By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer
Running is alive and well in this country. Last year, road races attracted a record eight million entries. A new breed of charity events introduced walkers and joggers to running. The running calendar grew dramatically, to the delight of avid racers.
The rapid expansion of the racing scene had its share of growing pains. Many races were organized in haste by inexperienced directors and untrained volunteers, leading to frustration and disappointment.
A successful road race requires three ingredients: safety, accuracy and frills.
The safety of the runners and volunteers is the highest priority. Ideally, the entire course is closed to vehicular traffic for the duration of the race. Intersections are blocked and marshaled. Lead and trail vehicles delimit the field. Water stations are located at the start and finish lines, and every two miles on the course. Workers inspect the route prior to the race, fill potholes, and clear debris.
A wide start area reduces the risk of a stampede. Walkers and joggers start at the back of the pack for their protection. Bicycles, roller blades, skateboards, headphones, strollers, baby joggers and dogs are not allowed on the course. Medical personnel are on site to respond to emergencies.
Temperature extremes and thunderstorms can be deadly. A responsible race director respects nature, and acts conservatively.
The accuracy of the results separates a race from a fun run. Accurate results require an accurately measured distance and accurate finishing times and places. A course certified by USA Track & Field insures the accuracy of the stated distance, but only if the certified course is run on race day. The start and finish lines, and the turn around, must be placed according to the course certificate.
A serious road race starts on time, permitting runners to warm-up properly. Kilometer and mile splits are clearly marked. Volunteers read out splits as runners pass.
Finish line management has grown into a science. Before the race, the director and the officials decide on the chute design, timer allocation, tear-off bib collection, and bandit processing. Runner information is entered into a computer. Volunteers are assigned to key positions.
The race distance and the number of entries determine the peak traffic across the finish line, and dictate the length and number of chutes. Chute design must also allow the free movement of race workers and emergency personnel.
Three timers with tape printers are required at the finish line. Each timer records every finisher. An additional select timer captures the times and numbers of selected finishers for result validation.
Race results require the use of computers. The operator types or scans each bib number into a program, which converts it into a runner's name, sex and age. The computer then sorts the finishers into age groups, and identifies the award winners. Finally, the operator matches the times to the names. Therefore, the integrity of the entrants data base is vital for accurate results.
The race director is responsible for submitting complete results to the local media and to the Road Racing Information Center of USATF. National rankings and records require a complete list of finishers and signed timing tapes. In fairness to the runners who invest time and energy, every race must comply with USATF's requirements.
The post-race party may be the best excuse for running a race. Many races offer finishers ribbons or medals, free foods and drinks, loud music, showers, massages, blood pressure tests, celebrity photo opportunities, and random drawings. A fancy post-race party attracts many racers to fun runs, and makes up for the absence of results.
As new events fill the calendar, there is room for races catering to the serious runners as well as runs promoting health and community spirit. A run is a race only if it passes the rigors of accuracy. It is the duty of organizers to advertise fairly, and the responsibility of runners to shop smart.
Kamal Jabbour runs and writes on the hills of Pompey, New York. He spices his racing calendar with obscure fun runs featuring all-you-can-eat smorgasbords. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. He maintains The Syracuse Running Page and receives email at firstname.lastname@example.org.