Racers are likely to forgive you for most minor course design issues.
Unfortunately, you can only please half the people half of the time.
Some customers really care about how a course is designed.
They especially care about accurate length.
For locals, whether or not you included certain features comes in a close second.
If you get these course elements wrong, there is no forgiveness.
They will barbecue you with an assortment of torches and pitchforks, shouting things like “I’ll never race with you again”.
The plus side to races that hate your course is you know exactly how they feel.
Instant feedback is easy to understand.
However, how do you know if other racers hated your course too?
You know, the quiet ones that simply walk back to their cars, never to be seen or heard from again.
How do you know they thought your course was bad?
The short answer is — you don’t.
But for every vocal course hater you hear, you should probably assume 10 other races silently hated too.
If you hear back from 5 anger racers that thought your course was not worth racing, consider that to represent 50 racers strong.
That’s a lot of racers that did not have a good experience with your course design.
Doesn’t matter if you thought it was good or not.
If you hear that much feedback from your target customer, you need to make some changes.
Luckily for you, it’s not too late to change your course now.
The following are some common complaints that race promoters and race directors receive about their races.
Learn from these examples and help remove the potential problems from your next course design.
#1 – Don’t make me think!
Arrows and survey tape don’t cost much.
This means you should never have a reason for course confusion.
Anytime you have an intersection, questionable deer path, or open area, you should have some clear and visible indication on which way a racer should go.
Lack of simple directions takes racers out of their race-head and makes them have to make decisions about what might be the course.
This is a bad deal for any race director that did not take the time, or have someone trustworthy enough to take the time to check the course before the race.
Unfortunately, adventure racers are the most sensitive to bad courses.
Since most adventure races are built upon orienteering, you better have your checkpoints plotted correctly.
And if races have to plot their own points, your geo-coordinates or UTM’s should be spot on.
In a race that is all about navigation, the race director and course setter need to be the masters of plotting, setting, and confirming locations.
If you put a control on the course, it better be where you say it is on the map.
Don’t get clever and tell racers that a checkpoint with the clue of “bridge” is really hidden in a bush 50-yards away.
Do not overthink your courses.
Moving over distance is difficult enough without having to guess where the race director intended you to go.
You can expect racers to be a mix of new and veteran racers but always plan their experience as if they have never raced before.
If a location looks confusing, mark it well, and check it on race day, or don’t use it in your race.
#2 – You want me to do what?
Including dangerous areas is another concern.
This is especially true for mountain bike races.
Just because you can ride something, does not mean everyone else can too.
Not having any ride around adds to this problem. Obstacles that are for more experienced riders should always have a ride around.
If you don’t have a ride around, don’t include that section in your race.
Trail runners have this problem too.
When the course includes ruts, rocks, and holes — above and beyond what is expected — runners either have to walk the section or risk an ankle.
But including that portion of the trail that goes straight up?
Why do this to people?
If they wanted to break out the chalk and rappelling gear, they would have gone rock climbing.
When you have a “boulder course” in the middle of your race course, you need to reconsider the trail you’re using.
It is understandable to want to put features into a course to attract elite racers.
However, if you think that elite racers showing up will make you money, you need to re-evaluate who your target customers are.
The racers that actually come back to your events time and time again are not elite athletes.
Some might not even be what most would call athletic.
If you design a course that only elite racers can race, then maybe only elite racers are going to come back.
That that is a strong maybe.
Scaring off your target customer is bad for business.
Remember who you are designing this course for.
Good course design can be challenging for both novice and elite racers without being heavily technical.
If you put some thought into it, you can build a course that works on several different levels.
But if you make it too hard, and you don’t listen to that feedback, don’t expect to see many regular racers come back to you next year.
#3 – You made this too hard!
Some courses are just not as advertised.
This has a lot to do with a course that was never tested.
When you leave out the testing phase to your course design, you invite trouble.
A course design is not finished until you have full vetted the course and found all the problems.
This includes how difficult you plan on making everything.
If you have a 5-mile course laid out, who long does it take the average racer to complete one lap?
You better know this!
Especially if you have hard deadlines like when your permit requires you to have vacated or simpler problems like a setting sun.
Additionally, races like adventure races have cut off times in support of allowing only the more successful teams to enter certain parts of the course.
If you only planned for teams to arrive at a checkpoint before a certain time, but only 3 out of 50 teams actually DO make the cut-off, you have a big problem.
Same goes for trail sections that racers will repeat.
If you the distance is just too difficult for the average racer you may have all sorts of scheduling problems.
What you thought would take racers 25-minutes on paper, actually took them 45-minutes.
Why did it take them 45-minutes what you think should only take 25-minutes to complete?
You have no clue unless you actually tested that section and found the problem.
The number of laps might also be impacted by the time of year.
A hot summer day may make 4 laps of a course, something that is not a problem on a nice Spring day, an outright disaster.
If you built the course design in March, but are now only racing it in August, you might not know that temperature changes everything.
Same goes for a course you created on a dry day that has had rain on it for weeks.
Test your trail with real racers in conditions that real races will race in.
If they come back to the finish line in times that are way off your estimates, you might need to change some things.
Chances are, those racers you use to test your trail will already be giving you feedback.
It’s your job to pay attention and make some changes.
It is never too late to learn from feedback.
Even if you make some of these mistakes, you need to first accept that your customers deserve to have a course that is fun to race.
You then need to filter that feedback and decide what is a real complaint, and what is just an unhappy person.
Unhappy people are not happy with anything.
However, if you hear from more than 2-3 racers that your course needs some changes, take that as a good indication that something is wrong.
Finally, take action and tell your racers that you took action.
Hopefully, they all gave you their email address when they registered for your race.
Announce your changes, show the new course design, and demonstrate that you take customer feedback seriously.
You might be surprised to see who comes back when you use real customer feedback to build better races.
And now you know.