Sunday, December 4, 2011

Perils of Inaugural Events

Up until approximately 10am yesterday morning, when I checked in on Twitter for the first time that day, I was pretty much lamenting that I'd be out of town and unable to run the inaugural Hot Chocolate 15K in DC produced by RAM Racing. If anything, the jacket for all runners was pretty enticing (although, now I hear that it's mediocrely constructed).

But to be honest, after having previously participated in other large-scale inaugural events, I've become very wary of them, and I even took that into account when contemplating the venue for my first half marathon next fall.

Even though I was nowhere near National Harbor yesterday, the first inkling I had that something was amiss with the Hot Chocolate 15K – or at least its marketers – was that on November 2, a few days after the Marine Corps Marathon, I received this email:

I'm not a marathoner.
The problem with this picture is that I've never registered for a marathon. Not just this year. I've never registered for a marathon ever. Not only that, but also I didn't register for a Marine Corps anything this year. I haven't studied a day of business, but I'm pretty certain that a core lesson in Marketing 101 is not to mix up the purchased mailing lists. At best, it makes the event organizer look unorganized....and who wants to pay a decent chunk of change to run an unorganized race?

The inaugural Annapolis Half Marathon, another race I contemplated for this fall, also suffered some scathing reviews. When I learned about the race, its organizers had changed the date of the race after registration opened because the organizers had not taken into account a conflict with a home Navy football game. I don't know the story behind the date change/football game conflict, and it's entirely possible that the 2011 Navy football schedule changed after it was first published in January 2011, wreaking havoc on the half marathon date. But it still doesn't look good. Thankfully, a friend talked me out of registering for this race, mostly because it was too soon after the Army 10-Miler, and I'm prone to burnout.

Finally, my personal experiences are with the inaugural running of the Ragnar Relay in 2008 and this year's Tough Mudder at Wintergreen. The truth is, I don't think either of these fall into the same category as the Hot Chocolate 15K or Annapolis Half in terms of participant dissatisfaction.

For Ragnar, like many other overnight relays, each team's start time is based on the team's estimated 10K paces, with I think the intent to have slower teams start first and faster teams to chase them, and all teams bunching up toward the end. Except, after one rotation, my team had passed every team in front of us, and we ran the next 100 some odd miles alone. We came into unstaffed checkpoints because the race organizers didn't anticipate teams to come through as early as we did. The finish festival was still being set up when our team became the first to cross the finish line. The massage therapist was hesitant to give me my complimentary massage because she didn't realize that we had finished. And a final note on the timing: when I took my team's estimated 10K paces, I estimated our finish time within 15 minutes, and all my spectator friends were there. I'm not a stats geek; I was just a girl with Microsoft Excel.

As for the Ragnar course, a significant portion was on the C&O Canal towpath, but portions were also run on pretty busy roads. On those roads, I'd never felt so unsafe as a runner – or bike pacer – as I did that night. To their credit, Ragnar has since re-routed some of these sections.

And Tough Mudder? My biggest gripe is that I truly do not think the publicized "2.5-hour average finish time" for the Wintergreen course is accurate. I also thought it was really weird that there was no email alerting participants as to their start times, particularly because some had changed a few weeks before the event (mine had). On the other hand, on event day, no one was checking to make sure we were in our assigned heat...

Sure, I've complained about courses, logistics (the constantly changing start/finish areas of the Army 10-Miler), and the number of participants (Army 10-Miler, Lawyers Have Heart). But, for what it's worth, my issues with the inaugural DC Ragnar Relay and Tough Mudder mostly arise from an out-of-town race management company's unfamiliarity with the terrain, literally. I'd like to hope that the Hot Chocolate 15K and Annapolis Half organizers suffered from the same unfamiliarity, but things like changing the race date after registration has opened and addressing the wrong target audience reflect sloppiness to a different level.

Over the years, as race registration fees increase, I've learned to be more picky about the races I do, especially as a middle of the pack runner. While running a new race can be exciting, it's looking like a lot can go wrong, and it'll be part of the equation for me in the future.

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