Since 2005, I've worked the technical side of running events, laying out and measuring road courses and doing grunt work for triathlon events. I used to tout them in a 'matter-of-fact' fashion, but nowadays my signature block says, "extensive list of worthless certifications available upon request." Most of the "worthless certifications" were the result of participating in enough running events to think, after the second beer, then say out loud "I could put on one of these."
One of my favorite Clint Eastwood lines did not come during the most recent election cycle, but during his 1973 movie, "Magnum Force," where he says..."a man's got to know his limitations." After one-too-many afternoons picking up aid station coolers and driving the sag vehicle while the event director was drinking beer with the athletes I went back to the technical support side of the running world. Back to maps, paperwork, phone calls and e-mail from first-year event directors, and looking at the good, the bad, and the ugly of road races.
In the last month I participated in the behind-the-scenes details of two events; a 5K put on by the Chief Petty Officers Association, and a 5K/10K put on by the Special Forces Association. So, this comparison of good, bad and ugly is a different version of last weekend's Army-Navy game.
Army-Navy has always been special for my family. In the football-(sub?)conscious Deep South, team loyalty often has little to do with the school they matriculated (I went to a Division-II school.). The Bowens and their extensions up and down the family tree have almost all been Navy people; my Uncle Billy (Renn) and I the only ones to serve outside of the Sea Service. (My friend Chuck, a retired Navy Chief, reminds me I've served longer as a Navy civilian than Air Force enlisted.)
We've all got a short list of what makes a running event stand out from its contemporaries. My coach, Dale Fox, used to tell stories of runners who would drive to several race locations each Saturday and Sunday morning in the hope of picking up overall hardware...and a hundred bucks. They knew the pecking order, and would look for the vehicles of athletes they could beat, and those they couldn't. When I ask experienced racers the things they use to choose one road race over another, most will mention the course, the pre-and-post-race experience, the awards, and the shirt.
Play-by-play: Army wins toss, elects to receive. Penalties stymie initial Army drive; settle for field goal. Navy takes long grinding drive and scores.
SCORE - ARMY 3 - NAVY 7
Post-race - Entertainment, food and beverages; doesn't have to be a full spread, but you got to keep the runners happy until the results are ready. ARMY: There was some issue with the keg which never was resolved, but there was cold canned beer, as well as water, fruit, barbecue, live music, and free massages for race participants. NAVY: Old bagels, water and fruit. And an iPod with tunes from back when I was in high school. I like Journey, Foreigner and Fleetwood Mac, but I'm certain the younger participants would have preferred newer stuff.
Play-by-play: Army quick-strikes for touchdown, point-after attempt hits right goalpost. Scores a safety on ensuing kickoff.
SCORE: ARMY 11 - NAVY 7
Awards - Age-group and overall awards should be both meaningful and of good-quality. Something you'd post on your "I love me" wall. ARMY: Carved wood SFA7 logos all over the place. Five-year age groups, overall, masters, grandmasters, etc. Someone inhaled a lot of sawdust. NAVY: Ten-year age group (I finish as first runner over age 50 -- heck, age 40 -- and receive first in 50-59 age group) medals; overall male/female, oldest/youngest runners receive painted oars.
Play-by-play: Good field position leads to Army ball control drive, scores touchdown but leaves Navy time for one more short drive. Navy scores field goal to close out first half.
SCORE: ARMY 18 - NAVY 10
Shirt - great race shirts are advertising for future events. Lousy race shirts are car wash fodder. ARMY: Black, short-sleeved cotton-technical blend shirt with SFA7 logo and original (contest-designed) artwork on front, sponsors on back. NAVY: White long-sleeved cotton shirt with small dog-tag logo on front, sponsors on back, several names misspelled.
Play-by-play: Navy receives second-half kickoff. Three-and-outs lead to poor field position for Navy; punt blocked out of end-zone.
SCORE: ARMY 27 - NAVY 10
Cause - Runners will support a race for a cause they can support. ARMY: Scholarships for children of soldiers killed in action. Marketing in social media, on-line registration sites, local running clubs. NAVY: Rewards leading to prosecution of person/persons who shot and killed an active-duty sailor. Marketing nearly nonexistent outside of on-line registration; single flyer seen at base bowling alley day before event.
Play-by-play: Good field position following Navy kick; return to ball control drive and Army touchdown.
SCORE: ARMY 34 - NAVY 10
Intangibles - These are the little things which could fall under the overall race experience, but someone is going to point them out to you the week after as you're busy patting yourself on the back. ARMY: When I go into the Starbucks around the corner (as an event non-participant) and the racers are there in a line for the bathroom.
Barista: "Can I do anything else for you, sir?"
Me: "Get rid of the line in front of the bathroom?"
Public bathrooms could only handle two men/ladies at a time...1,500 people might have been a little too much. NAVY: Porta-johns, about a dozen, for 200 people. I'm certain they were hoping for closer to 600, but that goes back to the marketing thing. ARMY: Race director/staff are/were Special Forces officers and enlisted. These guys know how to plan, adapt, improvise and overcome obstacles. NAVY: Chief Petty Officers, most of whom were/are members of the "three-mile-a-year" club, sans racing experience.
Play-by-play: And the hits keep on coming. Army grinds out one more long drive for a touchdown, but leaves enough time on the clock for Navy to kick a desultory field goal and warm up their lungs to sing "Navy Blue and Gold" first...for the first time in about 11 years.
If you're a race director, or you aspire to be one, perhaps some of these observations will save you a couple of wrongly-spent dollars and a couple of nightmares.
If you call me, however, I won't be available. At least until race day.