Road Race Formulas - Part I

By: Dave McGillivray

I receive a lot of emails from event directors asking me if I have any “magic formulas” when calculating “how much” of a particular product is needed or equipment or having to do with the race budget or administration of the race. I always respond by giving a strong disclaimer that whereas I am happy to offer some advice in this regard, what I am suggesting is not necessarily an industry standard but is just “Dave’s Formula” best on my own personal view of things and experience during the past 35 years in the business. In many cases, there is no right or wrong, just personal preferences.

Additionally, with every formula, there can and should be lots of conditions and parameters included because many times “one size does not fit all.” For this exercise, I will limit my responses to races of distances between 5K and 10K. 

As such, I could write a novel on each one but for the sake of brevity here, I’ll just give my best general response with the caveat that I know everything is conditional and dependent on the unique circumstances each race is faced with. OK, here we go.

How many portable restrooms do I order for my race?

FORMULA – Most go with 1 unit per 100 participants. If you have more than 50% women, then go with 1 unit per 75. And, if you want to be a real hero and can afford it and have space, go with 1 unit per 50 participants.

Ratio of sponsorship income to entry fee income?

FORMULA – I’ve always felt that in small or mid-size races (1,000 to 5,000), if you could secure as much in cash sponsorship as you get in entry fee revenue, you have a very healthy event. If it is closer to a 50% ratio, you are still doing well. If you have virtually no cash sponsors, then you probably are at financial risk and really need to be careful how you spend your hard-earned entry fee only revenue.

What is the typical no-show rate for volunteers?

FORMULA – Of course it depends on the event as well as the weather along with other factors. However, the average volunteer no-show rate seems to be between 3 and 8 percent so it is always best to recruit at least this many more than you absolutely need on race day.

What is the typical no-show rate for participants? 

FORMULA – I have found that one of the biggest factors impacting the no-show rate for participants is when (date) they actually registered for the race. If it is more than three or four months in advance, then the no-show rate can be as high as 20-25 percent. Certainly, if the race sells out fast, perhaps in a day or two causing people to register right away even if they are not totally sure they will be racing, the no-show rate is higher. However, on average across the board, we have seen the no-show rates being between 8% and 15% across all races. 

How much space do I need at the start line to line up all my runners?

FORMULA – I typically use 3 square feet per person. Not a perfect science. Some use 4 square feet to load and give runners more space to stretch and warm up a little. When the system “collapses”, that is, right before the gun fires and people pack together, it probably then reduces to closer to 2 to 2 ½ square feet per person. When designing a corral system, I’ll measure or step off about 3,000 square feet for 1,000 runners. It is critical to be sure before you start lining up your runners that you indeed have enough space to accommodate everyone you need to.

How large does a race need to be to make a profit to either keep or contribute to a charity?

FORMULA – only your budget can truly answer this one. Before you make a commitment to give money to a charity, you first have to determine exactly where this money is coming from. Percentage of sponsor fees or entry fees? Net proceeds? Fundraising by participants? Suffice to say, the more you get in cash sponsorship and the more entrants you have in your race then the greater chance you will have “proceeds” to pass along to your beneficiary. It all comes down to simple math. However, I would think any race under 300 runners would not generate much in terms of a charitable contribution. Once you get over 1,000 runners, then if you plan and organize properly, you should be able to make a reasonable contribution after all the bills are paid.

How much water and cups do I need for my race? 

FORMULA – of course, this will all depend on the distance of the race, how many participants and, most importantly, the weather conditions and temperature. My feeling is that no race should ever run out of water. Again, like the above, it is simple math. You can get really sophisticated with this or just use a simple formula. Under pleasant conditions, I would plan for 1 ½ cups of water per person per water station. Under more severe conditions, I would plan for at least 2 cups of water per person. As we all know, runners both drink the water and pour it over their head and face to cool down in hot conditions. We all know there are many more factors involved such as how much water is placed in the cups, how many water stations are placed along the course, access by all the runners to each station, how many volunteers working the station and ability to keep pace with the density of runners, etc., etc.

How much food/refreshments do I need for my race?

FORMULA – As for finish line food/snacks, I always like to have between three and five different choices, so ideally four, perhaps fruit, bagel, granola and even cookie or chips. As for drink, ideally two choices, water, and electrolyte solution (Gatorade, Powerade, Ultima, etc.). As for the quantity of each, ideally one unit per person so you hopefully don’t run out especially if some people take more than their fair share. I wouldn’t go with much less than 75% to 80% of the anticipated number of finishers. No good deed goes unpunished when you run out of a product that most but not all receive.