Saturday, September 19, 2015

Running the race, but not running the race.

This year was my first year as Race Director for the Vermont 100 Endurance Race.  Now, I have RDed events before, but nothing this large.  I've participated in races this large before, but the work load of a runner or crew is completely different than that of an organizer.  I was certainly engaging in a huge adventure with a huge learning curve.  I knew it would be interesting to be running (organizing) the race but not running (competing in) the race.

If I had to list out the top 10 nuggets of knowledge to pass along to other new RDs, here they are:

1. Surround yourself with allies who can help distribute the work load, can compliment your weaknesses, and take on some of the large responsibilities.

Fortunately, at the VT100, I had an amazing race committee to help me out.  The committee is entirely volunteer based, and incredibly they are mostly non-ultra runners.  They are folks who are passionate about the Vermont 100 (and many of them double-up and are also on the Vermont 50 race committee), many of them are also long-time volunteers for Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports which is the organization the VT100 benefits.  I benefitted greatly from the knowledge that so many of the committee had - they could share some of the race history with me, to help me from making mistakes that they had already made.  Phew!  In the months leading up to the race I was incredibly nervous, but felt a sense of calm knowing that the race committee would not let the race fail...they worked incredibly hard to make the race the best they could, and make me look like I was in control!

(Volunteer Coordinators Meghan and Kristin with VT50 RD Mike)

One of the best pieces of advice that I got when I took on the RD position was to get a few lieutenants that you trust completely to do volunteer coordinating, sponsorship/vendor coordinating, and course management.  So, in addition to an amazing race committee that helped me along the way, I had faithful lieutenants in my two training buddies Kristin and Meghan (who I brought on as first-time volunteer coordinators), Ron (who stepped up as sponsorship coordinator) and Zeke (who has been on the committee for years and knows the course better than anyone!).

(Changing of the guard - with the VT100 Horse Race RD, Jenny, and previous VT100 RD Julia)

2. Reach out to other Race Directors and pick their brains.

Other Race Directors are the greatest resource available to any new RD.  I greatly benefitted from the mentorship of numerous amazing Race Directors.  They helped me with sage advice, passing along industry contacts, and encouragement along the way.  Julia (the previous Vermont 100 RD) remained involved in helping me out with whatever questions I had, no matter how stupid or minor the detail was.  Mike (the VT50 RD) was on the race committee and helped coach me through numerous items to keep me on point and focused when I might want to dream a little big at times.  Clark Zealand (Mountain Masochist/Grindstone RD), Kevin Sayers (Massanutten 100 RD) and Rich White (Cascade Crest 100 RD) each took significant time to chat with me, offer advice, answer my long (sometimes annoying) emails, and pass along useful info and documents.  I greatly benefited by the insight from so many strong race directors, and am grateful that they all took the time to mentor me.

(Kevin Sayers, MMT100 RD, offering me advice within minutes of finishing his race)

3. Hang out at the finish line and watch the finishers as much as possible.

I have been at numerous finish lines and watched folks finish over the years, and it's always a joyful experience.  Standing at the finish of the VT100 this year, from the first runner to the last, and watching the runners finish, was inspiring.  Having worked so hard to organize the race, the moments of joy as runners finished and hugged their pacers, crew, family and friends, these were the moments that truly touched me and made all my hard work truly worth it.  It brought a tear to my eye to watch the last runner as he worked his way up to a run just before he passed under the finish line, or to watch a few of the 28-hour runners who were utterly shocked that they actually made it.  No matter how challenging the race permitting can be, or how frustrating or tedious different aspects of the organizing process is, seeing the fruits of your labor is the best payback.

(Being greeted by Rich White at the finish line of Cascade Crest 100)

4. Realize that when the race is over for everyone else, you're only half done.

One of the biggest surprises to me was how much post-race work there is to be done.  I knew there would be some close-out work, but was overwhelmed by how much there was and how much time it took.  Little projects added up to a ton of time - finalizing results to post splits and to meet UTMB results certification requirements, answering the large volume of post-race emails, thanking sponsors and volunteers (and numerous other folks), sending out checks to vendors, packing up and mailing out prizes and lost-and-found stuff to runners (after sorting out the left-behind drop bags and washing all the clothing in there).  Honestly, I spent 2-4 hours a night for the 3 weeks following the race to close it all out - and towards the end I was rushing to get everything done before I left for Leadville 100.

5. Communicate!!!

Communication is key, and is central to an RD's success.  And even when you think you're communicating well, there is inevitably someone forgotten on a correspondence (or missing from a meeting) that needed the info shared, or perhaps your communication isn't as clear as you thought.  Communicate, communicate, communicate.

There were a few instances where a small blip in communication bit my right in the butt!  For example, I had an instance where a minor adjustment (moving an aid station) was discussed at numerous committee meetings and I though was communicated with everyone.  Unfortunately, my ham radio guy wasn't at the meetings and had no idea about the move - so it wasn't communicated with the radio staff.  The aid station was only moved about 100 yards away from the previous location, but it was down a road that was impassible to vehicles - so the radio staff couldn't access the station.  It made for some tricky (and less than ideal) logistics at the aid station, as the radio operator was located 100 yards away and had to be fed information by a volunteer who would run back and forth with updates.  The radio staff was completely alone for the 12-hours that he volunteered, he never even saw a runner!  This could have been avoided with a bit better communication on my part.

One major miscommunication on my part was the failure to communicate with the runners what the special awards would be (i.e. awards for top runners).  That failure to communicate lead to many post-race comments and criticisms.  For as long as I've been involved with the VT100, they gave out a special 'top 10' buckle to the top 10 overall.  I had long advocated with the previous RD that recognizing only the top 10 wasn't fair, since it was typically 8 to 10 guys and anywhere from 0 to 2 ladies would sneak into the top 10.  I personally finished 2nd place female at VT100 one year (and only 2 minutes behind the winner), only to get the same buckle and recognition as someone who finished in 23:59 - yet the 10th place male that year got a special 'top 10' buckle. 

(Congratulating John Geesler, 23 time finisher of the VT100)
Last year, Julia implemented a 'top 10' buckle for the top 10 men, and 'top 5' buckle for the top 5 ladies, since historically there are twice as many men and women in the race and typically the 5th female is about the same time behind the female champ as the 10th male behind the male champ.  This year, I handed out nice Patagonia jackets to the top 10 men and top 5 females, yet I received a huge backlash of angry comments post-race.  This year, for the record, less than 21% of the race field was women, however, the decision was made and awards were ordered in advance of knowing the final numbers.  While I understand that gender equality is a highly controversial topic, I don't know if there is a right or wrong model for me to have followed (i.e. if I handed out the same number of 'top finisher' jackets to both genders or if I handed them out equal to the ratio of starters by gender) - so we decided to hand out awards based on the historical ratio of genders.  I do think my best bet would have been to have communicated everything ahead of time, either way, so folks wouldn't be as upset post-race.

6. Don't be afraid of change.

The VT100 had 26 successful races before I took on the leadership role - it has a strong history and strong identity.  One of my biggest goals was to maintain the integrity of the event - I didn't want to fundamentally change what makes VT100 so special.  However, I think it is important to constantly grow and evolve with the times.  So, one of my biggest challenges was how to balance the tradition of the race with some new ideas.

I worked with the race committee to make a few minor tweaks to the event - nothing that really changes the feel of Vermont, but that hopefully made things a little better for the runners, or for the volunteers, or the event in general.  One change implemented was getting running clubs to adopt aid stations along the way - and this appeared to be a huge hit!  It got many of the running clubs in New England involved in the event and gave each aid station a distinct feel - from the Shinipsit Striders' Breakfast Club aid station, to TARC's 'everything maple' feast, and Trail Animal's country ho-down, they all added to the classic VT100 aid stations such as Margaritaville or Spirit of '76.

One more controversial change was to redesign the VT100 logo and belt buckle.  This was a change that I take personal responsibility for, but as a runner, I wanted a belt buckle that fits a standard belt and was deserving as a representation of someone's amazing accomplishment to finish a 100 mile race in under 24 hours.  I also updated the 100 mile over 24 hour finisher and 100km finisher prizes from a plaque to an etched slate coaster.  Again, this was my call, but I am a big fan of functional awards (i.e. something you can use rather than something you put on your way).  I also wanted to reduce the post-race work, and the plaques each had a personalized plate with name, finish time, and place on it, that would get mailed out - to me, this was just adding more work to my already full list of things to do. 

(With Joe Laskey, showing off his newly redesigned Vermont 1000 buckle)

7. Learn to be mean and have thick skin.

One of the toughest things for me was to learn to be mean, and to have some thick skin about it.  It is hard for me to say 'no', and yet I found myself having to say it more than I would have liked.  For example, it was hard to listen to several personal stories about why folks didn't register in time and not immediately let them in - but if I had done that, it would have been unfair to folks patiently sitting on the wait list and could have been overwhelming to the race support staff. 

I found it more challenging to take negative feedback about the race.  I put a lot of time and energy into the race, as did my race committee, and negative feedback is hard to hear.  We all did our best to put what we believe to be the best race we can.  (On the flip side, I was grateful for folks who were willing to give respectful and constructive ideas - we are open to new ideas, and they are easier to process and consider when they aren't addressed in an angry way).

A few days after the race, after I finally got some sleep, I rushed to read the comments from the first few people who completed the post-race survey.  That was a huge mistake.  While there was positive and negative feedback, I only really processed the negative feedback, and felt like I hadn't done anything right.  I nearly cried (granted, I was still tired and raw from the race, and my house was in complete chaos) as folks seemed to bash every decision I made and criticize things I thought went well.  I guess I need to grow thicker skin, so I can view these comments as a way to continue to improve, but it's challenging when you put so much of yourself into something.

(Greeting a finisher at the VT100)
8. Expect the unexpected.

No matter how well you plan, things go awry.  I had to think on the fly and be able to quickly adjust, all while outwardly appearing calm to everyone involved.  We had quite a few Friday afternoon challenges to overcome - and I hope that none of the runners realized the moments of panic!  We found an unmowed field on Friday afternoon that was supposed to be parking for a horse hold (horse race equivalent to a crew station), so we quickly had to swap the runner and horse aid stations in that area to accommodate both locations.  We also learned last-minute that someone was logging on a section of trail, affecting the final mile of the course.  We were able to adjust the trail elsewhere to make up the missed mileage, but it meant that a few of the aid station signs (which were made weeks earlier) were off by a few tenths of a mile.  (This lead to one runner trying to disqualify himself at the finish line because he 'had obviously missed part of the course, his GPS watch read 99.5 miles', and his watch said he had only run 2.5 miles from the last aid station.)

(Discussing last minute trail changes with VT100 Trail Guru, Zeke)
Even more humorous was someone finding a dead rotting deer at a trail head on the side of the road, directly on the course.  We found this after local highway crews had gone home for the day on Friday, and runners would be past this in the wee hours of the morning Saturday.  We worked with local highway folks to get permission to move the deer ourselves - and the race committee members went above and beyond the call to get this disaster resolved.  There was no way to pre-plan for something like this!

9. Keep the pre-race meeting short!

Taking off my RD hat and putting on my racing flats, one of the simplest things RDs can do is keep the pre-race meeting short.  Let's be honest, as a runner about to embark on an epic adventure, our attention span is not the greatest - so it's important to keep things on point and quick before runners tune out.  A pre-race meeting is an important tool to go over any pertinent information one last time, it is your only opportunity to speak to the masses.  I just urge folks to keep it short!

(Addressing the runners, crews, and pacers at the pre-race meeting)

10. Keep good notes - you'll have to do it all again soon!

RDing is cyclical - you go through the same stuff over and over again.  Keep good notes, they will help you as you start over again for the next year's event.

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