I used to work at a company that provided logistics and supply chain management solutions. I’ve also been to large outdoor events, and been an active participant in professional conferences and geekfests of various flavors. Prompted by a disaster I ran into yesterday, I’m sharing some tips I’ve learned along the way for running events. I thought most of these were pretty obvious, but I guess not.
- PRE-REGISTRATION: If you have it, make the most of it. Some 5Ks (such as charitable fund-raisers I’ve been in) mail participants their t-shirts/bibs ahead of time. This saves a LOT of time and should be considered, even if that means raising the price of the event. Also, don’t make folks sign waivers online and THEN make them sign them on-site.
- I/O: If this is going to be a large event, have separate parking/entrances/intake systems for volunteers/staff, active participants (e.g., panelists/GOHs), and regular attendees (spectators). Have the exits be separate from the entrances. If you make people fill out information on-site upon entering, have enough pens to prevent bottlenecks.
- OPS: Have special staff who are prepared to deal with emergencies, and put them in recognizable outfits so everyone (other staff, volunteers, and the general public) can find them.
- ELECTRONIC COMMUNICATIONS: Multiple modes are good, especially for announcing changes. Don’t just rely on emails or FB/Twitter announcements, since folks may miss one or the other due to email spamtraps or not being aware of particular social media channels. Have a way for participants to communicate with (help) each other to alleviate some of the load on staff. E.g., publish a Twitter hashtag (and URL for those who aren’t Twitterers) ahead of time — anyone with a smartphone can search on, read, and refresh that in their cars (with someone else driving). Twitter accounts are only needed to *post* to the hashtag.
- ON-SITE COMMUNICATIONS: Have a system set up beforehand appropriate to the scale of the event for staff/volunteers communicating with each other (walkie-talkies, radios, or cellphones), and for communicating with crowds. Have more than one person who knows how to turn off the music and make public safety announcements.
- PUBLIC SAFETY: Contact police and medical emergency responders ahead of time. Have a way for injured people at least to be taken back to public transport/parking, not told to walk back, e.g., a golf cart.
- SANITATION: Have adequate bathroom facilities (even temporary ones) at likely bottlenecks, and make sure supplies are re-stocked.
Case Study: Run For Your Lives
Run For Your Lives, Camp Ramblewood (Darlington, Maryland), October 22, 2011
This was the inaugural “Zombie 5K” (obstacle course 5K with runners racing through a campground away from zombie actors, the weekend before Halloween). RFYL announced a few days ahead of time that there were 1000 racers + 10000 spectators signed up (* see comment). Many people had a great time there. However, parking problems were not sufficiently prevented, racers were delayed from getting into their planned “waves”, and with darkness approaching and the injuries mounting up (a broken leg, one or two broken clavicles, twisted ankles, etc.), the EMTs had the staff shut down the last wave. Around 300 of the pre-registered runners had long waits only to find they would be unable to run, with an uncertain refund process (still not announced one day later). Other event issues contributed to their frustration and disappointment. In at least one case, lack of planning may have contributed to one runner’s further injury. This was a first time event for the event runners. I don’t know if they reached out to anyone more experienced for help planning the event once it became clear how big it was going to be. They are vowing to listen to all feedback and improve for the next 6 runs they’re planning for next year. For future participants’ sakes, I hope they do improve.
This is from my personal experience. A couple of friends and I were signed up for the 3:30 wave of runners, and we got within 6 miles of the event by 2:10 pm. As we waited to park, I checked RFYL’s Facebook page to see at least two status messages from them with assurances that we’d all still get to run despite the parking delays (they didn’t update their Twitter account). We were finally parked around 4:45. We didn’t get to run. I know I had an incomplete picture, and some parts of the event ran smoothly and well, but these are the issues I saw, and all could have been alleviated with better planning.
- PARKING: They knew from registrations how many were coming but had ONE farm field with ONE entrance for parking. The hay they scattered at the entrance was inadequate to prevent cars getting stuck in the mud, with everyone coming in at the exact same place. We sat in traffic for 2.5 hours waiting to park because they had posted twice on FB that we’d still all get to race (and they never posted a new update that we wouldn’t all get to race after all, just an apology way after the fact — unless they had said it somewhere down in the hundreds of comments). Other people had much longer waits, for the same result (not allowed to run). That’s AFTER getting to Darlington Road, not counting the drive to get to within 5-6 miles of the camp (some drove for 8 hours from out of state, for no joy). Also, it should have been simple enough to send someone walking up the road to tell the long line of cars waiting to get in, what was going on — not everyone had smartphones to get the (incorrect) information in the Facebook posts, after all!
- WAITING: Then we waited in line for the bus, and waited in line for the pathetic bag check (see below), and waited in line to get waiver forms to fill out again (but no pens), and waited in line to get our race packets (where a few people had pens), and waited in line to check our gear (knapsack of clean clothes), and waited in line to start the race. Some lines were adequately staffed for the size of the event. Many were not. Oh yeah, one of the lines had a poster which mentioned the Twitter hashtag Z5K we should have been told of days ago by RFYL’s own Twitter account, @runfromundead.
- CONFUSION: Volunteers/staff wandered by various lines at various times and told 10 of us at a time inconsistent information which we could hardly hear over the booming music (I guess it never occurred to them to make announcements over their own sound system). The one guy who had a hand-held loudspeaker didn’t know how to use it, rotating his body as he spoke so we could only get one word in 5 as he fanned over our part of the line. It was hard to tell who were fellow participants trying to help out (passing on rumours), who were volunteers (passing on out of date information?), and who were actual staff (who didn’t seem to agree with each other), beyond the one person in a “STAFF” shirt I saw later. The shuttles kept bringing folks in from the parking field for a while even after the last wave was cancelled. Better training, communication systems, and identification systems (even t-shirts) would help with all this.
- LACK OF CONTINGENCY PLANNING: When we finally got the semi-official word that there would be no more runner waves and we should head “over there” for refunds, we went to another long line, this one right in front of the horribly loud speakers for the whole field (my friends and I couldn’t hear each other to strategize what to do next, except by screaming). I went up to the front of the 300+ people waiting for refunds to see what was happening, and saw *two people* slowly (in between long long complaints/vents from folks in line) taking names and zip codes on loose sheets of paper on a rickety card table. After waiting for some blowhard to finish yelling at the guy on the side with a “STAFF” t-shirt about wanting a parking refund (from the farmer? it was at least 5 solid minutes of wind), I asked the staffer (who looked overwhelmed), “Do all 300 of us really have to wait in line just to give our names? We all registered online. Can’t we follow up in email to get our refunds?” He stared at me for a minute, then grabbed one of the two people at the card table, and they went off in a huddle. Several folks in line thanked me for suggesting this bit of brilliance (you’re welcome!). As more staff (?) joined the huddle, I left and updated my friends. EVENTUALLY someone came by and told us (10 at a time, again, with the music STILL blaring) that we didn’t have to wait in line any more, and could leave.
- SAFETY: In addition to the injuries runners suffered, I heard several zombie actors in line waiting to leave discussing being hit, body-checked, screamed at, cursed, and threatened by runners. Not having been able to run, I don’t know what measures were on hand to prevent fights or provide first aid on the run. I do know that while we were waiting to enter the event, we saw one poor girl hobbling along in a brand-new ankle cast to get into line for the bus to get back to her car. Apparently they patched her up and waved her offsite, possibly aggravating her injury in the process. A golf cart to ferry injured people at least back to the head of the bus line, if not back to their cars, would have been nice AND good business. Back to the parking lot: Also, when we tried to leave, someone had abandoned their SUV in such a way as to block the exit, so we had to drive across the field to the entrance to leave. No one seemed to be doing anything about the abandoned car, much less warning people or using a flag system to show the way to the revised exit (entrance), making everyone’s departure more confused and dangerous.
- SECURITY: Why have a bag check at all, if you’re not going to do it right? We had a soft-sided suitcase with clothes to change into after the race. At the two card tables at the entrance, the two people per table sort of looked at bag contents — not opening all compartments, and certainly not examining individual items, e.g., my friend’s boots in the bag. Lots of questionable items could have been snuck in by anyone, as far as I could tell. Also, had our refund line broken into a riot (things were getting really ugly in some parts of the line, with folks having driven from two or three states away practically losing it and getting each other worked up), there did not seem to be any contingency in place for this.
Positive aspects: As I said, many folks had a lot of fun. The staff and volunteers remained pretty polite under a lot of pressure. As we were walking back to our field parking lot 2 miles away (the bus line was long and I was antsy), a zombie volunteer we’d been chatting with was kind enough to offer to chase us when we weren’t too far off, so she went RAARRRRR!!!!! and we ran and screamed for a few hundred feet as she chased us back to the field entrance, and that was fun. Too bad we couldn’t experience the whole run, but it did get the adrenalin going and give me an extra push, and I bet I might have enjoyed the event.