This may seem elementary, but the major event in course design is to physically walk the thing.
Racecourse design is just as much a physical job as it is a mental one.
And that means getting out into the wild and seeing things with your own two eyes.
Miles of walking is kind of tough if you’re out of shape, but the insight you will gain from this activity will serve you well when you go to build your final course.
You yourself may not need to walk it, but someone has to.
As the race promoter, it’s in your best interest to have first-hand knowledge of your course.
What you’re looking for?
You should not ride a course your first time out.
Because you often miss things while riding that you will notice for sure on your feet.
What kind of things?
You’re looking for things you need to keep track of.
If you’re setting up a mountain bike course, you should be thinking of those danger areas that like to eat bikes.
Holes, deep ruts, and loose rocks are out to get most tires.
These danger zones are extreme areas that you should come back for with a chainsaw or shovel and deal with.
You may need to remove down trees, fill in ruts caused by mountain bikers riding on wet trails, reclaim missing trails from overgrowth, or drain those puddles that never seem to go away.
There is plenty of natural things that can also mess up your course between now and race day.
You can’t plan for bad weather, especially if it rolls in overnight to ruin your plans.
A sudden storm might even produce enough rain and mud to actually change the geography of the trail.
But you won’t know the extent of the damage until you go out and look for yourself.
Only then can you anticipate how much work it will take to fix it.
Time for the crunch-crunch of your survey
Walking the trails allows you to see both the good and bad first hand.
But sometimes “when” you walk the trail is as important as walking them by itself.
You may not realize how fast that steam fills up unless you visit it right after a rainstorm.
So show up after a rainstorm and find out.
Think of all the problems you remember as a rider on race day.
If conditions changed on you on race day, what things could become problems?
Walking it will also tell you how bad the overgrowth is and what other kinds of obstacles you’ll need to plan for.
On a recent trail that I walked for a race, I saw the thorny weeds and sticker bushes that needed to be cut and discovered that some local construction put up temporary fencing right across a trail I was going to use for my course.
If I did not know that until the week before race day, I would have been screwed.
Construction fencing just doesn’t move by itself, especially if that contractor is still on-sight.
You may need a property manager to help you work around things like that, which makes getting an advanced warning very important to your race’s health.
Where you should place your attention
New trail changes
Alterations to the trail done by humans is another source of concern.
There are plenty of instances where people who see messy patches such as mud puddles often find ways around them.
They don’t want to get their new trail shoes or mountain bike all muddy (seriously!).
But they mash up all the trail around the spot in the process, making a bigger mess.
This can lead to an overly wide trail or linking of trails that had not been connected in the past.
It could also be the source of damage that can cause riders to crash if not repaired.
Use technology as an aid
Technology can be your ally when walking a trail too.
You can use your Strava app or Garmin GPS to keep track of your progress, remember locations that need a second look, and even build yourself a draft course map afterward.
This can help jog your memory when you go back to planning, especially when you discover side trails and new connectors that may not have been there in previous years.
Trail stewards are always tweaking trail layout or building new bypasses without any notification.
By walking those new sections, you gain the advantage of having a map that is more current than your competitors.
You can then develop new routes, see things you don’t see while riding your bike and allow you to split your focus between what will work for a mountain bike, and what will work for trail runners.
Clean as you go
A trail walk also helps you become a better steward of the trail.
While walking you will see sections that you wish you could come back and fix, add or bypass.
You might think, “Wow. It sure would be nice if someone could come back and fix that for next year.”
Some of these include that really bad log-overs or that feature with no ride-around.
They might work for your event, but they constantly stick out as annoying parts of your course.
If you really care about the trail, you’ll need to remember to come back and fix these when you have the time and money.
You will also see how some humans are just plain scum.
Often, improving a trail is a simple matter of giving a rip.
Taking a trash bag with you to pick up the garbage you find along the way can make some trails nice again.
Never hurts to trim as you go too
You can also take some trimming sheers with you and hack away those gnarly sections as you find them.
These additions to your trail survey could go as far as to include your trail maintenance team too.
Some parks and clubs give points for working a trail before a race.
When you’re out inspecting the trail, they could be earning those points by taking care of obvious issues while also helping give back to the community.
This could benefit your event’s standing in the community, and just make the trail better by cleaning up after the idiots who make these messes in the first place.
Lessons learned after 3-hours into the survey walk
Yes! Some trails are long. Very long!
At a good pace, you can walk about 8-miles in 3-hours.
But after walking a course for 3-hours, I discovered all sorts of trail sections that I never knew existed.
I also started working out a rough course in my head as I started piecing together parts the I can use in place of parts I know that I cannot use.
I find that there is a considerable lack of mobile resources for doing this kind of survey.
GPS maps are great, but I want to include photos, notes, and reasons for the issue — none of which Strava or Garmin will support out-of-the-box (but in their defense, was not designed to do).
Strangely enough, you will find yourself starting to about “other” courses that you could design for other kinds of events.
Walking the trail gives you that insight into the land that you could never really appreciate from the saddle of a bike, and definitely, never understand from just looking at a map online.
Importance of good trail features
I found the parts of the trail that I enjoy the most when I do ride it — which is what you do after you walk it.
You need to make sure that your draft designs included those sections.
If I was to take it out or reverse those sections,
I would not only make a substandard course, but I would have removed the parts that “other people” like too.
That could potentially take away the trail that makes your course a really fun ride.
Know what racers like
Alienating your audience by not understanding the trail is a good way to make people not come back.
By piecing the trails together, you will realize that you can do some things you never thought you could make the trail do before.
This gives you something that you may not have had before: options.
It also forces you to keep it simple.
There is plenty of trails that do not need any more attention other than having the brushed trimmed back and some ruts filled in.
There are parts of the trail that you just cannot mess with.
It would take too much time and manpower to change things considerably, so you need to consider those changes “out of scope” to your overall course plan.
Discovering course options and hidden features
Having options “does” give you something unexpected.
Especially if you are forced to change the course from previous years due to unexpected constraints like weather damage, erosion or even planning construction.
Forced design changes can add new elements to even local fun rides and runs.
Many riders will not expect you to link certain trails in a particular way, and that unexpected route will make your event stand out.
Throwing some riders off-guard with a new course is a good thing. Some will complain, but most will enjoy it.
Focus your efforts on the ones that enjoy it! Because they are the ones that will come back.
On the flip side, if you are only charging $20.00 a rider, you don’t want to do too much extra to the course.
You need to stick to the sections that will only need minimal love.
You cannot devote your limited time and resources (i.e. volunteers) to the entire course.
Focus on what needs work, trim the brush, mow the grass, and leave the serious rebuilding work for another day. But “do” come back another day.
Thinking about your course after seeing it in real life
After we’ve done your course survey, and you’ve walked all the trail you can walk, it’s time to go back and rethink your event routing.
You need to seriously consider what pieces of the trail you are going to use and not use.
You can make a few different course designs to show some options.
But a maximum of two-course designs should be your limit.
Use your GPS map with limited details or even a Google map of the park that you can draw on. Keep everything you build in a “sketch” form so that you don’t overdo the details.
Things will change, so keep it simple enough to be usable by folks other than yourself.
Once you have made those decisions and have your draft course laid out on paper (and any people that need to approve it have seen it), then it’s time to vet the course.
Test your course design
Yup! It’s finally time to test that monster!
Now is the moment you’ve been waiting for: testing your course as if it was actually racing day!
That means either getting on your mountain bike, putting on your trail shoes, or grabbing your map and compass.
Whatever kind of racecourse you’ve designed, always bring your map with you on the course.
If you find problems, mark them on your map and redo your course test.
Think about the flow, where your danger spots are, and how you will mark those spots come race day.
You don’t want to send riders into the ditch, and you don’t want to make turns too sharp.
So if you have a problem with it, your riders will most certainly have a problem with it.
Now is the time to change stuff, so make sure you do. On race day, it will be too late.
Remember to go back to your principles during this step and keep your course simple.
A nice flow to a course is better than having that hill, a turn, or whatever makes the flow go wrong.
Don’t make racers think.
Have sections naturally work into other sections in a logical way.
As you ride, run, or trek it, you will know which is which.
Flow is important to your design, and you want to keep as much of it as you can.
Get some feedback
After you test your final course design, you should always seek out second opinions.
Take others through your course who understand what you’re trying to do.
You can also show off your work with a free group event that goes through the entire course without stopping.
This could be a great way to do A/B testing of course options.
Take one group through course design A, then another through course design B.
Then ask everyone what they thought of each course.
If you get a few negative comments about certain sections, take note.
But once you have good, honest feedback, then you know your course is done and ready to race.
All that is left now it to make a final map, and share it with your racers.
Now go build something great!