The River Gorge Trail Race

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A popular theory among race directors and staff is that people have little to no idea what goes into putting on a race. Indeed, a common statement from people who volunteer for the first time is, "I had no idea so much had to happen for the race to take place." This certainly speaks to the level of detail that is involved in coordinating the various elements of the event, but also to the commitment of the volunteers, without whom little would be right.

Courtesy of Rock/Creek
Courtesy of Rock/Creek

So how is all of this managed? For races managed by Wild Trails , there is a full-time race director and a part time assistant. Some of the many tasks a race director juggles in the weeks leading up to the event are permit application and acquisition; ordering of shirts, race numbers, Port-A-Potties, water, traffic cones, and food; trail repair and maintenance; coordination with sponsors for prizes, giveaways, and literature; runner outreach for training runs, assignment of key volunteer tasks and preliminary pleas for help from a volunteer base. A race director’s to-do list can feel as long as the race.

The Salomon/Rock Creek River Gorge 10.2 and 6.5-mile races, which were held Saturday, March 22nd in Prentice Cooper State Forest outside of Chattanooga, TN provide an opportunity for educating runners about the ins and outs of race organization.

Runners share the first 3.5 miles of trail and although nearly all of the 10.2 mile people are through the first aid station before the 6.5 milers get there, some of the longer distance runners who are a bit slower or who dread leaving the beautiful trail take longer. The first 10.2 runners came through on a 7:06 pace. The last runner passed on a nearly 19:00 minute pace. For the 6.5-mile race the first runners were on an 8:03 pace and the last a 20:13 pace.

Aid Stations are a critical component of a successful race
Aid Stations are a critical component of a successful race

You’re wondering who cares about times? Timing is a careful dance for race directors. The aid stations have to be in place so runners don’t come through and fail to get what they need. If they miss out on water or electrolytes or food, they can run into problems later in the race.

The River Gorge Trail race has two aid stations on the course, as well as one in the start finish area. That means recruiting, managing and thanking at least 6 volunteers who will man each aid station for approximately 3 to 6 hours. Setup, teardown, parking, course marking, finish line, sweeping, runner management all have to be covered by volunteers.

As the week unfolds, the race director turns the attention to the course. Two runners head out to mark the first part of the shorter course and the entire long course. They use flags to block any inappropriate turns and to guide runners through the many creek crossings. This course is one of the few that allows the race director to tour the route an all terrain vehicle to quickly mark the dirt road section of the shorter course.

Rock/Creek Co-Owner Dawson Wheeler marking the course
Rock/Creek Co-Owner Dawson Wheeler marking the course

The finishing chute and arch need to be constructed, runner packets distributed, shirts picked up, sponsors tents arranged. You get the picture. It’s a complicated game of interconnected pieces.

As race day unfolds and the fastest runners start the celebration, the race director and volunteers have one more important responsibility. Sweeps head out to confirm the position of the last runner for both races. Sweeps must keep the last runner in front of them, even if it means they walk with the runner. After a long race friendly encouragement is always welcome. Some sweeps are tasked with clearing flags, course markings and any trash or garments they find in the woods. The objective is to make it look like the race never happened.

The gorgeous Tennessee River Gorge in fall
The gorgeous Tennessee River Gorge in fall Michael Hicks

Once the top three male and female finishers are done, the award’s ceremonies are held. The awards have already been sorted so the award granter has only to look at the list of awards per place. Runners climb up on the podiums where they pose for pictures and then they head back out into their lives. This usually involves one or two people to organize and hand out awards, as well as a photographer.

While the sweeps are bringing in the last runner, the aid stations have packed up, cleaned up their area in the woods, and returned their gear to the start/finish area where it is loaded into the rental truck. As the runners head for home, Wild Trails' staff and volunteers tear down and pack up. The tear down process usually takes about 2 hours. There is a medical tent, and all associated cots, chairs, and medical packs, vendor tents, the timing table, advertising banners, electronics for the sound system and timing displays. There’s very little room left in the truck when it’s ready to roll.

By the end of day the only evidence that almost 500 people spent half the day in the woods is a bit of trampled grass and 8 Port-A-Potties waiting to be picked up. After a well-deserved good night’s sleep, the race director will start preparing for the next event.

Next time you have a wonderful experience at a race, take a moment to say thanks to the race staff and volunteers. The gesture will be appreciated.

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