Race Directing 101

Every October Race Director Don Kern stands at the finish line of the Grand Rapids Marathon and shakes hand with every runner coming across the finish line of his race. Don puts on the best race I have ever participated in and he makes it look easy. I credit him in part for me staying in the sport for more than a decade as a participant, volunteer and now quite possibly as a race director.


Yep, I am considering my own race. What better way to get the entire race experience then to be at its heart as the race director. And how tough can race directing be? I am a marketing guy so I can take care of the promotional end no problem. The rest is easy – you pick a course and invite people out for a run. But I thought before I start sending out the invites maybe I better talk to someone who has done this a few times.

I called Ryan Griessmeyer of Race Day Events just down the street from me in Fitchburg, Wis. Ryan launched Race Day Events 10 years ago. His team produces more than 30 of its own races and provides equipment and services for many more events nationwide. They have helped everyone from charities planning a first event to races that have been around for 20 years.

I had run plenty of races so I was sure I had this RD thing down, but I thought it wouldn’t hurt to hear what Ryan had to say so I asked him to take me through Race Directing 101. He said the good news was that I already completed the first step and had a race location picked out (See, I am already ahead of the game.). I told him that it will be a trail run and I am considering two spots, one on the west side of Dane County and the other on the east side.

Ryan said the trail marathon I am considering may be tougher than average for turnout but there isn’t a lot of these races around so there would likely be a demand. The Kettle 100Ice Age Trail 50North Face Endurance Challenge Wisconsin and Dances With Dirt Devil's Lake are trail runs with marathon and ultra marathon options, they are somewhat close to Madison and by the way they are all great races, but none of them can call the Madison area home. My race, depending on time of year and location, he said could bring in between 300 to 500 runners, considering that I have properly prepared.

When Should I Start Planning?

Ryan told me that race distance factors into how much preparation time is needed. “With a marathon you’re going to need a lot more planning than with a 5K, which you can put together quickly.” The difference in prep time has to do with scope: A 5K may have one or two aid stations where a marathon, depending on the setup could have 10 or more. More aid stations mean more volunteers and if there are streets involved police assistance may be needed for traffic control.

Ryan says you should start planning your event six months out at a minimum. More than six months is better but he says that if I were to buckle down now in December and do the work needed to prepare, a June race could be realistic.

Race promotional lead-time can also differ depending on the race type. A typical marathon training program is 18 weeks so when people are looking for a race you better have your race visibility up online, in print and wherever else you plan to promote it so people can find it and register before they start that training schedule.

Timing’s Important

Timing is important in racing, and by timing I mean whether it will be a timed race and if so how do you handle timing. This includes deciding what equipment you will need. I didn’t get into the details on this with Ryan but as with preparation lead-time this will depend on the type of race. I know that my race will be timed so I need to have timing chips and chip readers. Beyond the timing equipment I'll need spray paint and/or flags to mark the course, signage not to mention bibs, pins, water, nutrition and a slew of other need-to-haves. I guess this whole RD thing isn’t as easy as I thought, and that’s why a checklist is a necessity. I won’t burden you with details of everything that needs to be on the checklist but if you’re interested here’s a great guide for creating a race director's checklist.

Get Permissions

So I have a place and I know my course. What next? Ryan says to get your permissions early. Start with the municipality where the race will be held and the local police. If you are planning to cross private land you will of course need to get permission from landowners. What permissions are needed will differ depending on what type of race it is. If I were doing a street race it would likely have more permit requirements from the city where it is held than a trail race that rarely if ever uses roads. Ryan says course layout is an important consideration with street races because the more intersection crossings your course has the more controls you will need with police. Use right-hand turns whenever possible to reduce intersection crossing and use sidewalks in lieu of streets when you have the choice. Even in an urban setting you can often keep the course off streets by using city park trails. 


Ryan admits that the toughest part of the job is reaching organizations and clubs to recruit volunteers, and if I am going to have a marathon I’m going to need plenty of help. When Race Day Events was starting out, Ryan said they would offer free entry to other races in exchange for volunteering at his races. Reaching out to schools, organizations and groups is the best way he said to find volunteers, especially for larger events.

Medical support

I DNF’d a 100 mile race last June. I limped into the aid station and sat down with a wounded knee knowing I was out. I hobbled my way to the food tent to ask where I could find a medic and was told that there were no medics. I thought this odd and so did Ryan when I told him about it. Ryan stresses the need for medical support and said to reach out to the EMS in the area where you will have the race. Typically, small communities will volunteer. Otherwise it’s a small fee and an important investment for a good race.

Shirts and Swag

Predicting orders for shirts, medals and swag can be tough. Too few and you have angry, shirtless runners. Too many and you are stuck with a garage full of extra shirts. While there is no perfect equation to determine an optimal shirt count, Ryan says the best way is to take whatever your registration is and add 30% more for last second registrations. Then plan on 8 to 10% not showing up and you have a decent number.

Race Day

It’s the critical hours before the race where directors need to be ahead of the racers and prepared for the day. Ryan says allowing enough time the morning of race day is important.  “You think, if I get there at 6:00 and the race starts at 9:00 I have plenty of time but you have to remember that people are showing up at 7:30 so you really have to have your stuff ready by 7:30.”

And there will always be the unknowns. I’ve heard of races where the crew goes out the night before the race and marks the course with flags and paint, but somehow in those few hours between then and the start of the race some of those lines and flags disappear. So beyond being ahead of your runners it's important to be proactive and ready to fix an issue when something goes wrong.

What makes a great race?

This was my big question for Ryan because I have been to some bad races and I do not want to be “that race.” The first and most important thing he said was a positive participant experience. Make sure the course is marked well and the volunteers are out there cheering racers on. Making sure that they have something at the finish line is also essential. “It doesn’t have to be a medal or anything like that. If you can get a water in their hand and a snack and they say, ’wow that was fun.’”

Return on Investment

If you talk to most RDs they will tell you they’re in it for the love of the sport and the people. That’s not to say that there isn’t a monetary reward but if that is the only reason you want to be an RD you might want to rethink your decision. “You get what you put into it,” said Ryan. “If you expect to throw a race together and put a date out there, get the permits and go through the steps it’s probably a break even. If you do your due diligence, talk about it, get good marketing out there, spend some time putting it on calendars, you can do quite well.”

A break even on the first year, he says is expected. The second and third year the effort and cost get cut in half. There are still fixed costs with police, permit fees and all that, but the time and planning commitment decreases.

The Takeaway

So being a RD is not as easy as I first thought, but I think deep down I knew that. Like anything worthwhile you need to be passionate to be successful. Good thing for me running is a passion.