9 Invaluable Pieces of Race Planning Advice From an Experienced Race Director


I regularly receive questions from people who have a wonderful cause and want to raise funds for it by putting on a running event. It’s an admirable idea, but I’ve learned not to sugar coat my responses. Here are nine important things to keep in mind for someone just starting off in the industry, as a sort-of race director’s checklist:

1. Figure Out Your Promotional Hook

With so many running events available, what is unique about yours? What is the special sauce . . . the niche that makes yours STAND OUT from the others? For example, you could have a unique medal, race award ideas, theme, cause, t-shirt, finish location, or even distance.

If you don’t have this hook, you will blend in with the crowd and have a difficult time attracting participants.

2. Plan Around the Other Events Already Offered in Your Area

Do your homework when you plan a race and research which events are happening on which weekends so you don’t overlap and compete for participants. Avoid holding your event on days that are already saturated with races in your area.

I look on runmichigan.com, which provides a calendar of the running events all over Michigan. Most states and cities have similar websites. A site like Raceplace.com also provides event listings all over the U.S.

3. Determine the Best Distance and Start Time

The location and season can make a difference for your race. For example, shorter distances generally attract more participation in winter, as do earlier start times in summer. Referencing #2, see what other race distances are happening around the time you’d like to hold your event and try to do something different. If you plan a 5K event on a Saturday, it could still draw a crowd even if there’s a 10K event the next day.

4. Create a Budget

Take the time to determine your budget! Count each cost and track spending. Get detailed and itemize everything down to potential printing costs, pop-ups for race day check-in and registration, and tables and chairs for volunteers at check-in stations. You can even tag expenses by “mandatory” and “optional” to help you prioritize what’s important when money gets tight. Check out this blog on creating a race budget and this handy cost calculator here.


5. Don’t Bank on Local Sponsors

Everyone thinks they can easily obtain local sponsors. Not true! Businesses are bombarded with requests. Be prepared to expand your search for sponsors outside your local area. Think about your participants and what types of products and services they might be interested in. They don’t have to only be related to your race.

6. Carefully Determine Your Registration Fee

For this one, it’s really important to know your area. I live in a county that was hit hard by the recession several years ago, so I can’t charge the same registration fee as another county that weathered the economic storm. You can offer a lot of expensive amenities, but if your registration fee is too high for the area, people won’t pay it. For advice, you can ask the company providing your online race registration software for the average registration fees in your area.

7. Roll out less and offer your BEST!

It’s about quality versus quantity. Start with a 5K and build something that is well-run and attracts a solid base of participants. Make sure you have a reliable staff in place and are operating within your budget.

Once you’ve gotten to that point and you’re doing an incredible job with your 5K, then you can add another distance the following year to your event.

8. Keep Your Promises

Keep your word to both participants and sponsors. Your reputation will precede you and define you. If you promise the biggest finishers’ medal anyone’s ever seen, then you better deliver it! Or if you tell sponsors their banners will be the only ones at the finish line, you cannot go back on that…even if another, bigger sponsor signs on at the 11th hour. Stick to your word and it will pay off.

9. Be a Good Communicator

I value everyone’s emails and communications. You will have people contacting you with short, quick questions about logistics as well as more complicated questions about road closure plans. Respond within 24 hours if you can, with heart! In today’s world, expectations are high when it comes to customer service and you’ll want to meet and exceed them.

Want some more words of wisdom from another race director with chops? Check out what Jeremy Lowry from Race DC Timing told us last month on what are his top 10 tips on how to plan a 5K.

Nancy was a contributing writer to our guide on planning a race. Download our guide on how to plan a 5K here.

You can also contact us and we’ll be glad to share industry best practices with you on everything from 5K race management software to race day management.

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About the Author, Nancy Lee Smith

Race Director

Nancy was born in Fort Wayne, IN. She holds a B.A. in Elementary Education and Special Education, and a M.A. in Early Childhood Education. She has taught for over 26 years and is currently a 3rd-grade teacher for Utica Community Schools. Nancy ran her first marathon in 1979 and has finished 33 marathons (15 consecutive Boston Marathons) since, as well as several 5Ks, 10Ks, and half marathons. She acts as a volunteer race director for events such as the Halloween Hustle 5K & 10K and the Freeze Your Franny 5K, of which all proceeds are donated to local charities. Nancy also works under the direction of The Parade Company in Detroit for several races, and is a captain under the direction of Doug Kurtis for two additional events.