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Kopac's Corner

Who Let The Dogs Out? aka Who Let The Cows Out?

by Bob Kopac

Runners who have never helped organize a race miss out on the excitement of battling the unexpected, for Murphy's Law also applies to races. Overcoming problems so that runners enjoy the race can be challenging, frequently exhilarating, and ultimately rewarding. And there always are unanticipated events.

One September at the Mid-Hudson Road Runners Club (MHRRC) Dutchess County Classic Marathon in Poughkeepsie, New York, the runners encountered cows crossing the road; the runners (and the race organizers) never expected an obstacle course. Another year the runners had to hurdle fire hoses stretched across the road from the town hall to a nearby pond, for the volunteer fire department had decided to practice that day.

Sometimes the problems are not as humorous. Former Classic race director Charlie Sprauer said that one year a speeding car refused to slow down at a water stop. In frustration, a volunteer threw water onto the car's windshield. That action started a chain of events. The driver stopped and started to fight with the volunteer; a passing bike volunteer rode up and joined in the fracas; a few runners became involved, thus participating in a duathlon; then the police appeared. Eventually Charlie was able to persuade the parties involved into dropping all charges.

Lori Christina, the outgoing president of the Hudson-Mohawk Road Runners Club (HMRRC) of Albany, New York, said she does not endorse, but understands, the volunteer's response. Once, while directing traffic at the Saratoga Lakes [NY] Body and Soul Triathlon, she became so angry when a car would not stop that she sat on the hood of the car. Kids, don't try this at home. Remember, Lori is a professional--she hails from New York City. Enough said.

Lori's most embarrassing moment as race director was when she wrecked not one but two rental trucks after the Mohawk Hudson River Marathon. A volunteer had returned a truck to the rental agency, but there still were flags and cones inside the truck. The next day Lori picked up the vehicle and made a sharp left turn out of the lot--a VERY sharp left turn. Crunch! She had hit another rental truck on the lot. Addendum: the race lost money that year.

If problems occur at an established race, imagine the problems that can occur at an inaugural run. Bob Tutt of the Onteora Runners' Club (ORC), an RRCA club, attended the first Asparagus Run in upstate New York. That year, the neophyte volunteers recorded the times of only the first 3 finishers because, as one of the organizers was overheard to say, "We only have 3 stop watches!"

Problems are not limited to smaller races. I asked Don Kardong (1976 Olympic marathoner, writer, lecturer, and former RRCA president) about the Spokane [Washington] Bloomsday Race. With 50,000-60,000 entrants, there should be many opportunities for unforeseen events.

Don told me, "I've been involved in the race since the beginning, so I've seen my share of the unexpected. In fact, almost everything that happens is unexpected, from the invited runners who don't show up (or pick up their numbers), to the flat tire on the press truck, to the advertising banners that are strung dangerously over the course at the last minute, to unauthorized vehicles blocking the course, the impromptu radio stations that set up and blast bad music that interferes with our communications.

"But I think the most unexpected, the thing that managed to delay the start of the race for the only time in our history, was the wheelchair racer who flipped his chair over an embankment. The wheelchair athletes start 15 minutes before the crowd, and as this guy headed down the first downhill at full tilt, his wheel caught the curb, which basically flung him and his chair down the embankment. The ambulances that went to get him blocked the roadway, so we had to put a 15-minute pause on the adrenaline rush of 50,000 runners. It was very, very weird to be standing there while they retrieved the guy and got the road open again. By the way, he was fine."

Often many problems are minor. Mark French directs the early-September Old Chatham 5K, the RRCA New York State 5K Championship race. He said, "After this year's race, I received a note from a walker who said the drummers on the course slowed down their beat when the walkers got to that part of the course. The walkers told the drummers they were disappointed that the beat had slowed and asked for it to get picked up. The drummers did respond. The walkers referred to the experience as 'pace discrimination.'"

John Farrow, 1998 RRCA Club Writer of the Year, related the following anecdote. "Last year was my first as a member of the board of directors of our Duke City Marathon in Albuquerque [New Mexico]. That year, we were fortunate to have Kenyan Catherine Ndereba and several of her well-known countrymen registered in either the marathon or the half-marathon. These were by far the best-known foreign runners yet in our race. However, none of them made it to the starting line.

"After the race started, the coordinator of elite runners found them sitting on a curb less than a block from the starting line. They had been waiting for someone to personally escort them to the start. He wasn't aware that they were expecting such treatment. This year, we assigned a volunteer for each elite to make certain he or she got to the start."

Trail races as well as road races face the unexpected. One year at the mid-October MHRRC Billy Goat 5K Trail Run, race directors Wayne McDaniel and Nick Lamando had a live billy goat to provide atmosphere, in more ways than one. Before the race started, the goat broke free and headed for the starting line. Although not seeded, the goat probably wanted to get a good starting position. Attempting to capture the goat gave the runners an unusual pre-race warm-up. I was glad the race was not the Mountain Lion Trail Run.

Perhaps there is an epidemic of goat problems at trail races? Nancy Hobbs, the executive director of the All American Trail Running Association (AATRA), related the following story. "As a race director, you should always be prepared for anything. At the 2000 U.S. Fila Half SkyMarathon, the course director noticed a herd of goats on the course as he was marking the route. After consulting with the U.S. Forest Service, he found that the herd was on a migration pattern and should not be disturbed. During packet pickup the night before the race, we announced our decision to shorten the course by approximately one mile so the race would not disturb the goats."

Trail runs sometimes lead one astray, Nancy recalled. "An unfortunate trail race experience happened when I went off course at a 16 miler... Unfortunately, the same [neon] flagging that was used to mark the course was used to mark construction areas, and I took the construction route as opposed to the race route. After about 10 minutes, I realized something was amiss because I no longer saw course markings nor did I see or hear anyone around me... I finally reached the town dump and realized where I was, about 2 miles from the finish line. I was not the only one who took the wrong turn. Apparently some of the proper flagging had been removed by vandals or eaten by wild animals [goats?] the night before the race. Let that be a lesson to check flagging the morning of the race."

Perhaps the controlled setting of a track series means there are no problems? Perhaps not. One year at the Friday MHRRC Summer Track Series, it was runners versus football players. There was a conflict over the use of the track-and-football field. After heated discussions, the football coaches admitted they had booked the field from Monday through Thursday only. However, they wanted to hold football practice on Friday because they had canceled Wednesday's practice due to rain. Hearing this, the race organizers had no sympathy, for, as we well know, runners run in all weather. Don Kardong once wrote about running through the ash fallout of Mount Saint Helens. So what was a little torrential downpour?

Even when a race has ended, problems still can surface. At the October 1999 MHRRC Schlathaus Park 5K Run, the race started and finished with no problems. As the volunteers were cleaning up, a bus pulled into the farmer's market across the road. Off the bus stepped a college track team from Brooklyn. The coach had seen the MHRRC race posted on the RRCA web site and had decided to bring the team upstate. Unfortunately, the bus driver had chosen the wrong exit off the New York State Thruway, resulting in their taking the "scenic route" to the race. What to do? Race director Linda Stow polled her volunteers. All decided to stay and re-stage the race for the track team. Thus the MHRRC had two Schlathaus Park 5K runs that year.

Not all snafus occur on race day. Dutchess County Classic director Pat DeHaven used a vacation day from work to distribute race flyers at several businesses. While passing the Town of Rosendale Recreation Center, he serendipitously decided to leave flyers there. After parking his car in the nearly deserted parking lot, Pat went inside the recreation center but could not find anyone in charge. As Pat left the building, he was just in time to see a sport utility vehicle rapidly back out of a parking space and slam into Pat's car. The driver thought the lot was empty--his visibility had been blocked by antique bed posts he was hauling. To add insult to auto injury, Pat never left any race flyers!

Here is one last personal example to prove race misfortunes can come swiftly and unexpectedly. In 1999, I was delivering flyers to the houses and apartments along the Dutchess County Classic course to inform people about race-day traffic conditions. As I was about to place a flyer under a doormat, the door opened, and a woman came out with two dogs on leashes. As I backed up, she said, "Don't worry, my dog doesn't bite." I handed her a flyer. In that split second, I realized my error in judgment. Instantly one dog leapt and sank its fangs into the underside of my upper left arm. As I stared in disbelief at the blood--my blood!--she said the inevitable: "That's not my dog!" It was her roommate's dog.

For Mid-Hudson Road Runners Club (an RRCA club) NY races, see the http://www.mhrrc.org web site.

For Hudson-Mohawk Road Runners Club NY races, see the http://www.hmrrc.com web site.

For the Spokane, WA Bloomsday 12K race, see the http://www.bloomsdayrun.org web site.

For the Albuquerque, NM Duke City Marathon, see the http://www.dukecitymarathon.com web site.

For trail races, see the http://www.trailrunner.com web site.

For races throughout the country, see the http://www.rrca.org web site.