The typical ultrarunner’s race experience goes something like this:
The day before a race you show up to packet-pickup, grab your bib, judge the swag, and chat with your fellow runners. Then it’s off to bed, thinking only about the day ahead.
The next morning you drive to the start, where volunteers show you where to park, and you focus inwardly until the race director yells “Go!” Throughout the race you follow the flags or markings, feast at the aid stations, and tackle the terrain laid out in front of you.
And finally, after crossing the finish line, it’s more food, maybe a beer (or two), and shade before heading home to pass out in bed.
What most of us don’t think about, however, is how all that stuff works. All the ins-and-outs that go in to putting on such an event, and keeping you happy, safe, and fed.
This past week I learned there’s a lot that goes in to putting on such an event … and I was only there to witness a few days of it.
But now I’m getting ahead of myself.
Instead of a traditional race report for the Mendocino Coast 50K, I thought I’d do something a little different — a full 360 look at the week of an ultramarathon — both from the runner’s and the race director’s perspective.
We’ll look into what goes in to putting on a first year ultramarathon race, including an interview with the race director, and my perspective of the race itself.
But first, let’s go back to why I was racing this weekend to begin with …
A Trip to Mendocino California
A few months ago I’m invited to run the Mendocino Coast 50K by race director Sid Garza-Hillman.
This would be the first year of the race, and Sid thinks it’d be fun to have me come help out for a few days before the race, and run the inaugural race.
Not stupid enough to pass up an opportunity to run out in Northern California, I delightedly say yes, turning it into a week long trip with my wife Katie. The plan was simple:
We’d start in wine country, and over the course of a few days make our way along the coast to the town of Mendocino, where Sid had a room waiting for us. From there we’d help out, relax, and run.
Relaxing we did.
Here’s a shot of Katie hanging out with the Redwoods. They were big …
Now I’m not going to pretend that Katie and I have a big impact on the logistics leading up to the race.
The work we do is minimal at best, and the last minute organization is just a scratch on the preparations that went in to putting on the ultramarathon.
But a few days of helping Sid do open my eyes to what all has to go down for 115 runners to make a giant trail loop and achieve their goals.
The Things You Might Not Realize (About Race Directing)
The Mendocino Coast 50K course is incredible. It includes coastal trails, redwoods, and miles along the Big River.
All in one giant 31 mile loop.
Awesome for us runners, but not easy to manage behind the scenes.
If you’ve ever run a race, there’s some part of you that knows all these things need to go down. And if you’ve volunteered at a race, you know a little bit more.
But even having done both of those (several times), there were still things most of us take for granted when registering for a race. Things like:
- Course design: Creating a compelling, challenging, and unique course that runners actually want to run
- Permits: This race, for example, went through two state preserves, required multiple permits and lots of paperwork
- Volunteer organization: Something like 30 volunteers were required on race day, which means making sure 30 people know what to do, and when to do it
- The swag: Seems insignificant, but it’s expected these days, and someone has to organize it. Sid went all out, providing t-shirts, hats, stickers, a custom race beer (oh hell yeah), finisher medals (that doubled as a bottle opener for that beer), and all kinds of product goodies
- Runner safety: Probably the most important part of race preparations is doing what you can to ensure that all runners are safe, which means working with fire departments, medics, and wilderness responders
- Marking the course: Unless you’re Barkley, you don’t want runners to get lost, and flagging 31 miles of trail isn’t easy. In this case, Sid ran the entire course the day before the race (after someone else had already marked it) to make sure everything was properly in place
- Aid stations: Not just want food/aid to provide — which I discovered was a trickier decision than one might think — but getting them set up, manned, and maintained for several hours
- Logistics: Getting all the supplies organized and where it needs to be, even when where it needs to be is deep in a forest and typically off limits
- Post-race food: A runners got to eat, and races are typically expected to feed them. Providing food for over 100 people, over the course of several hours, takes a lot of planning (Side note, falafels are an awesome post-race meal. Thanks to The Ravens for hooking us up)
- Runner tracking: Screw up this one and you’re in trouble. Not only is it important for runners to be tracked throughout the race for their own safety, collecting and posting accurate results to Ultra Signup turns out to not be as easy as one might think
- Cleanup: And then, after the race is complete and all the runners are napping, someone has to clean it all up! If you’re curious, I was the one napping while Sid and crew were cleaning.
And I’m sure forgetting half of what needs to happen.
Needless to say, just being around the setup before the race is a unique opportunity to get a small glimpse as to what goes in to these races, and I’m grateful for the chance to lend a hand.
A photo posted by Sid Garza-Hillman (@sidgarzahillman) on
Words from a First Time Race Director
Since I was staying with Sid after the race, I thought it’d be fun to sit down and hear what he had to say about the whole race director experience.
Not just his thoughts on directing it, but why he choose to start this race, how it has changed him as a runner, and what he’d want other runners to know from a Race Director’s perspective.
You can listen to that interview on this week’s Trail Talk episode here:
A Little on the Race Itself
The highlight for me was definitely the course.
The first 5ish miles are run along the coastal cliffs, with stunning views, winding trails, and a fresh sea breeze. We had a light rain for the first few hours, which only got me more excited.
From there we spend the next 15 miles in the Redwoods with a mixture of smooth singletrack and fire roads.
This is where the race started coming together for me. I was moving well and having a total blast. I can’t remember a recent race where my spirits were so high the entire time.
After about 4,700 feet of climbing, runners drop down from the redwoods at mile 21 to run the remainder of the race along a flat trail hugging the Big River shoreline. I think almost all of us were thinking that if we could just get to mile 21 and the flat section, the rest would be cake.
But cake ain’t always tasty.
The flat terrain made it easy to increase speed, but my body wasn’t happy with the extra push and I hit my only low point of the day just about 20 minutes into this section.
I walked for a few minutes, slurped down two HUMA gels, and bounced back pretty quickly.
From there it was just cranking out the remaining miles as best I could.
My GPS gave out no more than an hour in — something I’ve got to replace before Thunder Rock — which meant I was going by feel for much of the race.
That wasn’t much of a concern until this final stretch, when I wanted to know how much further I had to go, and it would’ve been nice to see my pace.
**Angrily shakes fist in the air**
But in a way it was a blessing. No watch for much of the day means I can run by feel and not get caught up in pace.
Nutrition was mostly on point, alternating between HUMA gels and CLIF blocks (note: affiliate link) every 30-40 minutes, and scarfing down a piece of fruit or handful of chips at the — all vegan … sweeeeet — aid stations.
And I mostly kept to my rule of finishing my handheld bottle before reaching the next aid station.
All-in-all I was very pleased with the run itself. Had I known I was right around 5:30, I would have pushed earlier to go under, but that’s neither here nor there.
It was just the confidence boosting run I needed ahead of the next big challenge in less than a month.
The Type of Experience That Shapes You as a Runner
Every now and again we have races or training runs that really shape us as a runner — my first 50 and 100 milers are my best examples. They change the way you view the sport, yourself, and the community.
Last week’s experience at the Mendocino Coast 50K was one such experience.
Not because of the run itself, but because of the entire, multi-day experience.
I’d encourage you to look for those races, runs, or experiences. Try something new or push yourself in a different way. Maybe it’s by running in Mendocino or volunteering at your local race.
Whatever it is, learn from it.
… and always thank your race director.