5 Things You Didn’t Know About Directing a Trail Race

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

When race directors do their work well, you may not even notice, because everything—food, water, course markings—is where it’s expected to be.

In fact, race directors put in tons of behind-the-scenes work to make runners happy and satisfied. To learn more about this surprisingly complex process, we spoke to a few experienced RDs from California, Florida and the Midwest. Here, they share their thoughts on what it takes to organize a successful trail race, as well as the myriad things that can (and often do) go wrong.

1. RDs work hundreds of hours to put on each race

Just as a race is the culmination of months of training for every runner, it is the culmination of hundreds of hours of work for the race director. While you’ve been crushing it on the singletrack, the race director has been busy coordinating sponsors, volunteers, permits, medical support, music, food, registration and anything else that’s needed.

Tia Bodington, director of the Miwok 100K in California, says, “Not including those sleepless nights where I lie awake wondering what new regulations the park services are going to throw at us, I spend about 10 hours a week during the off-season, 20 hours a week during the preseason and 50-plus hours a week the two weeks before and after the race.”

RD Tia Bodington (left) works with a volunteer during the Miwok 100K. Photo courtesy of Tia Bodington

Says fellow Californian John Medinger, who directs the Lake Sonoma 50-miler, “Honestly, I intentionally try not to keep track [of the hours] or I might not do it anymore!”

Race directors don’t get a relaxing post-race recovery like the runners do, either; the work continues after the event ends. RDs spend as much as a week “cleaning up, putting everything away, dealing with lost and found—race directors everywhere hate drop bags, runners are always forgetting them—t-shirts that didn’t fit, results, media requests, paying bills, updating the website, thanking volunteers and sponsors and making notes on what to improve for next year,” according to Medinger.

2. Things (nearly always) go wrong

It’s unusual for a race director to have everything go smoothly. Communication doesn’t go through, papers get mixed up, volunteers bail at the last minute—any number of things can go amiss.

John Medinger, director of the Lake Sonoma 50. Photo by Bob McGillivray

“I often say that race directing is a lot like running a 100-miler,” says Medinger. “You plan as carefully as you can, but things are going to go wrong.”

Medinger’s strangest mishap was when a rental truck with all of his supplies for the Quad Dipsea, another of his races, was stolen two days before the race. Medinger had to coordinate in two days what had taken him weeks the first time.

Adverse weather—and the safety issues it raises—is another concern. “One runner affected by the heat in last year’s race wandered off course and passed out next to a lake behind some bushes,” says Jim Hartnett, director of Tampa Races, which organizes a number of races in Florida. “It was just by chance that we happened to come across him when looking for him.”

Jeff Crumbaugh of Great Lakes Endurance, which puts on various races in Michigan and Wisconsin, was marking the course for the Two Hearted 50K when he noticed large segments of the trail had eroded. No one had told him of the damage. He says he “spent the night working on a re-route, getting it approved by the State Park Superintendent, modifying the permit, changing the delivery-site info for the Port-a-John company and meeting with the school-bus drivers and aid-station volunteers.”

3. The aid-station food doesn’t magically appear

Not all runners realize just how much time, effort and money can go into buying, making and distributing aid-station food. “There’s usually about a half-dozen of us who make a Costco run a few days before the race,” says Medinger. “We’ve got it down to a science. Everyone takes a cart and part of the list and we blitzkrieg the store. On a good day we’re in and out in 30 to 40 minutes, exiting with maybe $2,000 worth of race food and supplies.”

Medinger (center) and volunteers make a pre-race Costco run. Photo by Gary Wang

Other race directors make their own aid-station fare. Hartnett says if the race is small enough, he’ll make the PB&Js and other snacks himself. Similarly, Crumbaugh’s wife makes all of the food for the Great Lakes races; her specialty is pumpkin bread. They also go to a local Michigan supplier for tart cherry juice.

4. Securing permits can be a very complicated process

Road-race directors usually have to deal with only one entity to secure a course permit, often the local government. However, with trail races, especially the longer ones, directors routinely have to get permits from multiple organizations, each with its own rules and regulations.

Great Lakes Endurance has to secure permits from the U.S. Forest Service and the Michigan and Wisconsin Departments of Natural Resources. For the Miwok 100K, says Bodington, “It’s a year-round gig, keeping up on what’s going on politically with management of three park jurisdictions and figuring out how to meet the regulations without going broke.” Hartnett adds, “You just have to remember that you are the little dog and the municipality is the bigger dog.”

Tia Bodington with racers moments before the Miwok 100K. Photo by Scott Livingston

Last-minute changes can cause headaches even when permitting has been secured. The night before Miwok in 2013, Bodington was sitting down to dinner after a full day of race prep. Her phone rang; it was a ranger calling about fire danger on the course. (One of her dinner companions heard her say, “It sounds like you’re trying to shut down tomorrow’s race!” He immediately told the waitress, “We need a bottle of wine! Right now!”) After hours of negotiation, Bodington was able to reroute the 100K course to make it a 60K.

5. RDs don’t do it for the money

Race directing can be very stressful and hard at times, yet yields little monetary reward. That’s one reason Crumbaugh is frustrated by “runners who quickly criticize races and race directors when they have no idea how hard we work to create a positive experience for runners.”

Race directors usually know when something is wrong, and want it fixed just as much as the runners do. They put in tons of work, deal with mishaps and sometimes get criticized, but they do it anyway. Says Hartnett, “It really is a labor of love.”

The directors I talked to said they love it for different reasons. Crumbaugh likes “meeting runners who always have amazing life stories.” Hartnett tries to stay “involved in the athletic community.” Bodington says she’s always inspired by the “look in the finishers’ eyes when they cross the line.”

Trending on Trail Runner Magazine

Want to Know What It Takes to Finish at Western States? Just Ask Hellah Sidibe.

Find out what happened when this six-year run streaker and HOKA Global Athlete Ambassador took on an iconic ultramarathon in California's Sierra Nevada