The Business Side of Road Racing

By Michael Madison – October 25, 2012

October kicks off the busiest period of the year for local race directors, most logging incredibly long hours for the next six months. It’s a dynamic, demanding job of building and maintaining a website, marketing, managing volunteers, assuaging neighborhood associations, planning a course, and navigating through the tepid waters of city permitting. Outside Magazine recently named the role as one of their “Best Jobs in America,” but don’t be fooled by their moniker of “Live the Dream” and think of smooth sailing—it’s extremely hard work!

Over the years, I have had my hand in a number of events all across the Austin metro area. In each case, I try to inflect a “runner’s perspective” on the overall look and feel. Whether it’s little things, like starting on time and having a properly measured course, to bigger concepts, such as the general atmosphere, everything is about meeting the desires of likeminded runners. One can achieve this in two ways: A) stepping back and reviewing every step with the mindset of a participant; and B) bringing in volunteers to provide perspective and other ideas.

My experience over five years of producing events is that nothing would be possible without a strong team of volunteers. If you have a great cause, people are willing to help. The job cannot be done as a one-man show nor should anyone try. At Run for the Water this year, the Gazelle Foundation will have more than 200 volunteers on race day manning water stops, handing out race bibs, assisting with a Kids Run, and a myriad of other roles. That doesn’t count the months of advance meetings and efforts by so many to gather sponsorships, run promotions, create marketing material, and tirelessly post social media efforts to drum up support.

Our town hasn’t made it easy—or cost efficient—for the majority of events to take place on the streets, which is why more and more are moving to Camp Mabry or outside of Austin city limits. To receive approval, Austin requires an event to have police, barricades at intersections, cones spaced no more than five feet apart, insurance, medical personnel, and cash for their ever-increasing permitting fees. Throw in the average costs of t-shirts, chip timing, and a couple banners, and one can expect to spend around $10,000 per mile.

Unfortunately, these expenses have never been communicated to the general public, which continues to grow weary of escalating entry costs. Nobody knows the cop you wave and thank for giving up his or her Sunday morning is actually billing the event $84 per hour. Have four officers? That requires a captain who costs almost $100 per hour. In addition, city Right-of-Way mandates barricades be set up at each intersection, meaning a run crossing South First and Cesar Chavez could be paying for three officers, cones, barricades, and signs diverting incoming traffic. Despite continued pleas to city management, trained volunteers or private security companies cannot perform a single one of those roles.

While you’re out at an event over the coming months, stop and take a few moments to look around and consider what it took to make everything happen. There’s so much that goes into race day that typically gets overlooked.

If enough porta-potties aren’t available, participants will be sure to let the race director know! The food, water, t-shirts, bib numbers, chip timing tags, parking, sponsor area setup, start line, announcer, music, banners, directional signs and clothing drop were all carefully calculated well in advance of the participants’ arrival. Volunteers directing traffic and handing out t-shirts aren’t there to get paid and most likely arrived before you did and will stay well after you leave.

The adventure, obstacle, and trail races can be even more time consuming. At the Austin 10K Plus held around the Dell Diamond, our crew starts building rope walls, Marine hurdles, and numerous other obstacles two days before the event. Volunteers work overnight to ensure everything is ready, including placing small flags every ten yards for all 6.2 miles!

With each job come challenges, and being a Race Director is no exception. The hardest part for many, however, is not getting the opportunity to participate in the event. Instead, the joy comes from producing a memorable run for all of the registrants as well as raising money for any associated charitable cause. And after it’s over, going to sleep at 4 p.m. and not awaking until the next morning is heavenly!


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