“Don’t get sucked into the race director cult of personality.”
I have been racing bikes all my life. I started at a young age racing short track BMX, spent time riding mountain bikes throughout the Northwest. When I joined the US Navy, I thought my bike riding days were behind me. While in several duty stations, I never had the chance to ride a bike. I did my share of long-distance running (lots of running — sooooo much running) but never a bike. Then, during one last tour overseas, my friends asked me to join them on a mountain bike tour of Australian waterfalls. Exploring waterfalls by mountain bike turned into exploring other countries by mountain bike. It was a brief moment of joy that reminded me of how much I loved riding my bike as a kid.
When I had finished my time in the military, I stopped doing anything exercise-related. I sat on the couch, watched TV, and gained a bunch of weight. If I was doing anything, I was doing it indoors. I think most veterans go through this phase when they complete their time in the military. They have done so much fitness that fitness now feels like work. But it’s only a temporary feeling. Sitting for too long makes you reflect on your past and contemplate the future. And for me, I knew my present needed a change.
The Old Ironhorse
That’s when it happened. A friend at work was cleaning out the garage and asked if anyone wanted to buy his son’s old mountain bike. It wasn’t anything special — an old Ironhorse 26-inch hardtail mountain — but it was a ticket to a new world. I took that bike to the shop, got it tuned up, and then went for a ride at one of the hardest mountain bike trails in my area. It was a disaster. For the first time out on a mountain bike in years, I spent the next four miles walking every hill and tentatively rolling down every drop. When I returned to the parking lot I was sore, covered with sweat and dirt, and doing something I hadn’t done in a long while — I was smiling! That brutal four-mile ride was the treatment I needed to break the rust off my joints. Sure, it hurt! But it was a good hurt.
Rediscovering the Outdoors
After the maiden voyage of that old Ironhorse mountain bike, I started being outdoors with a purpose. I joined a local outdoor racing club, turned slow riding into okay riding, started running again, and even found my way back into orienteering. Soon, all this activity led me into outdoor racing. My weekends were consumed with finding new trails, riding new loops, and mixing it up with other racers in local events.
I had found my way back to enjoying the outdoors.
It’s a strange feeling when you realize that you have rediscovered something you used to enjoy. You see, I grew up in the deep forests of the Pacific Northwest. It was a magical place to be a kid, spending every waking moment of my Summer playing in the trees with my G.I.Joes, creating dozens of forts, and riding bikes wherever we went. Falling in love with mountain biking, trail running, orienteering, canoeing, and adventure racing was a way for me to reconnect with that joy from my childhood. It was my path back to when exploring and running outdoors was fun.
I, like other outdoor racers, wanted to bring that same kind of outdoor enjoyment to others. And I wanted to do that by starting my own outdoor events. I did by starting Reckoneer. However, it turns out that trying to share the outdoors by hosting a race is the opposite of fun. It didn’t take me long to learn how much work and bureaucratic minutia lurks beneath the event you experience on race day.
Building a race requires you to learn some very hard lessons like:
- Races have to be started months before race day or they will never get done.
- All sorts of sticky hands have to get paid before you ever earn even a sliver of those tiny profits.
- You cannot do it alone because logistics and coordination require people and without people, you cannot build a race.
I found out the hard way so many racers try their hand at creating and directing an event, only to walk away from it after a few tries. Let’s face it, outdoor event management is hard.
Learning by Example
Not one to back down from a challenge, I went after teaching myself how to create events. To start my education, I began by paying close attention to the race directors I thought had the best races. I became a student of any race I had participated in that I found enjoyable. I watched their staff, I asked volunteers questions, and even 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 had collected enough information to make the leap. I started by first promoting an event within an existing club. This way I could use the club’s existing resources, manpower, and marketing reach without having to spend my own money. Fortunately, this club was enthusiastic about hosting my event and gave me an incredible amount of freedom to launch the first mountain bike orienteering (MTBO) race in Virginia.
The Secret Society of Race Directors
I thought the three years of race volunteer knowledge would provide me with the organizational tools I would need to host my own event. Unfortunately, I discovered that each and every race promoter had a secret. None of them had control over their operations. Every race they directed was a repeating dance of learning the same lessons over and over again. There was no rhyme or reason to certain decisions, no standards applied, and often the event was managed more by pure personality than any race direction methodology.
Everything that came before race day — where the actual event is created — was a whirlwind of chaos, mostly shrouded in some Wizard of Oz style mystery formula that only they knew. Yet, when I pulled back the curtain on each of these operations, I discovered that none of these race directors planned their events with any predictable success. Instead, they relied heavily on the people around them to get work done. If any of those key people couldn’t make it to the race, panic would set in. Racers might not know that something was wrong — like the medical staffer called in sick or their race insurance had not been approved — but the staff did. Too many would risk it and hope for the best.
In other words, most race directors hope their races go well. But hope is not a strategy.
Experiencing the Pain Firsthand
Each race I observed suffered from a common flaw: too much planning in one area, and not enough planning in others. I experienced this firsthand with my first races too. Nothing the race directors I had worked for had prepared me to manage effectively. And although I was improving my skills with each race, my best event in five years only profited $100. I was happy that I made my money back on all my out-of-pocket expenses, but to only have $100 to show for years of learning was very sobering.
This led me back to reflecting on the past and the future again. What was I doing wrong? Why were these events so hard to produce? Why was I working so hard to get everything orchestrated?
Then it hit me. I could see the common mistake I had both witnessed and unconscionably performed myself. Over and over again. The common denominator to every race problem was me — or more abstractly the race director. I was the lynchpin to the entire operation. I had to make all the decisions, be active in all the problem-solving, and even be the one to start the race. I was trying to do it ALL! The only problem is that when I was distracted by doing everything myself, my races suffered.
Working ON My Event, Not IN My Event
That’s when I knew I needed to get the trail out of my head. I needed to go back to the drawing board to figure out how to work ON my event, not IN my event. I had to find a way to remove myself from the operation. Each of my races had to run with or without my participation. That meant that I had to actually create roles, hire people to fill those roles, and run my races like a business instead of a hobby.
In June 2015, when I directed the second annual version of my mountain bike race, I decided to put this theory into practice. Truthfully, there were plenty of screw-ups during that race. Old habits are hard to change and it’s even harder to remove yourself from the equation when part of the fun of creating a race is being in the middle of all the action on race day. I quickly discovered that being praised by racers is very addictive. It strokes the ego and makes you crave attention. But it doesn’t make your races any easier to build.
After each race, I had to sift through a ton of bad ideas, bad processes, and very, very bad examples to get back to building a repeatable process that was actually 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 hone 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 makes money, not just break even
Build, Measure, Learn
Now, after building and directing over 60 races, I have the luxury of looking back on these events 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: Can the race still function without you there?
It’s not enough to know that YOU can build and run a race. You need to know if you can hire people that can run your race for you. I know too many race directors that cannot or will not do this. THEY are their race. If they didn’t show up, the race would be canceled. If that race director runs the company then that company will be out of business the first time the race director calls in sick.
Be The Architect
I want you to avoid my mistakes and the mistakes of hundreds of other race directors. You need to get the race you’re dreaming about out of your head and into reality. But you need to do it in a way you can share with others. You need to be the architect, not the construction crew. Don’t waste your time working IN your event unless it leads to you working ON your event.
There is a sweet spot in outdoor racing that allows you to be both financially secure AND happy. However, to find that balance will require you to do something you probably didn’t plan on doing when you started. That is, of course, removing yourself and your personality from the equation.
I want more people to become Reckoneers like me and built Reckoneer as proof that this business can be learned. YOU can do this! I believe it so much that if you only read this blog — and nothing else — you will learn everything you need to know! However, I can only lead you to the water. YOU have to take the drink.
Redefining Your Role
Your success should mean a lot more than just being capable of building and running a race. Working ON your event doesn’t mean you are on a beach in Bali. It means you now have the freedom to work on all the marketing, hold meetups, convince racers that your race is awesome, write proposals, send invoices, chase permits, manage registrations, find, hire, and teach staff, and so on. There is plenty you need to do to promote your race — or races — that goes above and beyond race day.
My goal is to prevent you from getting sucked into the race director cult of personality. Your race should be good despite you, not because of you. Find the fun of being in the outdoors again like I did by getting the trail out of your head.
Now Go Build Better Races!