Rant of the Week: Race Volunteers and Poorly Marked Courses are Why I’m Stuck Eating Ramen

The financial side of racing is one of the topics I’ve wanted to cover for a while. But I keep pushing back doing so. When racers talks finances they risk offending those who believe the only reason that anyone should ever race is for “the love of it.” To which I say, why not multitask?


Lets jump right into it this week.

Despite what they might attempt to make you believe, the driving force for each OCR company will always be profits. This shouldn’t be a shocker- they’re companies after all. With investors holding them accountable.

So I can only imagine how excited organizations were when they figured out that they wouldn’t have to pay the majority of their workers. People love freebies, and locals are more than happy to volunteer for the day in exchange for a free race and t-shirt. After all, racing, whether it be a marathon, trail race, or an obstacle race, isn’t cheap these days. Volunteers are also potential customers. Give them a good experience and maybe next year they’ll register to race and bring family and friends.

To be clear, and because I am aware that I take overly pessimistic views towards most topics that I write on- I’m not anti-ocr. Not every race series is helmed by corrupt scumbags who value profits above all else and refuse to pay their athletes (looking at you, “Ace”). Most of these companies do a lot of good: donate to awesome causes, promote health and fitness, change lives, etc.

So races want to make money. That’s a given.

But do you know who else wants to make money? The athletes.


Starting this fall, I decided to give a year to obstacle racing full-time. I hadn’t been playing much blackjack or writing, so race winnings were to be my main source of income for the year.

How is making a living even remotely possible in a fringe sport like OCR, you ask? Well, Battlefrog, Savage, Atlas, and Spartan are among the races offering substantial (weekly) payouts this year. Oftentimes there are multiple races per weekend. This means competition is spread out. Throw in significantly higher paying championships from World’s Toughest Mudder, Warrior Dash, and OCRW, and there’s the potential for decent money to be made. 

It’s an exciting time to be racing. It’s quite similar, actually, to the European track and field circuit in the 80’s. Back then racers had to grind it out for a meager living. They traveled all over Europe, slept on floors, and raced whenever possible against basically anyone, often for only a few hundred dollars at a time. And after races they sometimes had to chase down sketchy promoters to claim their payouts.

Now of course, we have people like Mo Farah receiving 3/4 million appearance fees, and Bolt banking 7 figures to run for less than 10 seconds. But I digress…

*(As well as serving as an educator for the casual fan, this tangent represents actual conversations I’ve had with myself several times over the last year. It usually serves as rationalization when in the midst of doing something uncomfortable or ridiculous for the sake of racing cheaply, like sleeping outside on the ground in a foreign country or walking 12 miles to a hotel)

My initial goal was to average x amount of money per week.

Actually, you know what, I’ve preached transparency in the past, so I should probably follow suit. Here goes: my initial goal for the year was 500/week in winnings. This was the amount that I would need to cover living expenses, travel, loans and other misc expenses. It would also be close to what I’d be making if I had finished my degree and gotten a job in the real world (aka teaching).

I’d have to race a lot, but the 500 was very doable.

But that number also meant that every time I toed a line this year, I’d have some serious nerves. Mind you, these aren’t high school or college competition nerves, where you might be nervous because you know you’re about to run a painful race. If you fall apart or give up its really no big deal; only your pride will be shot. No, these nerves deal with a thought constantly floating in the back of your mind: “Your meal ticket is on the line.” Any mistakes will cost you this week’s income.


Quick recap for you skimmers out there-

Races want to make money. And some of them are doing a pretty good job of it. Athletes also want to make money.

But sometimes these two parties’ goals conflict.

Case in point: Volunteers. 

Most races don’t allow the racers to view the course ahead of time. (This is absolutely ridiculous, but I’ll save it for another day). So you end up going into a race where you’ll be dependent upon race workers to tell you how to do things. But who exactly is it that 90% of the time is in charge of telling you how to do an obstacle, which way to go when the course is poorly marked, or even to levy a penalty? A random volunteer who until today may not have even known what an obstacle race was.

So this is a “professional sport” with a decent amount of money on the line, and our fate is often in the hands of a volunteer. That seems a bit unfair, doesn’t it?

You have no choice but to put up with some of the things the volunteers consistently do.

Example:
The volunteers are always dead silent during the elite heat. Later on in the day they’ll grow more confident and greet each racer by loudly explaining the obstacle to them. But seeing as we’re the first racers they’ve seen on the course today, they tend to be a bit gun-shy. As I get to within maybe 30 yards of the obstacle I usually start yelling, “WHAT ARE WE DOING HERE??”. Getting this breathless ejaculation (lol) out ahead of time ensures that I won’t have to waste precious seconds standing around while they scramble to explain the obstacle or the route, something I’ve had to do way too many times.

I’ll let something like that slide.

Other things are unacceptable.

Imagine if you showed up to work on Monday at your job as, lets say a cop, and your boss gave you a map of your intended weekly patrol. You did the route, things went smoothly, and that was that. As you’re headed out the door on Friday your boss pulls you into his office. He says, “Look, I had way too many things on my plate this week, and it looks like I messed up the patrol route you were supposed to take. My unpaid intern is supposed to double-check schedules, but he also failed to notice it. He’s an idiot, after all. Yea, one of us is probably responsible for it, but regardless, you technically didn’t do what you didn’t know that you probably should have done (might have to read that line over a couple of times), so I’m not going to pay you for this week’s work.”

Sure, that’s a shitty analogy, but it’s also a downright shitty situation. Swap in race directors and volunteers and you have something I’ve dealt with multiple times this year.

When healthy, I’ve had a great year of racing. I managed to podium quite a few times in bigger money races while somehow miraculously avoiding most of the good racers in the sport.

But I’ve also been lost in races (due to volunteers or poorly marked courses) 4 times so far this year. This has resulted in 2 DQs, 1 vacated win, and a minimum of $1,000 in lost winnings (and if I end up losing the stadium points series, potentially thousands more). And for someone not doing anything else, a couple thousand dollars can be a substantial windfall. Or a substantial loss.

I’m not the only one. Most racers (open and elite alike, and in almost all current race series) have been lost or sent the wrong way on course. The snafus that open heat runners face are frustrating, sure, but to us, they’re a whole ‘nother level of ridiculous- they can literally cost us thousands of dollars.

Hunter and Brakken had it happen in Tampa last year. Chad had it happen in Hawaii. Cody, John, Miguel, Isaiah, April… name a racer and they’ve lost money because of this.

Most recently, three of the top women were lost in this weekend’s New Jersey Beast.(supposedly misdirected by a volunteer)

These ladies took time away from work and families to travel across the country to race, including Chikorita, who came from Mexico. Travel, food, rental cars (some of this is of course covered by sponsors, but still…) were all dependent upon winnings. And the unofficial response? Sorry ladies, but that’s a part of the racing. No money for you. Better luck next weekend.

FACT:

Marking a course is not hard. Actually, its pretty easy. (Of course, those of you who raced the Ohio Beast last year are probably under the impression that marking a course is the most difficult thing in the world)

The rule of thumb is to go overboard with markings and tape. My personal theory is that during a race, athlete’s IQ’s are 2/3 of what they normally are. If you give a fatigued racer even a split second of confusion, they’re going to mess up. So when marking, don’t give a racer the opportunity to make a choice. This isn’t an adventure race. They’re not out there to think.

There are certain races that people never get lost at. All the races do is put gas flags or tape the entire way. This solution is really simple, and really cheap. Like, dollars for miles of tape or a few bucks for a box of tiny flags.

I’ve run quite a few races throughout the years. Marathons, trail races, cross-country, etc. Never have I gotten lost. And yet I’ve consistently gotten lost in OCR races.

It’s finally become a discussion topic online, but look closely: None of the top racers will ever chime in with an opinion that could be construed as negative. Interpret this as you will.

The discourse occurring in these discussions is often skewed.  Each person chiming in seems to be only looking at it from their own perspective. Which usually consists of three viewpoints: “I wasn’t lost, so it must not have been a problem”, “I got lost, so of course it needs to be changed” or “I got lost, but it was fine because that’s the OCR way and I always give my all, AROO. I guess I don’t really have a point, I just wanted to talk about myself. Here’s the obligatory shirtless flexing picture for anyone interested.”

Here are the only important questions:

Did people get lost at the race?
YES

Were those who became lost top racers, racers who race constantly, have loads of experience on a course, and who should therefore be the least likely to get lost?
YES

So getting lost was officially a problem. Case closed.


Final Thoughts

The randomness of OCR is perhaps the coolest aspect to it. Anything that can go wrong probably will go wrong at some point. Obstacles, burpees, grip strength, etc, all lend a sense of unpredictability to finishing order that is unmatched by almost any other sport outside snowboard cross. As much as I might dread a spear throw, I love the fact that it can shake the race up.  This style of racing means that anyone can come away with a podium finish on a given day. Upsets are standard. Look at the Spartan Cruise results and the recent Battlefrog race dnfs. There’s no such thing as a cakewalk anymore (Well… Ryan Atkins might have something to say about that..)

So the deck is already pretty stacked against consistent performances. But that’s the sport. Its fair. What’s not fair, however, is incompetency on the part of those in charge of the race costing us opportunities.

This is one area where race companies need to let profits take the backseat. Courses need to be perfectly marked. Volunteers need to be better educated, or replaced by full-time staff.

Maybe someday OCR will follow track and field’s path and make the jump to the big leagues. We’ll spend our nights lying comfortably in 5-star hotels supplied by promoters, dreaming about what we’ll be spending our 6-figure appearance fees on. Until then, I’ll spend my pre-race nights sleeping outside the venue, eating ramen out of the bag, and losing my mindoverdramatizing trivial issues.


***After the fact edit***

I’ve had plenty of questions about which races I’m talking about and possible solutions, so here’s a quick recap of what I’ve sent to people and posted in comments (as usual, keep in mind that technically I am employed by Spartan and therefore may not be unbiased)-

Spartan Race has been making some big changes to their officiating system. This system has been spearheaded by Robert Coble and Kevin Donoghue and has resulted in a pretty successful implementation of knowledgeable, experienced racers being present on course and acting in official positions. Look around at your next race and you’ll probably see zebra-striped ref shirts moving about the course, tracking the top racers, overseeing obstacles and videotaping burpee completions. Other races need to follow this trend. It’s the only way to cut down on people cheating and or skipping obstacles in races. 

Now, does this fix the whole course marking fiasco? Nope, but that issue is really easy to fix as addressed above. 


 

3 thoughts on “Rant of the Week: Race Volunteers and Poorly Marked Courses are Why I’m Stuck Eating Ramen

  1. I’ve had the thought that OCR’s reliance on volunteer labor on race day is a bit sketchy. But following that, I’ve wondered what a “professional” course marshaling staff would even look like, and what it would do to the economics of the sport (entry fees for me, perhaps prizes for the fast people). Do you have any thoughts/ideas about the practical matters of what it would take for OCR to get from its current state to a more professionalized one? I think it should, and could, but I don’t have nearly a wide enough perspective to map out a path.

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  2. Nathan A.

    I volunteered recently at a race where the volunteers misdirected a couple elites on a course that was pretty straight forward. The problem was the staff was so busy setting up important stuff and waterproofing equipment that they didn’t have time to educate the vols until 10 mins before race time. The vols were standing around about 30 mins doing nothing until then.

    I love this race series and the staff involved. They were so very nice to me. That is why I would greatly encourage them or any other race staff to designate one person to oversee the vols the hour before the elite heat to educate them. Who cares if the vols see the course and learn the obstacles before the race? Or even see a map of the course? Will some of them tell their favorite racers about the course if asked? Probably. But, most of the elites have seen a vast majority of obstacles. Much better to have vols who know what to do and where to go than worry about racers spying for an advantage.

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  3. Spartan is actually moving forward towards that idea of a course marshaling staff. A higher up like Robert Coble or Kevin Donoghue is present on course and at most of the obstacles during elite waves. They’ve also been utilizing a video camera at certain obstacles. After the race they’ll check the video to make sure that top racers completed the obstacles properly/did all penalty burpees.

    But is this sustainable throughout the day and uniform from race to race? Nope. And it also doesn’t really address the whole getting lost part of racing.

    I think the solution is simple and inexpensive. if races ditch the whole secrecy thing and make courses open to viewing, obstacles relate confusion will disappear. If courses are marked better, volunteers won’t be responsible for directing racers. Now they can do what they were meant to do- encourage racers, call for help for those injured, etc.

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