Every now and then it feels good to be recognized when people know who you are, what you do and what you have done. Then there are times when it might be better not to be recognized at all or, as I like to call it, “being incognito.”
In 2014, I decided to run in many of the races I was directing. I would line up in the middle of the pack and keep to myself. I wasn’t purposely trying to be secretive, I was just keeping to myself and focusing on my own personal effort.
As I waited for the start, inevitably runners around me would start talking to each other about the event itself – whether they’ve run it before or if it was an easy or tough course or how things were going for them that day. It was interesting to listen to the chatter without them knowing that the Race Director was standing right next to them! Lucky for me, most of the time the comments were positive and complimentary…but not always! In most cases, I never revealed my identity but just went on my merry way, making a mental notation of the good, the bad and the sometimes ugly comments.
Last year I ran a marathon in Virginia. I felt I was safe there, as no one would know me in Virginia. However, given that I was the keynote speaker at the pasta dinner the night before, I figured a few folks might put two and two together.
Like always, I lined up at my expected pace and just blended in. Off we went and I settled in with a guy carrying the 4-hour pace group sign. I don’t wear headphones because I want to hear everything going on around me. However, I do run with a voice recorder as I like to record my thoughts as I “critique” the race on my own, especially noting any unique ideas or concepts that the race has developed (we Race Directors like to steal good ideas from each other). I pay particular attention to the efficiency of the start, layout of course water stations, course directional signs or devices, and finish area amenities, as well as many other operational and logistical areas of race management.
There were about 10 runners in the group all chatting with each other. Years and years ago, when I was more competitive and running between a 5:30 and 6:00 minute pace, you would never experience anyone talking to each other in the race at that pace. Now, as I run slower, I realize it is an entirely different experience when running a 9:00 or 9:30 pace. The conversations among the runners at this pace can go on and on and on for the entire race!
I was just minding my own business but listening in on the conversation (I think they call that eavesdropping). Then it happened, as it always seems to happen when running a marathon: the conversation turns to BOSTON. One person asks the other what they hope to run for a time and the other says “I’m just trying to run fast enough to qualify for Boston” and off they go into a deep discussion about Boston – how many times each of them have run it, or that they will never be able to qualify, or about the qualifying standards and why now the women’s standards are different than the men’s, given that it seems there are more women running now than men. Or, they will talk about where they were during the bombing or why there is no baggage program anymore or how the race is managed.
Now I have one of two choices to make – do I stick around and listen to what they are saying or separate myself from them? If I do decide to stay, do I come clean and say, “Hey, I may know a little about that subject” and reveal who I am?
In most cases, I actually don’t mention who I am and listen carefully to what people are saying – their comments are more honest that way. The runners in this group happened to be talking about the qualifying times for Boston, so I decided to come clean. “Hi, I’m the Director of the Boston Marathon, so I can fill you in a little.” The looks on their face are priceless, especially if they were just being critical of the race. I go on to answer their questions and straighten out the facts. Most of the time I have found that comments are made without having all the real facts and once you explain why something is the way it is, most folks get it.
I’m not afraid of or angry with someone criticizing something I’m doing or once did. I want to improve, so hearing what runners are saying is the only way I’m going to improve. Besides, if I don’t reveal who I am, they may even think I made the adjustment or improvement on my own when it was actually all of them who deserve the credit!!
This must have been how Zorro felt, the masked rider in the Disney® television hit! The word Zorro means “fox”. Hmmmm…seems to fit me perfectly. So, be careful what you are saying when running in a road race. You just never know if the Race Director is running alongside you, taking it all in!
In conclusion, we should never be upset or frustrated by feedback (even if negative) from participants in our races, as their comments can actually help us make our races even better. And, although hearing their feedback candidly, honestly, immediately in the moment and unfiltered may sting a little, it can be exactly what you need to know to elevate your event to another level and make it a memorable experience for all your participants.
Just remember that their comments are often based on not having all the facts, so you have to keep it all in perspective and not over react to them! It’s not always easy being a Race Director. In fact, I have a button in my office that says, “My job is secure, no one else wants it!”