So you’ve run a few ultras recently? Maybe a lot and over a lot of years. Maybe you’ve done well in some races, maybe not. But one way or another you’ve become hooked. You love the sport, the people, the individual digging for something more. The volunteers, the trails, the training, the “culture of ultra running?”
You finish a few races and say, “I’d like to direct my own race. I can do this! How hard can it be?!”
Let me stop you right there.
While runners are often very appreciative of the hard work that goes into race directing, I’m not completely sure everyone fully understands really what goes into it. Start the conversation about race costs and inevitably someone has an opinion about the entry fee.
I’ve read it enough times around the social media world, ultralist and heard it out on the trail. I’ve heard it so much I know it’s a common complaint among some runners.
The cost of ultras. “It’s so expensive. I just can’t afford to run that race.”
or the inevitable economics major with a degree from Fox News doing the math in their head of what a race costs to put on (in their mind) with the total entrants registration revenue and a final declaration of:
“THE RACE DIRECTOR IS MAKING $50k A YEAR DOING THIS!!”
Again…let me stop you right there.
Plenty of race organizations ARE making money. The Rock N’ Roll marathon series nationwide is a business. Ragnar Relay is a business. Tough Mudder is a business. Heck…Leadville 100 is a business. What I’m talking about is the run of the mill, mom & pop ultra the sport was based around. A couple passionate people in your area ponying up their time and energy to make a race happen. Over the years the costs can dwindle, sometimes significantly, but to start an ultra? That’s another story and the one I’m telling today.
So let me enlighten you on just what it takes to put on a race, in this case a 100 mile ultra to stay somewhat consistent in the examples. (Please keep in mind all races are different, areas have different needs and circumstances so experiences may vary.)
Permits – This is the end all of the potential success of your race. You find the perfect location, it’s beautiful, rugged, has all your favorite trails. Well, what kind of land is it on? BLM? National Forest? Wilderness Area? State Park or Regional Park? National Park? Private Land? A combination of several of these? Some are outright not allowed like the National Parks and Wilderness areas but depending on the park, size of the event and particular office, you may be successful in getting the permit approved.
What does getting a permit approved require? Quite a bit as it turns out…
First of all, you are working through government agencies in many instances and they are typically not working on just your permit. They have other obligations and often are going to throw your permit questions to the bottom of the pile while they are dealing with more pressing concerns than your crazy running even two years away. Like wildfires, restoration plans, much larger events and the myriad of tasks they now have as their offices get trimmed to smaller and smaller staffs. Be patient. You could be there awhile waiting for a response.
Nearly all permits will require an operating plan of your event. This is a detailed plan of how you are organizing the event. How many people will you have? How many spectators? How many vehicles? How will you control traffic and emergency vehicle access? Where will you have porta-potties? You are required to have them based on a certain number of people to prevent litter and waste on the land when they are absent. That’s another rental cost…
How will you handle communications? Will there be camping? Fires? Vendors? Are you selling anything? Is there alcohol?
A map is required to determine specific areas and sections of the land you will be covering. For National Forest land it is broken up into certain areas which during hunting season are used to permit out tags. Does your event go through areas where hunting will be taking place and how will that impact the area?
Not all agencies are the same but there generally is a fee for the permit. Five percent of the entry fee minus the cost of prizes. This fee doubles or triples if your course falls into multiple agencies borders, for instance if you have runners running from one National Forest to another bordering National Forest. That’s 10% now. If its at a private residence or commercial property like a track or facility like Across the Years or multi-day events they likely (or maybe not) have a much higher rental cost to consider.
This cost is greatly varied based on entry fees, prizes and size of field. But for the sake of an example, if the race has 100 entrants at $175 there is $17,500 in total revenue. A National Forest will require 5% of that. That’s $875. If it covers multiple jurisdictions you could be responsible for additional permits, and additional costs.
Insurance – Not many places will provide a permit without limiting their liability and having you and your associated insurance provider taking on 100% of it and removing them of all liability in the event. Throw in a few hundred dollars more for that. While you are at it just name everyone and everything you are involved with.
$450 for $2 million dollar liability insurance (varies greatly with size and circumstances of event)
Equipment – Have you ever stopped and thought about where all those 5 gallon coolers on those aid station tables come from? Or those tables? Or those nice pop up canopies? Tupperware for the pretzels, M&M’s, storage containers holding the extra melons behind the volunteer? All of the equipment for every aid station at some point needs to be obtained somehow. Know someone with 30 coolers? Super! If not, that’s a solid grand right there. Throw in at least a dozen $89-$149 pop up canopies (depending on sizes and special offers), 30 folding tables 5′ tables from Walmart (please…hold your disdain…you’ll understand soon) at $35 each, well you are really piling up the bill already. It gets dark too in a hundred so aid stations are up all night. Lanterns – $20-$100 each. You’ll need batteries too so throw a few massive Costco sized packages of C & D’s in there while you’re at it. How are you going to cook at night? You’ll need cook stoves. Good old fashioned green Coleman work great, go back to WalMart and get a few.
Cook stoves mean propane. WalMart practically gives them away for $8 you get two large canisters. One will work a two burner all night long. Oh, but you can’t cook soup straight on the burner…you’ll need a pot. Probably a half dozen to a dozen of them. Some frying pans too. Oh..and ladles, spatulas and random cooking utensils. See where I’m going with this?
You know what? Just grab some friends and buy every dang thing in the camping aisle at Walmart. You can use it.
Here’s some quick math for you:
30 Igloo Coolers @ $25 each= $750
30 Ice Chest coolers for ice/food @ $50 = $1,500
30 7 Gallon Water Containers @ $14 =$420
15 8’x8′ Pop Up Canopies @ $99 each = $1,485
30 5′ Folding Tables @ $35 each = $1,050
10 Coleman Lanterns @ $20 each = $200
Assorted Sizes of batteries =$45
Cooking Equipment = $200
8 2 Burner Cook Stoves @ $75 each = $600
$6,250 in equipment
Communications - Most wilderness and urban ultras a like have some form of radio communications between aid stations. This is as essential as water. The most common are usually a volunteer group of amateur radio users called HAM Radio’s. These volunteers are all over the US and are often the communications network that is set up and tracking runners through the ultras you run. Many ultras do their communications internally without their help and some are close enough to the urban areas that cell service is a viable and reliable option still. When it is not the HAM radio teams come in as the fail safe method of getting in touch with each aid station.
Why is this so important? Well, each aid station needs to track you as you come through. That’s part of the reason bibs are provided, so the RD can track you throughout. This shows you getting checked out of aid station one and we then know you are on the way to aid station 2. If you don’t show up to aid station 2 in a reasonable time frame we at least know where we can start looking. Without radio communications through aid station two won’t know when that missing runner even left aid station 2 and therefore won’t know when they should send someone to look. This can waste valuable time on all parties.
Later on in the race when drops become a regular occurrence aid stations need to be able to update the network of the drop so the next aid station is not waiting around for a runner to come through that isn’t even in the race anymore. Missing runners, injured runners, resupply needs, drop transportation back to the start, there are dozens of critical reasons to have communications. You may get lucky without it but it will be just that. Luck. Contact your local HAM group well in advance, over a year if possible, to see if they are available and willing to volunteer for your event. As they are all volunteers they need time to get everyone organized and set up the communications network on your course. You may need to set up repeaters but undoubtedly will want to scout the area in advance.
HAM Radio volunteers won’t cost you out of pocket amounts but a few race jackets or race gear would probably be appreciated. Gas money or some other form of appreciation for the key members always helps make sure they come back the next year. If you don’t have HAM radios another option to try is a set of satellite phones for rent. Plan on about $20 a day per phone plus outgoing calls at $1.67 a minute. Speak fast.
Food/Supplies – You need a lot of food for a hundred and depending on how many entrants it can get overwhelming really quickly. Why? Well, have you ever gone to Costco and purchased five carts full of food and drink? How about have you ever pushed five carts full of Costco food? You need a couple friends just to go to the store with you in advance to shop. Then where are you going to put all of it? Hope you have a truck. Or two. Do you need 6lbs of pretzels at each aid station? Maybe a third of that at each one? How are you going to divvy that up? You’ll need more Tupperware. What are you going to cook at night? It needs to be easy for the volunteers yet good for the runners and liked by most. Each aid station shouldn’t have the same thing necessarily so there is some variety for the runners over 20-30+ hours so look around and think of easy yet good viable options. Have you ever purchased 15 jars of peanut butter at one time? You will.
What about aspirin? S-Caps or the like? Likely an email to the company will get you at least the wholesale rate for buying some electrolyte pills to supply as well as discounted rates for electrolyte mix. You’ll need some kind of anti-chafing element on the tables. Vaseline is a common one. Don’t forget an applicator (wooden sticks…) Go ahead and walk up to the register with a dozen jars of Vaseline with your buddy and see what the nice lady at WalMart has to say…please record it and post her reaction on Youtube.
All in all, you’re easily at $2000 for all your out of pocket expense on food and supplies for 100 people. Easily. Getting some sponsored product from local companies can trim that down like a grocery store donating produce or the local Coca-Cola distributor providing 2 liters of Coke. Ask around, see what you can get donated. Free is good.
Ice - You need ice if you are anywhere near the sun. Most races take place in the hotter months and its a regular request for the afternoon aid stations. Runners need ice to put in their bladders, bottles, bandanas, shirts, bras, hats, whatever it is. You need ice. Are you going to get it the night before and store in the coolers? The day of? How much do you get? How are you going to get more if you run out? How are you going to serve it? Dirty hands in ice create the spread of germs and some runners will freak out if you grab a handful of ice and put it in their water bottle. As they should. Make sure you have cups or a scoop of some kind handy.
Depending on the climate and where you buy the ice and in what sized bags, you can need as much as 20lbs of ice up to 100lbs. Every race is going to be different but you could be spending $30 or $200 on ice alone.
Water - You’ve bought all the water coolers, tables, canopies, supplies but what are you going to store all the backup water in? Everyone is running after all, you’ll need LOTS of water. You don’t ever want to run out of water at an aid station so get lots of it. WalMart (see how awesome they are already??) has 7 gallon plastic, stackable containers for $13 each. Just go ahead and visit every WalMart in town and buy every one of them. Have a loop course? Maybe a trailer of water is a better option that you can drop at the aid station and pull off throughout the weekend. Each situation is different but in remote areas getting water to the aid station can be one of the more difficult challenges.
Where are you going to fill up all those water jugs anyway? It’s very time consuming so plan accordingly.
Technical Shirts – Ultra veterans complain/brag they have so many tech shirts from races they don’t want any more but good luck not giving one out at your race. Inevitably someone would complain. So one way to go about it is in registration providing an option for each runner signing up to select a shirt/visor/etc. so they are getting something they will use and want. The Zion 100 & Bryce 100 guys offer that and I think people probably appreciate that. But, that just creates more work for you as the RD and now you have to design/set up your logo on all those additional items. Sure, it’s not rocket science to throw your logo on a visor but its a few more tasks on an already huge task list. Plus, with less quantities because of a diversified list of products your print rate is likely more per item than if you did all shirts and had a large quantity. So find someone in the printing business and get them drunk at the bar. You now need them. Don’t forget to get shirts for your volunteers. You just tripled your order (if you’re lucky to have that many volunteers.)
Wait…I’m printing shirts but now I need shirts! Yup. When you are at the bar with the printing guy try and squeeze him for a hookup on tech shirts or you’re looking down the barrel of at least $10 screen print, $13 sublimation prints per shirt. BUT, you can save huge if you get one of those nice big trail running companies like Brooks, Montrail or the like to supply you with their shirts where you pay cost and printing or just printing. This can be a major savings but if you are just out there on your own making it happen, expect shirts or whatever you provide to be one of your bigger expenses. Please, for the love of Christmas, get women’s sized shirts. Two different cuts. Women want to be able to wear the shirt just as much as the guys but if you give out generic mens sized shirts to everyone, including the women, the women likely won’t like the fit and it’ll end up as another cushion for their dog’s bed.
So if you’re paying full rate, plan on at least $10 a shirt for twice as many people unless you don’t supply for the volunteers. 100 person event, that’s at least $1500. At least. There’s a good chance you’re also paying much more than $10 a shirt, especially if you don’t have a connection anywhere and are just going through some print company. Plan on $13+, more for long sleeve, more for sublimation printing instead of screen printing. Let’s just say $1500 for now.
Buckles/Finisher Awards – Each race is different in what they provide at the end of a race for finishing but in the traditional sense the belt buckle falls under the umbrella of “big expense.” There are several companies out there that make buckles for other races, you can usually flip over your buckles to see the company that made yours. If you’ve ever seen the video on the process it takes for the Western States 100 buckle you get an idea of what it takes to get these produced. These are not made in China I can tell you that and are one of the few things left that are good old fashioned hand made American greatness. Non-Runners often scoff at the thought of running 50 or 100 miles “for a buckle” but they are often so much more than that for the runners themselves. They are so much more than that for the Race Directors as well. When faced with the selection process you have dozens of shapes, sizes, fonts, nickel plate, copper, silver, antique brush, this brush, that brush. The variations, sizes, shapes, colors, no color, two toned, the options rattle through your brain one after another. Eventually a decision has to be made and when you do a check has to be written. Depending on if you do 2D or 3D or some of the few dozen other options a buckle can be low teens to $30 a piece, sometimes even more. That’s a big chunk per person depending on your entry fee up front. Make it worth it.
You have to buy your buckles several months in advance, just like shirts and several other items so make sure you have enough for the projected finishers? Have no idea how many people will finish? Well, neither do I so buy enough for at least a 75% finishers rate (adjust as needed based on difficulty of your race) and don’t put the year on them so you can use any left over buckles for the following year. You’ll pay for it up front this year but won’t have a cost for some of them next year.
So at $20 a pop x 75 (out of 100 entrants in our model) that’s another $1,500.
Still with me? Don’t worry, it gets better.
So we haven’t even talked about the website, maps, detailed online information, registration costs, or cancellation polices. Websites for a lot of ultras are old and not very flashy but do contain the majority of the information you need. Find a program out there to host your site, and try and build it yourself. Weebly.com has simple easy to use widgets, fonts, picture uploads and is very reasonable. In fact it’s free. But you don’t want “.weebly.com” on the back end of your website so button up and throw down the $25 for the domain name. Get all of your policies, instructions, rules, expectations, FAQ’s, maps, and details for the race listed. Runners will visit that site over and over and over again. Try to keep it accurate, up to date and contain every piece of information someone might need. Keep in mind that “someone” may be the runner but also could be the crew, volunteer, or pacer. Different views for the same race so cover aspects. Registration costs are determined by whatever you want it to be. Economically it should be the cost at which you can afford to purchase all the items listed in this article, but realistically in the first year that is not necessarily possible. So compare your race to similar ones around the local area and nationally with what they provide for a similar experience. Ultrasignup, Active and other registration sites make their money off a portion of the registration cost. As the RD you can either take on that cost out of the listed price or pass that onto the runners.
Nobody wants to feel ripped off, runners are still shelling out some hard earned cash for a shot at your finish line but at the same time don’t shortchange yourself only to discover you’re broke and can’t afford to pay one of the bills for the race. Because then it’s coming out of your personal account. Which is muy malo. But we’ll get back to that part later…
We still haven’t touched on the course.
Oh, the course. Somewhat important.
By now you’ve likely ran the course in sections or all at once several times to find trouble areas, worked on the trail, signage and scouted out aid station locations. You’ll now need a good map of the course for runners to preview. National Geographic has a program you can buy at several stores like REI but there are a ton of other programs like Topofusion.com. Just buy your respective state, throw it in the computer and start mapping it out. You’ll need to be very exact so you’ll probably do it about 8 times, tedious as it may be. It’s nice if you can break out each section by section. If you are new to the program this could tack on another five hours. Eight if you have a newborn. But, the runners will appreciate it and you’ll be an expert on the software before you’re done.
I strongly suggest you run your course as much as possible and bring as many of your potential volunteers with you. Knowledge of the course is essential. Also, run the course at night. Plan a long run overnight out there on the section most runners will encounter with heavy legs late in the race. Mistakes are made when runners are tired and what seems easy to follow during the day, isn’t so at night all the time. It can be a whole new world and what you thought was “ok” before, is not brutally tough at night. At 3am. With 60 miles on your legs. You’ll have a better feel for it if you experience it yourself in the same setting.
Course Marking - It’s almost race day and you need to get this course marked. Ribbons, reflector tape, glow sticks, laminated signage, arrows. There are a variety of ways to mark a course. Do so as close to the race as possible and post signage at trailheads stating what the markers are and how important they are that they remain and be sure to list that you will be removing them shortly after the event. Many races have challenges with hikers, bikers, hunters, ATV riders taking down the course markers they consider to be “trash.” Obviously not being trash this can cause some serious challenges as you the RD will likely be unaware they were pulled and won’t find out until the first few runners run into the challenge. So either mark just before or have people run right before to double check it was still up and remark as needed.
A word of advice on course marking, be very, very clear up front on your website what types of markings you will have, how often on each surface (are you marking as often on forest roads as trails for instance) and stick to that. If you don’t plan on marking it like a multi-use path then state that up front. As an example, the Hardrock 100 states their course will be, “minimally but adequately marked.” Going into it runners know they need to be familiar with the course and not rely on their markers. Hardrock sets the tone of their expectations and their entrants know what to expect.
The truth is, many runners are in fact not great navigators. They are often tired, both physically and mentally, and are not paying attention to their surroundings at all times. Three am, sixty miles into a race staring at the ground it’s easy to run right past a marker. Make turns obvious, wrong ways apparent and cover all areas of potential challenge in your pre-race briefing. Every single runner has a responsibility to be familiar with the course but it’s the RD’s responsibility to provide a reasonable path to follow from point A to point B.
Remember, no matter how well you mark the course, someone will still go off course. Plan as well as you can and take the rest with a grain of salt.
Volunteers - How are you going to get all these volunteers? It’s a hundred mile race and for those out in the wilderness away from the cities tracking down 30+ people willing to camp out in the woods and not go to sleep for more than a couple hours a piece isn’t always an easy sell. Most races have a very supportive ultrarunning community that self supports their own races but you’ll likely need a few more. That’s where your family and friends come in. Blackmail and beer tabs are very effective.
What Else Could There Possibly Be? - So, so much more. How are you going to get all those supplies to the race and then to the race aid stations? U-Haul rental here we come! If it’s a race out of town get ready to tack on those nice and cost effective $.67 a mile rates. With 300 gallons of water in the back you’ll drag along at 8 mpg so that’ll help with your costs! Set up the start line, send off the runners and you’re done! Right?
No way. You’re now responsible for every runner out on the course. Entrust your aid station captains to handle situations as they arise, trust in the course marking and deal with situations as they come up. Pray for no injuries and that the EMT’s you asked to volunteer are just camping out for the weekend and not using those nice boxes of medical supplies they brought. Runners will drop, runners will keep going. Nearly all will be appreciative that you put this on and as the hours wane on you’ll still be awake while others take their breaks.
Morning will come and with the refreshing taste of pomegranate 5 hour energy the day is new again! Runners are tired but filled with a resurgence of the end in sight and start of the new day. You need to get to the finish line for the winner!
This…this…is where it gets better.
You’ve been up for 24 hours. Maybe 30. Maybe 40.
It doesn’t matter. You’re watching down the street, the trail, the road, a battered, dirty, disheveled runner shuffling along the trail towards there very last steps of a long, and incredibly arduous journey that you created for them. You set the challenge, they accepted and here they are completing it. Coming through the home stretch, pacers in tow, families and friends perched on stairs, fence posts, bleachers, cheering on what they are witnessing as a feat of feats. Ignored by mainstream media, the Stuart Scott and Chris Berman’s of the sports world, they continue on without the fame. Nobody at their work will really understand the accomplishment. Most families don’t get it. All they need is their five year old son or daughter along their side the last fifty feet, husband/wife or significant other standing under the finish line. The same finish line they’ve been dreaming about through every high and low moment over the last 100 miles. Standing right under that finish line will be you.
The Race Director.
You’re battered. You’re weary. You are exhausted. Yet there you are. Ready to congratulate that runner and provide them with something they’ve been waiting for sometimes all year long.
“Congratulations on your finish! I have a little something for you…”
You shake the runners hand and in the other you pull out their finishers buckle. Nice, new, shiny and theirs. All theirs.
That glimpse of emotion, feeling of achievement, pride in their families eyes?
It’s what makes every minute of work, every dollar spent, every mile driven, every bit of it worth it.
So the runners come in, one after another until the final runner makes it in, the cutoff passes and you’re done. Everyone goes home, the day is over. The adventure is done.
But it’s not for you. Someone has to pack all this stuff away. Someone has to run the course again and pick up all the trash (there better not be a single piece!), the course markings. Your name is on the line and your permit for next year if the trails are left with trash on them or course markings left up too long. Hopefully you have a course sweep taking out a majority of it, and volunteers helping with other sections. One way or another, all 100 miles need to be cleaned up.
You have to wash out all the coolers, wash Tupperware, save the food that’s good, throw away the bad. Reorganize, put back in the U-Haul, drive home and find somewhere to put all this gear for the next year when you do it all again.
Then…maybe then. Nap time.
Now think about this…
100 Entrants at $175 registration is $17,500.
Permits – $875+
Insurance – $450 +-
Equipment – $6,250 +-
Food – $2,000 +-
Ice – $100 +-
Buckles/Finishers Awards – $1,500+-
U-Haul/Fuel – $400 +-
Arbitrary Total of Expenses?
$11,575. Wait…there’s like $6,000 left over! This is a money making machine!
I’m not even including the driving time, gas, race bibs, time required to take off work the week before the race to mark and prepare. Website costs, entrants with discounted rates, comped entries that take down the $17,500 total. Or what if you don’t get 100 entrants but you planned on it all along? Say only 50 entrants pay to enter, well now you are sitting at $8,750 in registration funds and you still have most of the costs upfront and only reduce some of the areas by a negligible amount to compensate for the reduced number of people. Maybe $1000 will cut it for food but you still need all the equipment, permits, insurance, ice, buckles (were ordered well in advance so you’re screwed there…) and the U-Haul happens regardless. So with half the runners you’re still sitting at $10,575++. That’s a loss of $1,825.
So can Race Directors make money doing this? Sure. Of course. Just like a car loan that’s finally paid off, every year you can get out of it is saving you money. The same goes for all that equipment you bought that first year. The longer you get usage out of them the longer you can skip that expense each year. As you become more immersed in the sponsorship world, make more connections, you can reduce your food, drink, shirt costs substantially through product sponsorships. Your expenses go down, your registration goes up, and there starts to be a profit margin.
Is that bad?
Is it bad that a race director is making money on your running of a race?
I don’t think so. The number of hours of work put into an ultra of any distance is astounding and not quantified in the above list of expenses. What’s that worth? What’s a person’s time worth?
Such a hard thing to define.
I don’t think many race directors, especially and specifically on trail races, are in this for a monetary gain so going into it that usually isn’t a main goal. They do it for the love of the sport and all the attributes we all have come to love about ultra-running. It’s all about hard work, grit, toughness, enthusiasm and passion. I don’t know that it’s such a bad thing for that to be growing across the country.
So do you still want to be a Race Director?