Have you ever had one of those weekends where it seemed like EVERYONE had a race going on? You know, ones that without the benefit of cloning (or violating the laws of physics) it would be impossible to be everywhere?
We all get 'em. If you're in a metropolitan area it's a given.
For guys like me on the Florida Gulf Coast it's more like the stories my old coach used to tell about the running circuit in southern Ohio. I guess, back in the day, there were enough little races giving out cash money to top finishers that guys would get up early enough to drive from one race venue to another to see who had showed up. Once they found a race where they felt they had the chance to win some money they would stop and register.
We don't have cash prize money being given out at races, but every so often there can be as many as five or six races of varied size and quality in a 30-minute drive of my house. This last weekend there were five; three of which were brand new events fresh out of the box.
The irony of the weekend, to me, had to be what I guess can only be called "A Tale of Two Races." One race was a first year event which drew over 500 participants. The other was a third year event which had less than 100...after a debut race with nearly 600 and a follow-up participation of 200 runners the next year. I can't say, much like the three most-important qualities in real estate (location, location and location), that successful race promotion boils down to marketing, marketing and marketing. I can say, having been a race director and a race participant, there are things I've found which are most important to the individual participant.
First, have an interesting race concept. I've done the only age-graded pursuit event in the area; once the individual runner has an idea what it means and the light bulb goes off in their head, they either register or go on to another event. The race which had 500 this year was able to run their course on the runway of the local airport...a first-time occurrence.
Second, have a USATF certified course. I'm particular about this. I measure for certification; I don't run on courses which aren't certified. They don't have to be my courses, contrary to what my local running friends might say, but they better be certified.
I tell race directors, 'if you have a certified course place the number on all the materials related to the race.' The certificate number has the two-digit state abbreviation, a five-digit number starting with the year of certificate, and the initials of the state/regional certifier. So, a course in Florida certified this year (a certificate is good for ten years, with a few exceptions), would have a certificate number of FL13XXXEBM. To see a list of certified courses you can go to the USATF web site, click on the "Products and Services" tab, select the "Road Course Certification" link and then the "Find a Certified Course" link. You can search there for any active certified course of any distance in any state. A table comes up as part of the search result with links to the course map, which can be printed for use. Just because you didn't measure the course yourself doesn't mean you can't use it...but I'd recommend thanking the person or group who paid for it in the first place.
If you're not going to use a certified course, then make certain the course is accurate. In case you didn't know, a 5,000-meter road race is not 3.1 miles (add 37 feet), nor is a marathon 26.2 miles (add 100 feet). This last weekend the 500-person race had a course which was billed as a 5K and was closer to 2.9 miles, according to the most liberal GPS measurement. The race that had less than 100? It had a certified course.
Third, how about an interesting T-shirt? A good t-shirt with a catchy design gets worn throughout the year, especially if it's not a season-specific (long-sleeved with seasonal artwork) design. Find a decent artist, do a shirt in technical fiber, use a color which isn't often used...let your imagination be your guide. I know some running clubs do not place the event sponsor information on their shirts. I've been a sponsor without "shirt recognition," and I've tried to get as many of the sponsors on a race shirt. Kind of a no-win situation for the RD.
Fourth, communicate the cause. As a race director it's the best way to get both sponsors and participants. As a potential consumer it could mean the difference between me doing your race and that of the person down the street. I'm likely to look at participating in a fund-raising event than a for-profit run...it's not always that way but close.
Fifth, what's the value-added? Everyone wants to know 'what's in it for me?' Will there be a good post-race party? What is the potential award structure? I don't mind bringing my own cooler of beer so I can crack one open at the end while I'm cooling off...but in that case the other factors better be quite good.
A good value-added example I've seen was a nearby running club's Thanksgiving Day "Recycle Run." This race is an event my wife and I have run almost every year since before we got married. For a ten-dollar entry fee we received our choice of leftover / recycled run t-shirt, an accurate (now certified) and scenic 5,000-meter road course, use of a publicly-maintained bathroom facility near the finish line, munchies and a kegerator of quality beer provided by the local running emporium. Award winners receive their choice of cast-off awards or award remnants from previous club events. It's almost a certainty we're coming home with at least one and often two coffee mugs or beer glasses. To us, it's become a holiday tradition, complete with Waffle House on the way back home, so as to keep from eating too much turkey later in the day.
It doesn't hurt, running enthusiast, to take a closer look before you buy into an event; make certain you're paying for what you feel is the most important quality of your running event. And race director, if you find your event is dying on the vine, it's probably because either you're not providing what the running community wants.
Michael Bowen is a training specialist/running coach who lives and trains in the Pensacola, FL area. He works with runners of all ability levels, in-person and remotely. He and his wife, Suzanne travel frequently to New Orleans to participate in and support running events and triathlons. He also writes two 'blogs, "If I Were Your Coach..." and "Red Polo Diaries."