes before the leaders were going to cross the finish line, some spectators called our attention to a little black backpack sitting on the ground inside the controlled zone fencing about 30 feet past the finish line (by the way, thank you to these spectators: “if you see something, say something” applies to all of us!). The bag was in an area that no one without credentials could reach, so I wasn’t concerned about it from a public safety standpoint, but if there’s one thing you don’t do at the finish line of a major marathon in the post-Boston bombing era it’s put down your backpack! So I went and picked it up, asked the medical volunteers who it belonged to, and then (very ungraciously) lit into the medical volunteer who had put it down (I think there was an F-bomb involved, maybe even two — like I said, very ungracious).

Most of the blame for this mistake, as with any volunteer’s mistake, falls on me, for at least two reasons: First, it’s a part of the job to make sure volunteers know what they’re doing. They’re volunteers, and unlike race staff haven’t spent the last 12-18 months preparing for this race. If in that 12-18 months we haven’t taken the time to explain to people who are volunteering their time what their job entails, including both the “dos” and the “don’ts” — especially major public safety “don’ts” — that’s on us.

The second reason it’s on me is that I made it worse by lighting into that volunteer. Two of the most important jobs of an RD are to keep your cool and to show appreciation for the people who make the race happen — which, in the case of the CIM, includes 3,000 volunteers — and I did neither of those in this case.

So, I guess that’s a long way of saying that volunteers can’t be stupid, only RD’s can be stupid for not doing a good enough job of training or appreciating their volunteers. That being said, when volunteers don’t use basic common sense and the outcome is that it compromises their or runners’ safety (like in this incident, or times I’ve seen volunteers chalking the roads while the roads are still open to traffic, or jumping forward to give a finisher a medal so close after the finish line that either the volunteer, the runner, or both almost trips), maaaaaaaybe then the volunteer shoulders just a little bit of the blame.

In a major city like Sacramento, what are the logistics of getting course certification like?

A quick tutorial for your readers who might not be familiar with how course certification works: A course is measured by riding the shortest possible route (SPR) from start to finish with a device called a Jones Counter attached to the front wheel of a bike. The ride is made multiple times to assure accuracy and the measurement and math is verified by a state-level USATF certifier.

(Also, as an aside, if you’re wondering why your GPS always says the course is longer than the distance it’s certified as, there are at least three reasons: First, you almost definitely didn’t run exactly the SPR. Second, your GPS is accurate in broad strokes but isn’t super-precise, especially in major downtown areas with tall buildings, under bridges, or on courses with a lot of quick turns. And third, there is a .1% margin of error baked into each measurement to assure it’s not short, so 5k’s are actually measured as 5,005 meter, 10k’s as 10,010 meter, etc.)

As far as the logistics of getting a major urban marathon certified, it varies city to city, for sure. In Austin, our course director (Danny Spoonts, also one of the best in the biz and now an independent contractor based out of Denver if anyone needs a course director or consultant for hire) would hire an off-duty Austin Police Department motorcycle cop and have the cop lead- or tail-drive him (as appropriate) as he biked the course, primarily in the wee hours of the morning (2am-5am), frequently into or across traffic as the SPR dictated. This was a multi-day process, as it involved at least two rides of the entire marathon course (as well as the portion of the half marathon course which diverged from the marathon course), with re-rides of some sections necessary.

We do things differently at the CIM. While a series of early morning rides with a cop might work, our course actually closes early enough on race day that we’re able to send out our measurers — IAAF A-level measurer Doug Thurston of the Big Sur International Marathon, who brings along a couple other experienced measurers so he can do three rides all at once — in front of the field on race morning. Re-measurement is required once every ten years, and it’ll actually be taking place this year. So look for Doug and a couple friends thirty or so minutes in front of our lead runners (or less, as the finish line approaches) out there on race morning this year.

Of course, I’ve also seen some photos of people doing neither of the above and doing death-defying (or maybe it’s death-tempting?) feats in traffic in major cities like San Francisco, and even for other events in Sacramento. More interesting than asking me this question might be asking some people like Doug, Danny, and IAAF Technical Council member David Katz how they get the job done, and what the hairiest things they’ve seen out there are.

How have the emergence of color/Spartan/obstacle runs impacted how you organize your “traditional” road races?

I wouldn’t say that they have, directly. Indirectly, though, as experiences have become the new luxury good with generating that memorable, Instagram-able moment for your participants becoming increasingly crucial. I think all running events have had to reinvent themselves to become more than just a race. That doesn’t mean abandoning the race experience, though (especially at a race with the performance history of the CIM), but rather finding ways to enhance it and make it memorable for every runner.

For example, our Boston qualifiers all have the opportunity to get their photo taken at the John Hancock BQ bell in the finish area, to be able to celebrate and share their accomplishment with the world. We know this strikes a cord with our performance-oriented runners, because last year we saw some people wait in line nearly an hour to take that photo. And for first-time marathoners we’ve created a “first-timers” program which includes a private Facebook group with mentors to answer questions, meet-ups and invitations to CIM University info sessions, and a reunion tent in the finish festival area where they receive a special, additional “first-timer” medal to commemorate that they finished their first marathon at the CIM.

None of this can (or does) get in the way of the nuts and bolts of what we do, though — smooth race day logistics including a well-oiled busing and gear check plan; a well-organized start line where it’s easy to find and line up with your pace group; plentiful, well-stocked, and clearly laid out aid stations to keep people fueled and hydrated for success; a safe, clearly-marked course course closed to traffic; and accurate timing and results. Taking care of all of those things, which at our race we take pride in, is necessary but no longer sufficient (if it ever was) to differentiate yourself from ever-more-competitive pack. But that pack isn’t just other running events, or even MOB (Mud, Obstacle, and Beer) events, but rather every experience a potential customer can spend their hard-earned money on. It’s our goal to give every runner — from the pros to that first-timer striving to come in under our time cut-off — the best possible experience, which includes all the basics, but increasingly has to include some “wow” factors.

What’s your biggest fear on event day?

Making sure I don’t sleep through my alarm — seriously, my wife and I set at least six different alarms on three different devices on race morning!

By race day, I wouldn’t say that I’m afraid of anything. We have a professional, dedicated team that assures that we have checked every box that we have control over to assure all of our stakeholders — runners, staff, vendors, volunteers, spectators, etc. — have a smooth, successful, and safe race experience. Even during the weeks leading up to race day, I wouldn’t say that I have major fears, except maybe that my lovely wife and adorable pup will forget what I look like because I’m spending so much time at the office!

Although I’m not afraid of it, per se, bad weather is the most likely thing that can disrupt our plans and impact our runners’ experience. We of course have contingency plans in place and have regular race week check-ins with our operations and emergency management teams (as well as with local runner and meteorologist extraordinaire Tamara Berg of KCRA) to determine which, if any of these contingencies we’ll need to put into place. But still, RD’s want to control everything we can, and although our average weather in early December in Sacramento is pretty near perfect (lows in the 40’s, highs in the 50’s, usually some nice cloud-cover), the weather is one thing that’s out of our control that can affect our stakeholders’ experience.

Beyond that, of course in a post-Boston bombing world we all have to be concerned and vigilant about public safety threats at large public events. We work very closely for 12-18 months with local and nationwide experts from various agencies on each year’s emergency management and public safety plan, and when they tell us we’re a “go,” we trust their judgment. And if, perish the thought, the worst were to happen, we know we have an expert-level joint command team ready to respond. (Little-known fact: This team’s response capability was tested on a small scale last year when a young, healthy, veteran marathoner suffered a cardiac incident just after crossing the finish line. Our emergency response team and UC Davis medical team, supported by our finish line volunteers and public safety officials, sprang into action in a matter of seconds, implemented their plan, and were able to save her life.)

So while their are some elements that are out of our control, we know that we’ve done everything possible to plan contingencies for everything we can, even those things out of our control. So I’m not afraid on race day. Our team is ready, and our team is vigilant. We know that on race day (all throughout race week, really) there’s still the hard work of executing our plan to the best of our ability to be done, but come race day, we’re not afraid.

Kevin Liao

Sacramento-based amateur runner, photographer and writer. Once interviewed Taoufik Makhloufi in French. Enjoys politics a lot. Follow him on Twitter @RunLiao.