The Race Organizers' Ten Commandments – Rant

Apr 18 2006

I. Thy race documentation shalt be as concise, clear, and accurate as possible.
II. There shalt be separate pre-registered and day-of registration areas.
III. Thou shalt not organize thy race check-in by field.
IV. Thou shalt not distribute thy race numbers without regard to field.
V. Thy registration areas shalt be clearly delineated.
VI. There shalt be toilets in proportion to field size.
VII. There shalt be signage to all Critical Areas, and for all Critical Events.
VIII. Thou shalt not distribute swag on the honor system.
IX. Thou shalt have separate start times listed for each field.
X. Thou shalt start thy races on time.

I. Thy race documentation shalt be as concise, clear, and accurate as possible.

All too often, organizers seem to draw up flyers because they “feel like the race needs one”. Look at this example: no start location (perhaps we are intended to infer it from packet pickup?), no directions, packet pickup times that extend past the alleged race starts, two separate fields listed as being simultaneously run when they are not, resulting in needless additional footnotes, and the gearing and course description are not (in my opinion) what you would call “accurate”.

Similar issues plague this event’s webpage: information is spawled out down the page, requiring massive amounts of scrolling, the mish-mash of fonts, sizes and styles used makes it difficult to pick links out from text, the field information for online registration directly contradicts what’s posted on the flyer, directions are generic from MapQuest, and to top it all off, there’s a t-shirt ad stuck right into the middle of it. The course map and profile are the least deficient documents, with the map merely being cluttered, and the listed distance on the profile of 55.82mi being inaccurate (it’s just under 55).

A course flyer should be all the information you need for a given race site on a single page (or a general information page plus one page/event for weekends/stage races); that means no “see webpage” instructions, no “ask a friend who did it last year”. Pretend you’re going to compete in a grueling athletic endeavor in an area that’s completely foreign to you. What would you want to know?

My requirements would be a short, accurate course description, hand-made, local-knowledge directions, written simply enough enough to be followed while driving, along with clearly stated start times and locations. The information would be presented in an easy-to-read, logical fashion to minimize footnotes, and designed to be printed (.pdf is best, .doc is ok; webpages usually print poorly). Some style is acceptable as an afterthought. This year’s Beanpot flyer is a decent example (if a bit crowded).

II. There shalt be separate pre-registered and day-of registration areas.

This one’s a no-brainer. Pre-reg check-in requires showing a license and signing a release. In, out, and done with. That, not the five-dollar late registration penalty, is why people pre-reg. Day-of requires filling out at least one form, usually a couple. The difference in speed between these two lines is so astronomical that they should never come anywhere near each other. Don’t gripe to me about field limits – you’ll know when pre-reg ends how many spaces you have left. And if you can’t manage to have at least two different volunteers on registration, you might want to think twice about holding a race.

III. Thou shalt not organize thy race check-in by field.

This one really ticks me off, especially after three years of racing Cat 4. The objective of every registration table should be to minimize lines by getting the most people in and out in the shortest amount of time. When you register by field, you all but guarantee that certain lines will swell up, twist, and fatten, creating mobs that confuse the people in tinier fields, making them think they, too, have to wait in line. Additionally, since all members of a given field start racing at the same time, they have a tendency to arrive on site at the same time, too.

Best bet for check-in is ALWAYS alphabetical. Take all your pre-reg entries, put them into a spreadsheet (which they should be in already) and divide them into even sections based on the number of volunteers you have. This all but guarantees each line will be of equal and minimal size at any given time. It means a bit more work the night before, because you’ll have to staple numbers the registration forms by field (see Commandment IV), then re-sort them into alphabetical order. But this busywork will pay off in spades the next morning, for racers and volunteers alike.

IV. Thou shalt not distribute thy race numbers without regard to field.

Just a small touch here – since field sizes are generally under 100, distribute numbers (or dossards or bibs or whatever you want to call them) based on field. Example: Pro/1/2 Women get bibs 1-99, Pro/1/2 Men get bibs 100-199, etc, etc. This way, organizers can tell immediately which field a given racer is in, and thus know whether they’re off the front, off the back, drafting illegally in another field, or just plain lost. It also lets dropped racers know who they can and can’t work with, without the awkward “what field are you in” banter. You’ll inevitably end up wasting a few numbers in this process, but, you know, eggs::omelet. Most race organizers already function along these lines, and kudos to them.

V. Thy registration areas shalt be clearly delineated.

99.9% of infuriating registrations are a result of violating this rule. Not to whip skin from a horse carcass, but last weekend’s Battenkill-Roubaix furnished another great example of what not to do: they had a small registration tent, used only one side of it, and then hung signs for each line off a 3-foot-high registration table. 3-foot-high signs? What is this? A registration center for ants? Needless to say, for anyone who arrived after 8am, it was a long and laborious wait for 15 seconds of registering.

If you’re expecting six fields of 50-100 riders, you need to plan for it. My advice is to post signs at 6 feet or higher, and they must be BIG, to been seen over the crowd. The top of the tent seems an ideal location to mount (not hang) a very large (posterboard) sign for each registration group. Imagine you’re designing an interstate highway – use posts and rope to create definite “lanes” for each registration group. Too expensive? Use a roll of duct tape to form lanes on the pavement, and put up signs on folding chairs or “Wet Floor” signs at regular intervals. You can borrow some of those, right? To keep everything flowing smoothly, find an extra volunteer to stand toward the end of the lanes and direct people where to go.

Also, if possible, don’t just form one long registration plane for everyone. Align tables at right angles to each other to further separate registration lines. If you’ve got a tent, don’t just register off of one side; use three, keeping the fourth clear so officials and volunteers can come and go. Avoiding racer commingling is critical to an efficient registration process. In this vein, be sure also to to place registration far enough from restrooms and building exits to avoid any cross-traffic.

VI. There shalt be toilets in proportion to field size.

Can’t stress this one enough, people: if you can’t supply ample facilities, and keep them clean and in good working order, you can’t put on a race. Assume each of your racers will visit the toilet at least once before your event, and expect that they’ll need 5 minutes to do so. 1 toilet per 20-25 competitors should do the trick, though it depends largely on how widely spaced the start times are. Also, to speed the traffic through sanitary facilities, post patriotic posters on the inside of stall and porta-john doors, reminding athletes that “When you change clothes in the stall, you’re chamois-ing up with Osama bin Laden”.

VII. There shalt be signage to all Critical Areas, and for all Critical Events.

All those toilets won’t do much good if no one can find them. This is especially important when holding events at schools or other large, circuitous buildings. At larger events, signs may be required for staging, start and registration areas as well. This might seem excessive, since a racer can just ask an organizer or official where to find something, but keep in mind that organizer or official has now been distracted from whatever job they were supposed to be doing. Multiply that distraction by hundreds of racers, and it’s bound to slow things down a bit.

Make signs of day-glo posterboard with black marker – it’s sharp, eye-catching and more water-resistant than just a computer printout. Never be afraid to make a sign too big, and remember that while indoor signs can be attached to walls by just about anything, outdoor signs suffer from wind, moisture and clumsy bike racers. Anything put up out of doors stands up best (in my experience) attached to a deeply rooted wooden stake with nails or heavy-duty staples. A big, freestanding whiteboard in the main parking area or at registration can make a great place to put up announcements (numbers on right, start time changes, etc) and general directions.

VIII. Thou shalt not distribute swag on the honor system.

If the race comes with a complimentary water bottle, or cheese sample, or coffee grounds, put one of each in each athlete’s packet, and keep the rest secure until toward the end of the event, when interested parties or volunteers can come to snag left-overs. Having a big, open box of water bottles is just an invitation for some hooligan to pick it up, throw it in the back of his Subaru, and drive off, knowing that the street value of 300 bidons well exceeds that of the race entry he just lost.

IX. Thou shalt have separate start times listed for each field.

Bike racers are a nervous bunch. Despite the fact that your flyer may speculatively indicate “10 minutes between fields”, if you only list one start time, people will gravitate toward it no matter what field they’re in. This will cause needless congestion at registration and restrooms, and encourage bored racers from later categories to engage in such no-nos as riding around on course while other fields are racing.

I know it can be difficult to to prognosticate on these things, but no one ever said race organization would be easy. Go out on a limb and publish a guess at when each field will start. Having set times, even if they are, at best, speculative fiction, will reduce annoying questions from racers, smooth out registration, keep bathrooms fresher longer, and just make everything run more smoothly. Just remember: once you’ve posted a race time, DO NOT EVER start the race earlier. I once drove 4 hours through the Rockies to find that the race I’d signed up for had already been won.

X. Thou shalt start thy races on time.

I know hitting every start time square on the head is a virtual impossibility. But getting that first field lined up and off on schedule will alleviate a ton of problems. Tardy starts just snowball, making each progressive race later and later, sending racers back to the bathrooms, confusing timers, frustrating officials, and generally making everyone miserable because it’s freaking 4pm on a Saturday already and they just want to go home.

Organize exactly when everyone is going to be where ahead of time, and make sure all the officials, organizers and course marshals are clear on it. “Playing it by ear” is never an option. Sometimes, starting a race on time means leaving a few riders behind. Tough beans. You posted a schedule, you started on time, they blew it.

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