This was my first year as the Race Director for the Vermont 100 Endurance Race (VT100). I have directed events before, but nothing this large. Throughout my career I have participated in races this large before, but there is a huge difference in the work load of a runner or crew member compared to that of the Race Director. I knew from the beginning this was going to be an engaging adventure with a huge learning curve. There were many new challenges to running the event but not running in the race.
From my experience I have gathered the Top 10 nuggets of knowledge to pass along to other first time Race Directors.
- Surround yourself with allies. Those who can help distribute the work load, complement your weaknesses, and take on some of the large responsibilities.
One of the best pieces of advice I got when I took on the Race Director position was to get a few lieutenants who I trusted completely. They would manage volunteer coordinating, sponsorship/vendor coordinating, and course management.
The VT100 had an amazing race committee to help me out in addition to my lieutenants. The committee was made up completely of volunteers, and while most of them do not run ultras, they are the backbone of the community. They are folks who are passionate about the VT100. Many of them are also long-time volunteers for Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports; the organization the VT100 benefits. The shared knowledge and experience of the committee helped tremendously – they would share history of previous races with me to help avoid the mistakes which were made in previous years. The months leading up to the race I was incredibly nervous, knowing the race committee was by my side gave me a sense of calm. They worked tirelessly to make the race as organized and stress free as possible, all while helping implement my vision.
- Reach out to other Race Directors and pick their brains.
Other Race Directors are the greatest resource available to anyone new to the role. The guidance from numerous Race Directors helped me gain the experience I needed without having already held this position. They gave me sage advice while passing along industry contacts. The previous VT100 remained involved; answering every question I had, no matter how stupid or minor the detail was. The VT50 Race Director volunteered on the race committee and helped coach me through numerous items to keep me on point and focused when my dreams might have been a little big at times. The insight from so many experienced race directors was a huge asset to the success of the VT100.
- Hang out at the finish line and watch the finishers as much as possible.
I have been at many different finish lines over the years and it’s always a joyful experience watched the participants cross the finish line. Watching the finish of the VT100 this year; from the first runner to the last and experiencing the joy of the runners finishing 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 was what truly touched me and made all the 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 watching the few 28-hour runners who were utterly shocked that they actually made it. No matter how challenging the race permitting process can be, or how frustrating or tedious different aspects of the organizing process is, seeing the fruits of your labor is the ultimate reward.
- Realize that when the race is over for everyone else, you’re only half done.
One of the biggest surprises to me was the amount of post-race work there is to be done. I knew there would be some close-out work, but it was overwhelming how much there was to actually get done and the amount of time it took. Little projects add up to a ton of time – finalizing results to post splits and meet UTMB result certification requirements, answering the large volume of post-race emails, thanking sponsors and volunteers, sending out checks to vendors, packing up and mailing out prizes, and returning lost-and-found stuff to runners. I spent 2-4 hours a night for 3 weeks following the race to close it all out.
Communication is essential and critical to a Race Director’s success. Even when it seems like communication has reached everyone, there is inevitably a laps somewhere in the chain of command. There could be someone missing from a meeting who needed the info shared with them. Or perhaps your communication isn’t as clear as you thought. Communicate, communicate, communicate!
We learned the hard way where in a few instances there was a small blip in communication which came back to haunt us during the VT100. One instance involved a minor adjustment (moving an aid station) and was discussed at numerous committee meetings, but it did not make it to the final link in the chain of command. Unfortunately, a single volunteer was not 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 which was impassible for vehicles – so the radio staff couldn’t access the station. It made for some tricky (and less than ideal) logistics at the aid station. The radio operator was located 100 yards away and had to be fed information by a volunteer who would bring updates. This could have been avoided with a bit better communication on my part.
- 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 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. 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 the VT100, but hopefully ones which made things a little better for everyone who was involved. 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.
One of the more controversial changes was the redesign of the VT100 logo and belt buckle. This was a change that I take personal responsibility for. As a runner, I wanted a belt buckle that fits a standard belt and was deserving of a representation of someone’s amazing accomplishment to finish a 100 mile race in less than 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 decision; I am a big fan of functional awards.
- Learn to be mean and have thick skin.
One of the toughest things for me was to learn to be mean. In a decision making role you have to have some thick skin. It is hard for me to say ‘no’, 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.
One of the most challenging parts of being the Race Director was taking negative feedback about the race. I put a lot of time and energy into the race, as did my race committee. We all did our best to put what we believed to be the best race we could create. On the flip side, I was grateful for folks who were willing to give respectful and constructive ideas – Race Director’s and their committee are always open to new ideas, and they are much easier to process and consider when they aren’t addressed in a negative tone. It’s challenging when you put so much of yourself into something. Thick skin is very important when you are in a decision making role, it is impossible to make everyone happy.
- Expect the unexpected.
No matter how well you plan, something will not work as planned. Being able to think on the fly and being able to adjust quickly are very important. We had quite a few race day challenges to overcome. There was an un-mowed field on the afternoon of the race which was the purposed 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 the 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.
- Keep the pre-race meeting short!
Taking off my Race Director hat and putting on my racing flats; one of the simplest things you can do is keep the pre-race speeches 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 short and concise before runners tune out. A pre-race meeting is an important tool to go over any pertinent information one last time and it is your only opportunity to speak to the masses. I just urge folks to keep it short!
- Keep good notes – you’ll have to do it all again soon!
Being an Race Director 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!
Special Thanks to:
Kristin and Meghan who I brought on as first-time volunteer coordinators
Ron who stepped up as sponsorship coordinator
Zeke who has been on the committee for years and knows the course better than anyone!
Julia the previous Vermont 100 Race Director
Mike the Vermont 50 Race Director
Clark Zealand (Mountain Masochist/Grindstone Race Director ), Kevin Sayers (Massanutten 100 Race Director) and Rich White (Cascade Crest 100 Race Director) each took significant time to chat with me, offer advice, answer my long (sometimes annoying) emails, and pass along useful info and documents.