The Virtual Race – The Race Director and the Racer

(This post was started mid-summer when the pandemic was in full swing and we were just coming out of quarantine. While, in-person events are starting to resume, we’re still not anywhere near “normal.” I have been debating posting this, as I don’t want to downplay the virtual for those that love them and need them! This post is just to show you a little bit of the behind the scenes in an industry many of you participate in.)

COVID threw everyone’s world for a loop, to say the least. No one could have expected anything like this in our lifetime…well, except those at the CDC who were literally warning us about this….

Anyway…

Businesses had to adjust and had to adjust FAST! Back when quarantine started, so many businesses were forced to close doors for a period of time here in Colorado (like the one I own, Golden Mountain Guides) and a lot had to figure out ways to make money in non-traditional ways (like trying to teach online rock climbing skills? Not ethical, in my opinion) and coming up short on ideas.

Getting all the swag ready to mail

As for my other job, race directing, most runners are now intimately familiar with the “virtual race.” Even before covid, some runners LOVE virtual races and some HATE them. It seemed like there was no in between…you were either a virtual racer or an in-person racer. Now, I feel that there are a lot of us that have fallen in the “I would rather do an in-person event but I need some motivation” bucket.

As the pandemic keeps going, the virtual race has become a staple; it’s gained whole new respect by some. Others still hate them. Before covid, the company I work for would occasionally do a virtual “event” but it was always in conjunction with an in-person event and it was typically not that popular. We chose races that were our more signature events that usually had unique swag. And we didn’t do much with them…we pretty much mailed their shirt and medal and sent an email! Occasionally we would do an Instagram contest that one person would participate in.

Baggin’ it up!

While the virtual race is more and more widespread, and the race company has to do a bit more than just mailing a shirt, in reality, the race director has basically become a glorified merchandiser.

In the months leading up to the race…. normally: I would have been applying for or confirming our permit, starting to design the swag, making sure the website is accurate and working properly and looking at the course, making modifications if necessary.
-> Virtual race directing: We do start the swag process, but mostly I’m on a computer, looking at the website and changing all the language to reflect a “virtual” race, adding FAQ pages (that no one will read), and answering emails.

The month before….normally: We would be notifying the neighborhood affected by the race, confirming staff, and making sure our maps are good.
-> With virtual race directing: we are just monitoring our websites, registration, and answering emails (so many emails).

Gotta weigh it!

A few weeks before…normally: We would start our communication with volunteers and sponsors, checking with the venue site, checking the course again, make sure we have all the supplies we need on hand, and ordering awards.
-> Now: We are checking our supply of mailing bags, stamps, and labels and starting to email people that we need a bit more info on.

The week of race day….normally: we are having packet pick up, making sure swag is indeed in hands, talking to our volunteers and charity partner, and starting to prepare the bibs and timing systems.
-> Now: We might have an in-person packet pick up for locals if allowed (and to save money on shipping) but the week before race day I am starting the tedious process of bagging up medals and shirts, printing postage, and bringing boxes and boxes (and boxes) of packages to the post office.

Postage. This was one of our first virtual races…we have since switched to clear mailing bags and printing the postage on paper and sticking it inside the bag!!

The day before a race… normally: I would be loading the truck, packing the water station boxes, buying a grocery cart full of bananas, and making sure all is in order.
>Instead: I’m sending emails and finishing up mailing packets.

Race day… normally: I’d be up before the sun, unloading the truck and setting up the expo while someone is setting the course. I’m normally organizing the volunteers and making sure racers are doing what they need to be. I’d be giving a count down, cheering you on, and announcing the winners. Then loading the truck back up and unloading it once again to put all the equipment away. And finally, in the evening, I’m would be uploading pictures and answering any emails.
-> Now: Well, at least I get to sleep in. The “virtual race date” usually falls on a weekend and one bright thing covid has brought is that my schedule has become a more Monday through Friday gig. Sorta.

Days and weeks following…normally: there’s not much to do after an in-person race other than making notes on what you can improve on and apply for next year’s permits.
-> Now, it’s an endless stream of emails and customer service. Figuring out why someone didn’t receive their packet or how to get them a different size. People emailing in because they didn’t see our previous seven emails and absolutely do not want to be virtual racers, because heaven forbid! Or replying to someone who asked a question, that the answer to the said question can be found in the email they replied to… So. Many. Emails.

Phew.

Bags and bags of packages. I sometimes use bags when I have to carry Layton at the same time. Otherwise, I just throw them in tubs or boxes!

Only to repeat it all again in a week. Different race, different shirt; same tedious process. The most tedious process being the individuals that we need to follow up with (i.e. waiting on a shirt, their address is missing or a packet gets returned. Things like that). I’ve done batches of racers from 40 in an event to 1300. My kitchen has been in a constant state of staging swag items for the next race.

From March until now, we have had to convert a lot of our in-person events into virtual events. We also created brand new virtual events that weren’t tied to any other events we’ve done. As we’ve started returning to some in-person events again, we have added virtual options for those that are not ready to join a live race. Since March, it’s been an endless cycle of virtual races I’ve been handling, each with slightly different obligations, but still signing the emails as “race director.”


As a race director, I’m glad to still have some sort of job during this uncertain time, but I also wanted to show you, the avid runner, the flip side of the virtual running world. Going virtual is not the race director’s favorite thing, I can tell you that. Maybe there’s a few out there that love this, but I am not one of them. There are a couple pros to going virtual (mainly the whole not warking up at 3:00 AM thing), but overall, I like being a race director. I’ve made a career out of it, race directing 24+ events a year. Being the coordinator of a physical race that you reach your goals at is amazing, even if those goals are just hanging out with your running friends and enjoying some exercise. As a race director, virtual racing just isn’t the same.

But I do see you, the person that loves the virtual race! It gives you strength and motivation to keep lacing up the sneakers and putting in the miles, especially in these stressful, chaotic, unknowing times! It’s you I look up to! I really do. When I see your posts that you got out on that snowy evening to run 26.2 miles in memory of your Father….

Or you, the one that keeps running every day, training and training to stay healthy and fit, to earn that medal on the weekend….

Or you, the one that doesn’t have very many running buddies, but needs the motivation to get out the door…

Or you, the one that needs the adrenaline to calm the nerves when you have no idea what tomorrow will bring in this crazy world…

I see you. I feel you and you inspire me to keep “race directing.”


So as the pandemic rages on, please know that the next time you see your favorite race having to switch to virtual, I can promise you that it’s probably not the race director’s favorite choice. It just may be the right thing to do at the moment and necessary due to your local state, city, and county’s regulations, but before you send that “but that other race last weekend happened, how come you aren’t doing your event” email, just know they made the best decision for themselves, their company and you.

Running “with” my virtual racers back in April. The Prairie Dog Half was one of the first of our races to go virtual.

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