Don't Become a Race Director
Updated: May 28
Do you enjoy getting yelled at by your friends and total strangers for missing the tiniest of details? Do you thrive on the notion of being under pressure to be at the start line to launch racers while at the same time handing out awards to the last round of winners? Do you like to worry because you forgot where you placed the winner’s medals? (Yes, I’ve done that!) Then you have the makings of a race director.
I refer to myself as a “Race Director” rather than a “Race Promoter”. Promoter suggests all I do is yell, “Come to my race”, at the top of my lungs. While I do that as much as I can ( #ChallengerMTB & hand out flyers like there is an endless supply), there is SO much more that takes place that my fellow riders never see. I hear people say, “I know you work hard on the mountain bike race you hold”. While I appreciate the sentiment, until you hold a race, you just don’t know what it’s like. I’m hoping after your read this article you will know why you don’t want to become a race director.
Do you like not going to the movies? Do you like it when you can’t spend time with your friends or family? It’s possible you have the makings of a race director. Your time is the most valuable asset you own. When you spend it, you want to be wise about how and with whom you spend your time. Being a Race Director isn’t a part time job, it’s like having a second full time job. If you want to have a successful and sustainable race, yes, it’s that much time. There is so much work behind the scenes that people don’t get to see. If I had to take a wild guess, I probably put in well over 250 hours the first year. I’m sure I went way overboard, but if I’m holding an event and it has my name on it, then I’m going to give it 100%.
Meetings, Meetings and More Meetings:
If you like to be in meeting after meeting and creating Power Point slides, then you’re off to a great start as a race director. In the first year, just to get the race approved by the college and the township I spent weeks preparing a presentation. I had to include emergency evacuation plans for terrorism (yes, that is a real thing and there is even a check box to include terrorism insurance in your policy). I had to develop an emergency evacuation for the race course in case of injury. I had to plan where the race starts, stops and its entire route. I even had to explain why it is a benefit to the college and the township to allow me to hold a race on their grounds.
Do you like to make a game plan, then have a back up game plan in case the first one fails to ultimately have to create a new plan on the fly? You just made another notch in your belt as a race director. One of the things that is a pet peeve of mine is when a race is the same course each year, year after year, in the same direction. While I know some courses are limited based on how the race can be designed (available trails, terrain and what the land manager will or will not allow) it can make for a mundane race.
There needs to be a good flow to the trails, it should be fun yet challenging, not too hard for beginners, yet still force a pro to choose their lines wisely. Don't forget to find a way to make go arounds for the obstacles for beginners, wide passing zones for the faster racers, and include plenty of single track for the enthusiasts. Simple....right? Basically, we need to achieve the impossible.
Then again all that can change if there is a major storm the night before your race. Trees come down, trails get washed out, low lying areas turn to swamp. Not to mention kids coming by at 11pm after you set up all the course tape, and they tear it down cause they think it’s fun. Back up plans are a must.
If you love the concept of watching your friends ride (instead of riding with them) past you as you remove a fallen tree from the trail, you just became a race director. Ever ridden a trail and you see a deep rut full of tire marks, then ridden that same trail 2 weeks later and it’s smoothed back over? Have you been forced off your bike due to a fallen tree and the next day it’s magically gone? Or have you been riding and suddenly see a brand new trail and it’s awesome? While we all know that gnomes do a vast majority of the work on the trails, but it’s volunteers who go out and do the work so you can enjoy your ride. If 1/2 of all mountain bikers volunteered 1 hour a year, we would have trails that are beyond anything out in the wilderness.
Do you like begging people for help? Do you enjoy it when people say they are going to be there and instead turn into a no show? You are on your way to being a great race director. Volunteers are the life blood of a race. They donate time in advance to set up the course, to help you get registered, to line you up at the start, to course marshall and keep you safe, and to hand you the awards when you stand on the podium. Then they stick around after to help break everything down. Without volunteers a race simply wouldn’t happen. Volunteering just for a few minutes or handling 1 task is a massive help to a race director. Getting people to volunteer is a different story.
You can’t ask the same people over and over again to volunteer their time to help. They want to race too. I’ve bought pizza and drinks for lunch time work parties. I’ll provide breakfast, lunch and electrolyte drinks for volunteers on race day. I’ve given them a free race for them to use or to give to a family member for friend. I’ve even given them random gift cards to our local bike shop ( #ActionWheels ). And while I’m very thankful for those who volunteer I feel bad relying on the same people over and over to assist.
Everyone wants our sport to grow, to race in a good sized group for some competition, and wants great trails to ride on, yet only 5% or less do all the work to make things happen. Please consider donating just 1 hour a year to your local trails. If we all did that, imagine how nice the trails would be.
If you like the concept of 2nd mortgaging your home just so your friends can have some fun racing their bicycles, then consider becoming a race director. Everyone knows that race directors take the massive profits from a race, come home, and roll around in the piles of cash. Then we burn some of the money just for fun. We are all millionaires. That is the perception people have about race directors. I wish! Land rental, port-a-potties, timing, insurance, ambulance & EMTs, step-in-stakes, course arrows, signage, registration tent, all the trips back and forth to the venue for trail work, food for volunteers, tools to do the trail work and I’ve even had to buy dirt and have it delivered. Not to mention the prizes, advertising and the cash pay out for Pro/Elite racers... Are you starting to get the hint?
Now obviously the money to do all this with BEFORE people even register is just laying around and comes from the magical money tree where the secret order of race directors go to pluck the free cash. NOT! Last year I had 421 racers:
Here are some real numbers:
Land Rental: Can range from $500 to $1500 - Paid in advance
Port-a-Johns: $100 each plus delivery and pick up - Paid in advance
Ambulance: $500-$800 - Paid in advance
Pro Payouts: about $2,600
Timing: Varies per race.
Insurance: $4 per person ($1,680 for last years race) - Paid in advance
Step in Stakes: $1,500 (roughly 500) - Paid in advance
Course Arrow: $250 in materials (plus time for me and 3 volunteers to help make them) - Paid in advance
Tools, Saws: $100 each year - Paid in advance
Commercial Hedge Trimmer: $500 - Paid in advance
Chainsaw: $400 - Paid in advance
Flyers: $500 - Paid in advance
Gasoline: $100 (Driving back and forth to venue) - Paid in advance
Let’s not forget the last 2 years I had a video wall, stage, giant sound system and a generator to run everything. That was another $2750.
Now you are pushing the $16,000 dollar mark. Even by some miracle you can make a small profit of $2,500. Would you want to put in an additional 200 hours on top of your current day job, lay out $16,000 of your own money out of pocket, to hopefully make $12.50 an hour? Now let’s imagine it rains on race day. You can’t get back your Paid in Advance expenses.
If you find solace in hearing statements like, “You can’t do that”, or “It will never work”, or “Fat chance”...you guessed it, you’ll LOVE being a race director.
The very first race of the Challenger was in 2012. A group of riding buddies wanted to test each other before the race season started. So we held a mock race. Third place got a used inner tube with a hole, 2nd place got some cycling stickers, and first got a protein bar. We talked about the race route, but I don’t think any of us knew where we were going. Afterwards, I said something like, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a race here?” The response was in laughter with a comment to the sort of, ‘That will never happen’. That negativity sparked a fire in me. Over the next few years I did homework. I helped volunteer at other races, I learned what other promoters do and took their best practices and combined them all together. Why reinvent the wheel when you can utilize the best part of others wheels.
My new goal is to get a local mountain bike event covered on TV. ( #RedBullTV @RobWarner @BartBrentjens ). I’ve been told, yet again, ‘that will never happen’! I look back on that day when I was told a race would never happen, and think, ‘I did it once, why can’t I do it again?’ Yes, I know it sounds like an impossible task, but that would be something that would get more attention on our sport.
Why Do You Do It?:
It was the end of the day of my first year as the race director. I was thinking to myself, ‘I don’t think I’m going to do this again next year. It’s just too much work. I'm too exhausted.'
I feel this little tap from behind me. I turn to find one of the tiny humans staring up at me. Standing behind him is a woman and a man, his parents I presume. “Excuse me sir, is this your race?”, says the young boy of 9 or 10. I answer, “Yes, that’s me”. He says, “I just wanted to say, thank you. Today was the best day of my life.” He was on the smaller side and his hat wobbled around slightly as he shakes my hand vigorously. I say, “You’re welcome”. I look up and I see his mother holding back tears in her eyes as she smiled. The father was holding and supporting his wife while looking at his son with pride and love, but wiping his runny nose. His mother puts her hand over her mouth to hide her emotions, then she tries to smile with joy as her tears fall. They both say thank you to me. Not once, not twice, but three times the parents say thank you to me and each shakes my hand.
At first I was confused by a happy boy and crying parents. ' Why would that be?', I thought. Then I get that choked up sensation in my throat as I see him walking away. I realize he doesn't have any hair poking through the 1/2 circle on the back of his baseball cap. I started to cry. I was feeling joy that I was able to make that little man's day special. Yet, I was sad for what the parents were going though with their son. I never experienced something like that before, nor have I since. Though I have not seen that boy return to my race (I hope I do), maybe I can do something like that again next year for someone else. That’s why I continue to hold the race.
While I know I will never be able to please 100% of the people 100% of the time, I think it is a great goal to attempt to achieve. If I want our sport to grow and if I want to see more people having fun on bikes, then I need to find new ways to keep our existing base of riders returning and to bring new racers and more spectators to our races. If you made it this far, what are you waiting for Mr/Ms Race Director. Now, go “Challenge” yourself!