How To... Organise A Race

Straight from the race organisers' mouths - everything you need to know about staging a running event


Posted: 17 August 2007
by Catherine Lee

Round The Table

Name Andrew Taylor, Running High Events
Organises Bath Half-Marathon (since 2000)

Name Paul Magner, Trailplus
Organises Off-road events including the Saab Salomon Hellrunner series, Helly Hansen adventure races and Puma Urban Escape Trail races

Name Eric Hardwick MBE, Hastings Lions Club
Organises Hastings Half-Marathon (since 1984)

Name Mike Gratton, 2:09 Events
Organises Tens of races each year, including the Salomon South Downs Marathon, London’s Great Gorilla Run and the Jersey Challenge

After initial reactions of shock and disappointment, the cancellation of the 2007 Abingdon Marathon – a much-loved forumite fixture – triggered an avalanche of questions about just how much time and effort goes into organising races. "It can’t really be that hard, can it?" you cried.

What’s more, given the number of emails we’ve received recently from aspiring events organisers, you might be forgiven for thinking race organisation really is as simple as tying your shoelace.

Time then, to pick the brains of the bodies behind some of the UK’s most successful races and find out what really goes on behind the scenes before, during and after race-day. Of course, next time you find yourself toeing the line, don’t forget to spare a thought for these guys...

What’s the first thing I need to think about?
PM: "The first thing to understand is that there are many elements to a successful event. My approach has always been to work backwards – what do I need to do to get to a situation where the paying public say they’ve had a great experience and the event was well-organised? What do I need to do to make sure the landowners will welcome me back? What do I need to do to make sure the helpers and stewards don’t go away saying they’re never going to work for me again? Make sure you have a clear understanding of all the key ingredients and start to build the jigsaw from there."

AT: "Recognise what makes races work well. Go and help at other local events as a volunteer and try as many different aspects of this as you can. If you are a member of a local club, there will be a good knowledge base around you, and to be honest, I don’t think there’s any substitute for experience."

MG: "Choosing the right venue is crucial. It’s not always about the obvious criteria, like an interesting race route. Runners expect to be able to access the venue easily and find good car-parking facilities when they get there. That’s why many of the up-and-coming trail races are taking place in parkland just outside big cities rather in more remote rural areas."

PM: "Whatever the event, there are some basic ingredients that will influence a runner’s experience, including venue access, toilet facilities, water stations, a well-marked route and some sort of memento. For off-road events it can be challenging to find suitable facilities alongside exciting terrain but I think there is a certain tolerance and understanding among runners not to expect the same as they would for a road race."

Picking a Date

"There are two key seasons," says Mike Gratton. "From February through to the Flora London Marathon in April, and from mid-September through to November. The months of June and July are becoming increasingly popular but think about the heat if you’re going to organise anything longer than a 5 or 10K."

Tina Cullen helped her daughter organise the inaugural Inca Trail in Ilchester last February. "We used Runner’s World to find out what other races were happening in the area around the same time. By picking a relatively quiet weekend, we not only attracted a higher turnout of runners but after the race, they were urging us to stage the event again next year."

Will I need a permit?
MG: "You’ll need permission from both the local council and the police to put on a road race. Often the police will be happy to support your event if the council gives it the go-ahead. If it’s on the roads, you’re also going to need the consent of the Highways Authority. Remember to liaise with road maintenance organisations and utility suppliers too, in case there are plans to dig up the roads."

AT: "Organising your own event is not for the faint-hearted. The council will expect you to have public liability insurance cover (up to £10 million) and as a new event, you’re not going to be able to get this privately. You’ll have to go through a permitting scheme, like UK Athletics. Your local county permit secretary will be a useful source of expertise and advice in applying for this."

PM: "Even if you’re not running on roads, you’ll still need to identify all the relevant landowners – in the case of our Scottish Hellrunner, there were five different bodies involved. Make sure you allow plenty of lead time for this stage of the process as it can take weeks or months to get all the necessary permissions. And without them, you won’t be able to start marketing and promoting your event."

15,000 runners compete in the Bath Half-Marathon
How can I foster the support of the local community?
AT: "There will always be a vociferous minority, but notification and consultation are key. We spend a lot of time consulting with local residents’ groups, individual residents and business groups. Every business and residential property along the course route also needs to be given adequate notice in advance of the event. The more professional you can be in handling this, the more readily the council will support your event."

EH: "It’s all about speaking to people. I’m a firm believer in face-to-face communication. There are six churches along our course route and initially they were concerned that the race could upset their morning services. Now we work together with the churches – some congregations come out and sing hymns along the route, others have their services 30 minutes earlier so afterwards they can catch the half-marathon as it passes by. We make a big play of public awareness – advertising in the local press and on local radio, leafleting and putting up posters – to make sure people know about the race well in advance and can plan accordingly. Most importantly though, we urge them to come out and support the runners."

MG: "Roughly half the runners in any given race won’t be affiliated to a running club. The £2 levy they pay to participate goes initially to UK Athletics, but is then distributed among the local councils so there is a financial benefit for the community too. As a commercial company, we have occasionally met resistance from local running clubs, but once they realise we’re not there to encroach on their turf they’ve been very supportive."

Attracting Entries
Online
RW's online entry system is free to set up and allows runners to enter races by credit card. We store your entrants' details in a database which you can access at any time, and make a monthly batch payment into the race's bank account.

Paper forms
Make sure your forms are easy to read and eye-catching. Coloured paper is good for attracting attention. Remember that distributing entry forms can result in large wastage – you might find only one in ten forms is actually returned. Attending races and handing out forms at the finish is a good way to target runners, but check before sticking forms under car windscreen wipers as fly posting is prohibited by some district councils.

Distribute forms among libraries, local notice boards, sports shops, leisure centres and other local retailers. "Everywhere we went we took a handful of forms with us," says Tina Cullen, "and we also organised a leaflet-drop around all the residences in the village. I felt like I never wanted to see another leaflet again!"

Runner’s World magazine
"Being in the magazine and on the website meant we could target runners further afield," says Cullen. "We were advised not to expect more than 50 people at our first event, but in the end 130 runners turned up. The marketing really paid off I suppose!" Contact us to find out how you can promote your event either in the magazine or here online.
What costs do I need to include in my budget?
AT: "For a small local event, the main costs are going to be postal and printing expenses. You’ll also need a telephone system to answer people’s queries, a bank account, and some sort of entry system. You can get away with creating your own database but increasingly people are buying specialist software which allows them to easily hand information to a results team. Then you’ll need to think about race numbers, venue hire and course equipment (such as a start/finish gantry, and perhaps some pedestrian barriers). If you’re not able to use a local sports centre or school, then you will need to hire a marquee, arrange a power supply and provide suitable changing facilities. Runners like some degree of razzmatazz too so don’t forget about signage, mile markers, timing chips and a way of posting results."

PM: "I always think budgeting for a race is a bit like Christmas! Everyone knows about the main expenses, but it’s actually all the little items that really add up. Our primary overheads are paying fees to landowners. Although government organisations like the Forestry Commission are increasingly willing to open up areas for active use (particularly if it’s health- and sport-related), as commercial bodies themselves they have a good understanding of the value of their terrain. ChampionChip® timing is also costly, but runners do like to see where in the field they finish, even in more experience-based events."

AT: "Planned road closures will be a completely different kettle of fish. Submitting applications to local authorities may incur a fee, and you may even have to pay specialist firms to control the traffic for you. It’s difficult to be prescriptive as it will depend on the nature of the event you are organising. Most important is including adequate contingencies in the budget for unforeseen items, and having some cash-in-hand to get things going can be useful. You may have to pay for advertising before you’ve received a single penny from entry."

EH: "Commercial sponsorship is very important for us. When I first started, having a couple of sponsors to finance the printing of leaflets and entry forms really helped. Once I had these and had sent them out, money started to come into the race kitty and I was able to pay other expenses."

How can I gauge what size field the route can support?
PM: "I think there are two main elements to consider. One is the ability of the venue to cope with the non-running aspects of the event – for example how people will be travelling to the event, where will they park, or how close toilets can be situated to the event hub. The other is the physical nature of terrain that you’re using. For events like the Hellrunner – where we deliberately build in bogs, wetland and hills – we are governed to a degree by the natural terrain, but as soon as runners end up queuing to go up a hill or across a stream, the event becomes less pleasurable. Remember runners can tell you just as much as you can tell runners – just take a look at the RW race ratings. They are a really good feedback mechanism for race organisers and we always try to look for trends, whether they are positive or negative."

AT: "If I was starting an event from scratch, I would map out my ideas and seek advice from someone with plenty of experience, or find a race that’s similar to what I was trying to achieve and copy as much of that as I could. Most people aren’t able to judge numbers, and don’t have a clue about how crowds move. Something as simple as having signage at the wrong height could lead to problems if people start hesitating – suddenly you’ve got a bottleneck, and then you’ve got congestion. Generally, I’d recommend starting small as it’s always easier to attract more people to your event in its second year than aim big in the first year and get it wrong. Better to err on the side of safety too."

A picturesque run in Basingstoke? 2:09 prove it's possible
Will I need to rope in other people to help?
MG: "As far as the administrative side of things goes, it’s really just a question of getting everything done in time. Approach things logically – compiling lists and drawing flowcharts if you need to – and you’ll only need a small team."

PM: "Pretty much every event is reliant on having a squad of helpers on the day and this can be one of the hardest things to get in place, particularly if you’re organising an event outside of your local area. It can sometimes be easier for clubs or charities who have existing contacts in place, but our approach is to pay a fee to clubs or organisations that can offer up helpers."

AT: "Ideally, you want people with experience of road running – club runners who know what to expect and have a good knowledge base. Every year we write to local clubs, but by and large many of them prefer to run the race instead. In fact, it’s becoming quite a problem within the sport as police and local authorities are insisting more and more that marshals at events on public roads need official training and qualification. In the long term, I think it’s inevitable that some of the smaller races may be driven off the roads."

EH: "We involve lots of other organisations, for example local residents’ associations, scouting groups and St John’s Ambulance. All our volunteers work for nothing and that gives the event real heart – our helpers are delighted and proud to be doing the various jobs they do. On occasions when we’ve been short of marshals, we’ve canvassed the area knocking on doors. If you ask people directly, you’ll get a response. All the money we raise goes straight back into the community so we generally find our marshals are more than willing to help because it’s for a good cause."

Permission to stage the Hastings Half-Marathon took two years to obtain
What if something goes wrong on race day?
MG: "You have to have a contingency plan, and be able to think on your feet. There’s nearly always a way round minor hiccups – even if it means diverting the route, cutting the race short or delaying the start time. Be sure to liaise with the emergency services if necessary – they’ll be able to give you a clear idea of whether you should persevere in going ahead with the event."

PM: "Sometimes you have to accept that no matter what plans you put in place, nature will take its course. I think the key thing to do when there is a problem is share the issues with your runners. They’ve paid their fee so they might get frustrated, but being open and honest with them is far better than keeping them in the dark. Be prepared to make tough decisions."

AT: "One of the biggest problems for the race organiser is that on the day you don’t actually see much of what’s going on. You do need to be thinking about where problems are likely to occur and make sure you have back-up procedures in place. In events management, anything that can go wrong will go wrong so you have to expect the unexpected. Communication is vital. If something goes wrong, first and foremost resolve it – you can deal with whose fault it was later in a debriefing session. The most important thing is that you are able to react quickly under stress."

PM: "Don’t assume other people know what you know unless you tell them. As the race organiser, your role isn’t to stuff goody bags or put up barriers – you need to delegate the operational responsibilities, and then identify key points of contact to make sure each aspect of the event is running smoothly."

The Hellrunner series ticks all the right boxes
What happens next?
AT: "It’s critical that you monitor and review what you’ve done. Record what you’re doing during the run-up to the event, monitor things on the day and then hold a de-briefing session – or several sessions with different groups of stakeholders – afterwards."

PM: "Here at Trailplus we have a core team who document everything that did and didn’t work for each event. As well as being useful for us, official documentation is often expected by our sponsors. Obviously we take on formal feedback from landowners and members of the public too – it goes without saying that it gets easier over subsequent years to build the event if you earn goodwill by behaving responsibly and showing respect for the areas. We also eavesdrop on the RW forums – this allows us to get objective feedback in addition to our internal, subjective feedback."

EH: "You’ve always got to think about going forward and try to be innovative. We were the first to introduce prize money for half-marathons in 1988 and the first to introduce electronic chip timing, and we’re currently the only event that still operates a free crèche on race-day. Every year, people joke about me putting my feet up after the race but don’t believe it. You’ve always got to be planning ahead and preparing new ideas for next year. You mustn’t sit back and say that’s it."

Where else can I go for information?

The Good Practice Safety Guide for small and sporting events taking place on the highway, roads and public places (2006) is published by the Home Office, in consultation with the police, UK Athletics, British Cycling, UK Sport, Cycling Time Trials and the British Triathlon Association. Although not prescriptive, it offers useful guidance in key areas of events management and includes specific sections on charity walks, road races and triathlon events.

The British Association of Road Races (BARR) is a non-profit organisation that "fosters and promotes safe and well-organised road running in the United Kingdom." Open to any road or multi-terrain event organiser, members have access to useful articles and documents, quarterly newsletters and invaluable advice from other race organisers.

UK Athletics also established the Road Running Leadership Group earlier this year, bringing together key individuals tasked with providing more effective support and leadership for race organisers. News and progress reports regarding the work of this group is regularly published on the UK Athletics website.

Have you got a question about how races are organised? Or maybe you’d like some advice about taking your event to the next level? Then drop us an email and we’ll endeavour to bring you the answers in a follow-up article.


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Discuss this article

Thanks to RW for providing the article, and to these race organisers for coming clean on how they manage to put on such good races. It's hard work, but it's worth it - thanks guys. (Are there any female race organisers?)

I wonder if anyone is brave enough to publish the obvious twin article, 'How not to organise a race'? Perhaps we could ask the organisers of those races which were ranked lowest on the RW list of top races in 2006....
Posted: 09/10/2007 at 11:22

Er....this thread relates to the RW article on 'How to organise a race' at

http://www.runnersworld.co.uk/news/article.asp?UAN=3033&v=2&sp=

Posted: 09/10/2007 at 11:23

Experience from Sunday:

  • make sure the person on the megaphone at the start knows: distance of the race and,  how many times you need to run round the track at the beginning.
  • if there is a variety of stuff for a 'goody bag' at least have it all in the same place to avoid your clubmate going "Didn't you get a mug? Oh, are there bananas?".....
  • do marshall that point just up the road where a lot of to-ing and fro-ing of cars across the pavement is happening - they may be picking up little darlin' from tennis training but they don't give a to55 if they run over a 'jogger' at the same time.

Posted: 09/10/2007 at 13:03

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