About 13 years ago, I started mountain biking. That addition to my life led me to trail running.
Soon I was orienteering, and then found a way to put it all together in a slogfest called adventure racing.
All of it was a way for me to interact with the outdoors… again.
You see, I grew up in the Pacific Northwest with a forest, a community park, and a lake as my backyard.
It was a magical place to be a kid, spending every waking moment of my Summer playing G.I.Joe, riding BMX bikes, and creating a dozen or so forts: either in the forest thickets or high up in the evergreens.
Mountain biking, trail running, orienteering, canoeing, and adventure racing is a far cry from those days, but they serve me well in my attempt to reconnect to my childhood.
They are my path to what it was like when I was 12, back when exploring and running outdoors was simple fun.
I, like other outdoor racers, wanted to bring that same kind of simple fun to others by starting to host my own outdoor events.
It turns out that trying to share the outdoors by hosting a race is the opposite of fun, quickly learning all about the bureaucratic minutia that lurks underneath the fun of a race.
How everything needs to be done super early, how all sorts of parties get a piece of the tiny profit you earn, and how much coordination it takes to get everything to come together IF it comes together.
I see why so many “race directors” try their hand at hosting an event, only to walk away from it after a few tries. Let’s face it, outdoor event management is hard.
Not one to back down from a challenge, I went after teaching myself how to create events by paying attention to those hosting the events I raced in.
This transitioned into volunteering for all sorts of racing companies and clubs to see how it was done behind the scenes.
It took about three years of observations before I took the leap and promoting my first event in 2010 — a mountain bike orienteering (MTBO) race in Virginia.
I thought the knowledge I gained from watching others build races would provide me with all the mental tools I would need to host my own events.
Unfortunately, I found that each and every race promoter I encountered, did their own thing.
There was no rhyme or reason to certain decisions, no standards applied, and often the event was managed more by pure personality, then any race direction methodology.
Often, I would find that the only repeatable process was on race day.
Everything that came before race day — where the actual event was created — was a whirlwind of chaos, mostly shrouded in some Wizard of Oz style mystery formula that only they knew.
When I could pull back the curtain, I discovered that no two race directors planned their events in the same way.
Some would wing-it last minute and hope for the best, while others would plan every single moving part in painful detail; all of them turning event management into more performance art then management science. And the only tool they had in their toolbox was a truckload of spreadsheets!
Oh, the spreadsheets!
When I directed my first race, I tried to use my own stack of spreadsheets and make decisions just like those I had observed.
But I found myself either doing too much (micro-management), glossing over details until forced to address them (emergency response), or trying to get away with doing technical work on a budget (paper timing).
Each new race would suffer from too much planning in one area, and a lack of planning in another.
My spreadsheets did little to help me manage effectively, and although I was improving my skills with each race, my best event in five years only profited $100 after all the bills where paid. I made my money back on all the expenses, but to only have $100 to show for 5-years of learning to promote events was very sobering.
What was I doing wrong? Why were these events so hard? And why was I working my backside off with trying to get everything orchestrated?
That’s when I knew there had to be a better way to plan these events.
I needed to get the trail out of my head so I could concentrate on working ON my event, not IN my event.
In June 2015, when I directed the second annual version of my mountain bike race, I decided to try something new.
Success means a lot more than just being technically great at what you do.
You have to market yourself, convince racers that you’re awesome, write proposals, send invoices, chase permits, manage registration, find staff, and so on.
But if you’re like me, you learn quickly that none — and I mean NONE — of the resources out there will prepare for the realities of running a race.
I was clueless when I decided to become a better race director.
Thinking and acting like a racer doesn’t get you there.
My race prices were based on what everyone else was charging, my permits were always submitted late, and I all too often sabotaged my events before they ever got off the ground.
What I had been doing had to change.
I desperately needed to rethink and rework my race direction strategies.
So I made a commitment to do just that — rethink and rework how to approach this industry with business eyes, not racer eyes.
I studied everything I could get my hands on that talked about the business of race direction.
I didn’t find much.
That lead me to volunteer — or maybe it could be considered interning — for other race directors to learn at the feet of those I respected.
My goal was to validate what I already knew by seeing how others pulled it off.
Truthfully, there were plenty of screw-ups.
Not all race directors are created equal nor do things that are successful.
I had to sift through a ton of bad ideas, bad processes, and very, very bad examples to get to the information that was useful.
Each time I stumbled, I made it a point to figure out how to avoid the same fate in the future.
It was a slow and painful process, but it helped me build my craft into lessons that showed me how to effectively:
- Select prices based on the value of the event I produced not what everyone else was charging
- Proactively find racers, rather than waiting for them to come to me
- Build in profit margins without cutting corners
- Create predictable, reliable, and stable business processes that could be repeated
- Host a race that actually made money, not just break even
Now, as we get ready to say goodbye to 2018, I have the luxury of looking back on the events I have created and know what I love to build versus what I find as a struggle.
This is the insight that every race director needs to discover sooner rather than later: what do YOU like to build?
It’s not enough to know you CAN build a race, but that if you even like doing it.
I know too many race directors that hate what they do.
Life is too short to do something you hate.
So ask yourself this question: What kind of races are you excited about creating?
The goal is to figure that answer out — for yourself — NOW!
Because if you do, it will keep you focused on creating the races you enjoy.
I want you to avoid my mistakes.
Get the race you’re dreaming about out of your head and into reality.
Don’t waste your time with sports, events, or even formats that stress you out.
Of course race direction is stressful at times.
But it should also be fun!
If it’s not fun, something is wrong!
Don’t like trail running and you would rather niche down on only mountain bike racing?
Then… ONLY DO MOUNTAIN BIKE RACING!
There are no rules and you do not need permission to focus on a sport or discipline YOU enjoy.
Sure, some decisions will make your race direction journey more difficult.
But are you in this for money or enjoyment?
I would rather be poor and happy, then rich and miserable.
There is a sweet spot in outdoor racing that allows you to be both financial secure AND happy.
However, to find that will require you to do some work.
But that work will lead you to become a successful race director!
I built Reckoneer as the proof that this industry can be learned — YOU can do this!
I believe it so much that I give 95-percent of all my best secrets away… for free!
Because I know if you want it — if you really want it — you will take the time, read the articles, listen to the podcast, and DO THE WORK!
I also know that if this becomes a struggle for you, I have additional support to help make you successful… IF you need that too.
I want more people to become Merchants of Dirt.
I want more people to Get Lost Racing.
However, I can only lead you to water.
YOU have to take the drink.
I will give more race direction education then you will possibly need to build your own racing empire.
But YOU have to build it!
Remember, you can’t fix a race you never start.
And now you know.