Behind the Scenes: Managing a Marathon is a Big Huge Deal

A few months before retiring,  I saw a special edition of our local newspaper: “Missoula Marathon Events Guide.”  The Guide listed members of the race committee. I felt a strong, deep-seated urge to appear on that list one day.  This year, the 11th running of our club’s signature event, marks my sixth year on the committee.  I love being part of something big that serves participant runners, the sport of running, and our local community in multiple ways.

Bigger than it Looks

Behind the scenes, the magnitude of the task never fails to impress.  I didn’t think much about the details before I saw them up-close.  For years, I took smooth race operations for granted and criticized those that stumbled.  It would be impossible even to sketch the complete picture in a single post.  Instead, I will highlight a few of the larger challenges faced in every event by race directors and their teams.

Just a Few Examples

Race Course:  Both design and execution require working with city, county, and state police (who are paid to worry a lot about safety and traffic flow).  Courses need to be marked, and intersections staffed with a short supply of volunteers. The course is measured and certified using a using standardized procedures set by a national organization (USA Track and Field).  In the process, race directors strive for a course that is appealing to runners and that minimizes adverse impacts on non-participants.  Getting runners safely from the start to finish lines precisely 13.1 or 26.2 miles away combines art and science with action.

Bling:  Never under-estimate the hours of debate that produce t-shirt and medal designs.  Cost is weighed against a company’s record of producing shirts that fit. Colors must meet the approval of both sexes.  The size and arrangement of sponsor logos on shirts is important. Font type and size are scrutinized.  Should medals get even bigger? (Yes.)  Could we offer long-sleeved shirts this year?” (No.) Will we design the medal to incorporate a bottle opener? (Tempted, but we haven’t gone there yet.)

Volunteers:  The race director is paid (but not nearly enough).  A thousand other people are working for a t-shirt, an evening at the ballpark, and the warm-fuzzy rewards of contributing. Volunteers provide more than a week’s worth of cumulative effort:  Cleaning up the roadside along the course.  Organizing porta-johns. Unwrapping medals. Checking out supplies from storage. Managing and staffing race tables at the expo. Setting up the start and finish lines. Loading buses. Organizing and transporting gear bags. Handing out water on the course. Serving food. Patching and reviving runners in the medical tent. And so forth.  There are fireworks and bands and food vendors and a beer tent.  Ham radio operators and bike monitors patrol the course.  Photographers, timekeepers, and announcers record and applaud success. And here in Missoula we have Back of the Pack cheerleaders who make noise until the very end.

Weather:  I am writing this section a few days after finishing the rest of the post.  Yes, severe weather always hovers in the background as a potential threat.  Not only can extremes generate a miserable experience on race day, but weather can derail the race entirely by generating unacceptable safety concerns.  Here in Montana, smoke from forest fires can generate unhealthy air quality and trigger the possibility of last-minute cancellation. We worry about smoke.  This week, however, our attention turned to heat. My first reaction to was denial.  Missoula?  99 degrees?  Can’t be.  The discussion of how temperatures could affect the race was, however, well underway by that time.

At 12:36 this morning, I received an email with hot-weather adjustments to the Missoula Marathon.  The course will close on Sunday at 12:30 pm instead of 1:30 (6:30 instead of 7:30 to finish).  We are proud of our efforts to serve the Back of the Pack, and we know that this decision affects them the most.  I am sad, but I understand.  I respect the time, thought, expertise, and diverse feedback that went into the decision.  And I added the topic to this blog because behind the scenes, it’s a big huge deal.

Labor of Love

As you can tell by now, this list barely scratches the surface.  With 5,000 participants, the Missoula Marathon is small on the scale of urban events.  Still, it requires all the moving parts found in larger cities to host a social “beer” run, a kids’ run, and three timed, competitive races complete with chips, bibs, t-shirts and medals in less than 48 hours.

This article will post on Friday July 7.  The frenzy which is humming in the background as I write on the 4th will be over the top by then. There won’t be much sleep this weekend.  Many will play multiple volunteer roles and also run in one or more events.

On Monday we will wake up with smiles on our faces.  We will celebrate successes, and harvest lessons learned from dealing with challenges.  We will experience a mix of relief and grief that the Missoula Marathon has come and gone once again.

What About You?

Have you worked behind the scenes at a major race?  What experiences impressed you most?


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