Monday, September 26, 2005

Being a Race Director - "Guest Race Directing" at the San Pablo Marathon

Last Sunday, I had a chance to be a “guest race director” for the San Pablo Marathon in San Rafael, CA, put on by Redwood Trails. I’ve always been curious about how much work goes into a trail run, particularly for the events that seem to execute flawlessly. Eric Gould, the Race Director for Redwood Trails, was happy to have an intern on-board, and told me to bring my running shoes, bike, coffee, and smiling face to San Pablo at 6am.

(China Camp Park at San Pablo)

As we walked around in our headlights to get ready for race day, it was clear a ton of prep work had already been done. Park permits had been secured, insurance purchased, trophies and awards ordered, t-shirts and bib numbers printed, volunteers committed, event marketing completed, food and drinks ordered, timing systems developed, first aid kits replenished, EMT’s scheduled, mile markers created, trail maps printed, and neighbors notified. Whew! That’s a lot of work. And somehow he found time to scout out this course in the first place. It was clear my “guest” role was largely ceremonial (good thing).

Around 6:20am, a few more volunteers showed up and Eric and David Dreyfuss (his right hand man) began setting up the tables and supplies for each aid station. Eric rattled off his to-do list – get the check-in area ready, assign the volunteers to aid stations and send them on their way, get the finishing chute ready, etc. – with only two hours until the race started, there was a lot of work to be done. I didn’t quite get to my coffee before Eric called me aside and gave me my first task – to race the whole course and make sure the course markings were clear. “Really?”, I said, “do race directors actually run the course, or is this just because I’m a runner?”. “Oh, yes,” he said, “in small races, most race directors clock 2-3x more mileage than racers before the day is done.” Hmmm, perhaps that is why so many race directors are former racers!

As I got my bike ready to roll through the course, the volunteers began to arrive. I hadn’t realized that most volunteers clock a full day to help out with a race, starting long before you get here, and leaving only after the last runner has finished. It makes sense now that I see it in action. And to think these are the same people who manage to cheer every person on throughout the day! The heart of trail running truly lies with the volunteers. As they arrived and introduced the friends they had convinced to spend early Saturday morning cutting bananas and filling Dixie cups, Eric and David organized them to talk about the race.

I rode my bike through the course with a backpack full of ribbon and orange cones. I had run the course the day before as well, and had met David putting up the mile markers using his highly accurate methods. But he also shared some horror stories of “bandits” remarking the trails or stealing signs after he had marked the course. Some bandits spend hours remarking a course to send runners into wildly different directions, often risking their safety. This is why somebody always has to ride the trail right before a race. I did my best to put a few too many markers just in case, and plenty of “wrong way” signs (those seem to be very effective for me).

As I rode the ½ marathon loop course, I met the volunteers building the aid stations along the way. They had taken short cuts to their locations, with a few of them using a fire road and car to get large amounts of water up. There were a few first-timers among the aid station volunteers, and they were eager for the runners to come. They shared a sense of excitement for the race and a love of the outdoors very similar to the racers. When a few communicated they already needed reserve supplies, I began to understand how difficult it is to communicate amongst the volunteers. Cell phones don’t work in this area and walkie-talkies don’t have the range, so you have to rely on runners or other volunteers to relay messages. Now that I had a few messages, it was time for me to hustle back to the starting line.

About 90 minutes later, I got back to the start and delivered my messages, which sent other volunteers scurrying up the hill with supplies. The park ranger was there, and I asked him what he does for these races. “If they are done right, absolutely nothing”, he said, “I love Redwood Trails because the trails are spotless afterwards.” Eric had already addressed the runners to tell them about the course, sing the national anthem, and what to do in case of emergency. I made it just in time for the race start. “Don’t get off that bike,” Eric said, “we need you to lead them out.” I caught my breath, and lead out the lead pack of ½ marathoners.

Once the racers were off, I sat down to enjoy some coffee….well, I tried anyway. Eric already had a list of other things that needed to get done. First, the finishing chute needed to be built and staffed. Second, I needed to jump in my car and drive to the 4-mile aid station to see if she needed anything. Third, a large number of people had shown up on race day to register, so there was a lot of data entry that needed to happen BEFORE they finished the 10k. Eric worked on the finishing chute, David started entering data, and I jumped in the car.

Arriving at the aid station, there were already two bloodied runners getting patched up (yes! At mile 4!), and Stephanie (the volunteer) said that runners were communicating about a third runner that looked pretty bad up the trail. I helped Stephanie crack into the first aid kit, and put on my running shoes to go find our injured runner. I didn’t have to go far to spot the crimson knees of our culprit staggering down the hill. One look at the gash in his knee, and it was clear his day would end with a trip to the Emergency Room. We cleaned him up and threw him in my car so I could drive him back to meet his wife. As we drove back, he mentioned it was one of his first trail runs and he was trying to get used to the rocks and roots. The poor guy!

We got him taken care of, and the EMT’s told me that most of the injuries occur with newer racers the shorter distances. It makes sense, and also points out the kind of liability that race directors face. I sat down to sip my coffee, but David asked if I could help enter the last few paper entries since 10k finishers were already coming in. We frantically got through them and unpacked the box of awards.

Now, I finally got to do one of the fun parts – hand out awards! We started with the 5k finishers, many of whom were very young (such as Arden Neff, the first 0-5 age group winner I have ever met). Everyone cheered out loud as each kid picked up an award, dressed in a t-shirt that draped them like pajamas. The parents who had won awards would sneak me their medals and ask me to “announce so-and-so as the winner of the female 7-8 age group and use my award!”. I realized I had never seen the 5k award ceremony before, since I’m always out on the course. It was really fun! Not to mention all of these kids were having a great experience outdoors.

By the time we got the 10k awards, it looked like many 10k finishers were already heading home. “Pancakes”, one finisher told me, “why wait for a trophy when there are pancakes just 10 minutes away?”. True, we each have our motivation. And pancakes did sound pretty darn good. But I did manage to get awards to winner Lee Loughnane, female winner Heidi Wiesel, and many others.

The ½ marathoner awards went out in a more relaxed form, with wicked-fast Butch Wilson (1:23), Jose Ochoa (1:25), and Christopher Gustafson (1:25) rounding out the top three, and Henrike Siemen (1:41), Valerie Herzog (1:44), and Ann Will (1:44) claiming the female division. Some confusion arose when I announced Mary Wong as the first place female, and she had said “1:29 isn’t fast enough to win”. I begged to differ and showed her up there as #4 overall, before she pointed out to me that she had done the 10k. Oops! I guess that’s what happens when you whip through the manual registrations.

With the awards out and the last few marathoners coming in, I finally reached for my now-cold-coffee, but Eric asked for some help on a few other matters first. A volunteer had unlocked a gate to drive up and save themselves a hike and the park ranger wasn’t too excited about it, there was a significant amount of trash in an area about four miles up the hill (unclear if it was even race related), there seemed to be a marathoner still out on the course somewhere, and we had run short of 1st place age group awards. Oh yeah, we still needed to take down all the course markings. I thought the proverbial poo was hitting the fan, but judging by the look on Eric’s face, it was all in a days work. Never a dull moment in race directing!

I grabbed two garbage bags, hopped on my bike, and started a two-hour tour through the course again to pick up the course markings. Within a couple of miles, I understood why many race directors go for “minimal” markings since it takes a long time to pick them all up. And I will never, ever toss a Dixie cup to the side of the trail in a race again – those things are impossible to pick up and find! Much of the trash hadn’t been race related, but hey, it’s clear the park ranger loves the extra effort. By the time I finished, I was hauling two full garbage bags full of trash.

As I pulled up to the race start, everyone but David and a few volunteers had left. The campground was spotless, short of one full coffee cup sitting next to my car. I looked at my watch – 3:30pm, and I hadn’t sat down once since 6am. Race directors may be the ultimate endurance athletes.

Now more than ever, I appreciate the work of race directors and volunteers and I thank them for their tireless effort. It’s really fun to volunteer if you haven’t tried it. You will get a whole new perspective on racing!

- SD


  1. It's nice to be reminded once in a while of all of the selfless volunteers that make our races possibly. Nice photos throughout your site!

  2. WOW. I never realized how much work a director of a race does. Just amazing. And for those that are directors of any kind of race. Thank you!

  3. Wow. I've always wondered why a trail run costs $20-30. One would think that it could be done for $10-15, but now I don't know.

    I sure would like a "no t-shirt" option for $10-15, instead of a forced t-shirt for $25-30. I have dozens of t-shirts and most of them don't last more than 4-5 washes.


  4. Larry -

    Check out this other article about the costs of a run -->

    I hear you about the t-shirt collection. I have stacks of 'em. One option is to have them made into a quilt -->

    I've seen these and they look really cool. It's a good quilt for stashing in the car for those early morning races.

    Thanks for the posts, everyone!


  5. Race Directing is a lot of work, but the rewards are great. I had a runner from my February race e-mail me last week that he is now a dedicated trailrunner from participating in that event.

  6. This race was very well organized and thoroughly enjoyable. I agree that the wrong way signs were helpful. I wrote up my experience as well.

    I don't mind the $20 w/t-shirt (I'm going to dole them out to relatives) registration fee so long as it is a simple and painless online registration, which it was. Redwood Trails has the right level of support for your money.

  7. For a director the hard work is true


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