It’s finally time to start the race! After months of planning the route, staffing the team, and designing all of the important details, you’ve finally arrived at Race Day. In this final installment of our Race Director series, we’ll look at race day itself – everything that has to happen from the time the starting gun fires until every runner has made it back.
Designing your corral system will be important to the results of the race. If your field is bigger than about 250 people, you’ll want to use a corral system in which runners are divided into groups that each have a separate start time. This will alleviate crowding on the course and allow you to manage the day more easily.
Typically, waves go in blocks of ten minutes. If the official start time of a race is 7:00am, and you have three waves, then you’ll have corrals lined up for 7:00, 7:10, and 7:20. This is not a requirement, you can space the waves at whatever time makes the most sense for your race.
An important distinction of the corral system is that you will still only have one gun time for the official start of the race. This means that any elite runner, anyone with a chance of winning the overall male or female prize, will need to be in the first corral. The first corral starts with the sound of the starting gun, and that becomes the official start time of the race. Any records, or any course wins, need to be calculated from the gun time.
If your race is using a chip system to provide runners with individual times, then each runner will have two official times: their gun time and their chip time. The gun time will measure the total elapsed time between the starting gun and their crossing of the finish line. The chip time will measure the total elapsed time between when each runner crossed the start line and when they crossed the finish line.
How to Start
Before starting the event, you should play the national anthem of the country that you are in. This is customary in most countries and expected at most races. You do not need to repeat the anthem with every wave.
The pageantry of the starting gun is important, especially to the elite runners that are at the front of the pack. You need to have an MC that will count down the minutes until the start of the race and give a countdown of the last few seconds as well. The energy of the MC is important to the overall impression that the runners will have once the event is over.
Maintain the Energy While the Runners are Out
The MC will need to maintain the energy of the crowd that remains in the Start/Finish area once the runners are out. This can be accomplished through playing good music. You can also get reports from the course marshals about the progress of the race. Consider making announcements to the crowd such as “Our lead runners have just hit the halfway point!” or “We should see our first finishers heading back in the next 10 minutes!” These kinds of announcements will help keep the crowd of spectators and volunteers engaged and will keep the crowd warmed up and excited when the runners start returning.
Keep Eyes and Ears on the Course
As a race director, your primary responsibility is the safety of the runners. You will most likely remain in the Start/Finish area for the duration of the race, so it will be important that you have eyes and ears on the course at all times.
This can be achieved through developing a strong communication plan with all of the volunteers and staff members. If you have decent cell phone coverage in the area, you can create a text message or Whatsapp group with key members of the team, and make it clear to everyone the types of updates they need to give:
- Notifications when the first runner has passed pre-determined milestones on the course, such as every 5k distance, the midpoint or turnaround distance, or any other significant markers
- Notifications of any runners that drop out – be sure to include their bib number in the message
- Notifications of any runners that suffer injuries on the course
Maintaining this level of communication with the core team of staff and volunteers is critical to ensuring the safety of everyone. If you do not have strong cell coverage, consider using a shortwave radio system to keep your team in contact. These radios could be a good idea even with good cell coverage because communication is important, and you don’t want to get caught in a bad situation just because someone’s cell phone battery died.
Runner Returns and Course Sweeper
It is your responsibility to ensure every runner returns safely. If your race is a road race in an urban area, this is less of a concern because you’ll have public access on a relatively manageable course.
However, if your race is a trail race, or a longer distance through less-populated areas, you’ll need to devise a system to ensure that all runners return as expected. This can be especially complicated if you did registration and kit delivery in advance – you won’t know exactly how many people are out on the course because you won’t be able to account for people that collected their bibs in advance but didn’t show up on race day for whatever reason. In this scenario, especially in a trail race, you should have a check-in process on race morning even if the runners have already collected their bibs at a packet pickup or race expo. That way you will have a clear list of all the race numbers that are lined up at the start corral and can verify that everyone returns safely.
You also must have a course sweeper. The sweeper is a volunteer that intentionally finishes last, in order to make sure that no runners are left behind. Road races usually do this with a vehicle or even the medical staff’s ambulance to allow anyone struggling at the back of the pack the opportunity to catch a ride if they feel they can’t make it.
Things can happen on a course that you don’t expect. If your race is a trail marathon that runs 26.2 miles across dangerous terrain, it can easily happen that a runner decides they can’t finish and drops out of the race. In this scenario, hopefully they will make this decision at an aid station so that volunteers can communicate that the runner has dropped out.
There are two things that you must have in place as part of your planning in case any runners don’t return to the finish line. The first is the collection of contact details for each runner. You have to collect mobile numbers for every runner during the sign-up process, so that you can quickly call anyone to find out if they were a no-show, or if they left the course without making anyone aware during the race. The second item is emergency contacts for each runner. If you can’t get through to the runner, you have to be able to contact their emergency number to find out from their family if they’ve heard of any problems. It is rare that someone would disappear without warning the race directors, but you have to be ready for any scenario in case it does happen.
These situations about contact details and emergency numbers also stress how important it is that you communicate with runners about maintaining the integrity of their race numbers. People often register for races and then find out they can’t run. They try to recoup their cost by selling or giving their race bib to someone else. If that happens, obviously your contact information for the runner becomes useless. This puts multiple people at risk, including the race director. At a minimum, you have to make each runner sign a waiver that states they assume responsibility for anything happening out on the course, and that they agree not to transfer their bib to any other runners.
Celebrate Every Runner
Finally, a very important responsibility of the race team, under the leadership of the race director, is to celebrate every runner that crosses the finish line. It can be tempting to focus on energizing the crowd to cheer on the elite runners that come back first. But every runner that committed to your race, every runner that showed up that morning to achieve their goal of running a race, deserves recognition for finishing. This means that the race director has to ensure the team, the volunteers, the MC, and the crowd of spectators, are all cheering and supporting everyone that crosses the finish line.
Running is inherently an individual activity, but our love for organized races is what brings individual runners together, and that’s why we all need to celebrate each other!
Read the other parts of this series: Planning the route
and Planning the day
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