That was us again this June after volunteering at the Kaniksu 50 & Emory Corwin Memorial Ruck Race. Whip out the jam, because we? Were toast.
The overwhelming difference was this particular trail hangover felt a bit unnecessary.
First year races are hard logistically, doubly so for first time race directors. Among the many logistical considerations to balance:
- How are you going to keep runners safe? This includes communications plans, medic access, a sweep, consistent course marking, cut-offs, and clear communication of both the course and your expectations to runners, volunteers, and spectators. You also have to balance insurance and permit conditions, weighing potential liability areas.
- How are you going to ensure that participants have reasonable expectations of the course? This includes maps, elevation charts, photos and/or description of course sections, aid station descriptions.
- How are you going to ensure that participants have reasonable expectations of the event? This includes driving directions and travel descriptions as necessary, access to amenities (camping, lodging, gas, bathrooms, etc), and a clear description of what post-race will look like (awards, post-race food, etc).
Austin Reed, the Kaniksu Race Director, is a U.S. Air Force Survival Instructor. He's clearly disciplined and well-trained and resoundingly enthusiastic about his race, run in memory and in honor of a dear friend of his who died June 15th, 2012, and that organization showed in many aspects of this first-time event.
First, the things that were well-organized:
- Sponsors. Kaniksu had an array of sponsors, and they were quite visible: Big banners, swag bags full of promotional materials – it felt like a big race in that regard. (Not saying that all races need to be that way; Rainshadow races are intentionally not sponsored the same way, to keep a grassroots feel.)
- Communication. Every aid station had a radio, as did each of the out-and-back turn-around points, and a central radio command was set-up at the high point of the course to help ensure clear radio channels. Additionally, each aid station had check-in and check-out sheets, where they kept track of what time every participant checked in and checked out of their location.
- Maps. The course maps were well-done, and every runner was given one with their race check-in. Additionally, Austin had maps for crews that wanted them, and the maps included both the race course and the driving route recommended.
- Road signs. The driving route itself was flagged, so that once crews jumped on the forest service roads, they could just follow signs the entire way through.
- Post-race. The post-race spread was substantial, and it sounded like many of the race teams and crews partied through the night quite happily.
- Course-marking. The course was marked extremely sporadically – overly marked in big sections, then barely marked at all in other long sections. As Austin put it, “I'll mark where it's confusing, but won't mark where it's not,” which is all well and good, except that when runners get tired, they also need some consistency in the marking so they know they're still on the right course.
- Cut-offs. 24 hours is just waaaaay too long for a 50-mile cut-off. Way too long. Especially when the majority of your race participants are participating in the ruck-sack relay, and thus, aren't even running 50-miles. The longest relay leg was around 14 miles, and there was a leg as short as 5.
- Communication. The afore-mentioned coms were great when they worked, but once the last runner / rucksacker got through the high point of the course (roughly mile 23), the central communications tower there came down, and then never really got set up again. So, in other words, race staff & volunteers knew where everyone was on the course for the first twelve hours, and then had no real good idea after that, which given the number of rucksackers out in the dark, was probably not the best from a safety / liability standpoint.
- Driving route. Having the driving route marked was great, as long as crews didn't leave that route. Once all the runners and rucksackers were past a section, though, the driving directional signs were taken down, meaning that if a crew left the designated route, they didn't necessarily have the signs to get back. The maps helped, but without the signs there were several crews that got lost, or didn't get back to the runner exchange areas in time for their teammates.
- Self-sufficiency / runners' expectations. There were a number of rucksackers that really had no business being on the course. They weren't properly trained, weren't prepared for the terrain (or trails in general, really), and definitely weren't ready to be out in the dark. Yet, because they were given 24 hours to complete the 50-mile course, they were still on target (or just behind). Had one team not been pulled at the mile 35 aid station, they likely would have been out all night, despite the fact that a) their headlamps were sub-par at best, b) none of them had any overnight trail experience, c) a storm was likely blowing in, and d) none of them knew how to take care of basic needs (calories, water, etc) while on trail. Austin told runners the course was difficult, but giving runners and rucksackers the opportunity to be out on trails overnight means those runners and rucksackers needed to be better vetted, and more experienced for long, long days (and nights) on the trails if the race is going to stick with such long cut-offs.
- Crew expectations. Very few crews were prepared for a full day (and possibly night) driving forest service roads, some of which were a bit rough in numerous places. Nor did they know that if they left the driving directions, they weren't going to be able to navigate themselves back; most crews followed the signs originally, and so didn't pay much attention to where they were driving. Yes, this is also on the crews, but race staff could have done a much better job of communicating with crews what the day would likely look like.
- Volunteer expectations. Most of the “volunteers” had little to no idea what they were getting into, what runners or rucksackers might need, where they were on the course (or where the course went from there), nor were they actually volunteers, as most of them were required to be there as part of their affiliation with Fairchild Airforce Base, and the Survival program therein. Outside of that, they were friendly and helpful, but they weren't knowledgeable about the race/relay itself, nor did they really know what they were doing or what questions to ask runners and rucksackers to help ensure participants were taking care of themselves while they were on the course.
- Contingency plans. There really weren't any. When one of the ladies on the first relay leg was really struggling (because, again, she hadn't trained and wasn't prepared for what she was doing), her team became convinced she must have hurt herself, but there was no way to seemingly check on her or her progress. Radio communications should have been plenty there, as her splits in and out of the aid station (on both sides of the out-and-back) should have been evidence enough that she was moving slowly, and thus, there wasn't reason for alarm. There wasn't a plan for dealing with weather, which became a potential issue later at night, when teams weren't prepared for storms. Fortunately, the storms skirted the course, but there could have been real issues with trying to find and evacuate someone at night, as teams were ill-equipped for weather and would easily have been quickly hypothermic or worse.
To sum: The Kaniksu 50 & Emory Corwin Memorial Ruck Sack Relay was this year somewhat of a mess. Plenty of things went right, some of which were the result of good planning and some of which were by happy accident. We know Austin is well-loved in the local military community, and we know, too, that he's super invested in this race, and thus, we believe it will get better: He's already looking at ways to improve the rucksack relay, and we all know that first-time events have a steep learning curve.
We just won't be there next time.