DESIGNING YOUR RACE COURSE

DAVE MCGILLIVRAY

With all due respect to everything involved in creating a new road race, the course and the management of the course is arguably the most important aspect of your event. Make one critical mistake and you are toast—runners going the wrong way, vehicle seepage, distance not accurate, etc. Most of us have less help and resources available throughout the course than we do at either the start or the finish. 

So, what should you consider when designing a new race course? Here are some questions you need to first answer, along with a few of my personal recommendations:

WHAT TYPE OF EVENT ARE YOU CREATING?

  • What distance are you considering?
  • Are you considering multiple distances?
  • Are you looking purely for a large field size?

Ideally, you want to get it right the first time, otherwise, if you have to re-design it, it is like starting all over again. Your expectation of your ultimate field size will make a difference as to where you can hold it.

WHAT ARE YOUR COURSE OBJECTIVES?

  • It is a balancing act to satisfy everyone—runners, community, sponsors, spectators, race management.
  • Is it important to tour a city or community and show the highlights of the area?
  • You need to determine what is important to runners. Is it a flat, fast and scenic course or something else?
  • Determine what is important to the community. Often, it usually is any course that minimizes community impact to residents and businesses. 
  • Sometimes certain course aspects may be important to your sponsor.
  • Consider a spectator-friendly design.
  • List out the pros and cons of an urban vs. a rural course.
  • Be aware of the width of the road so as to accommodate the field size and allow for future growth. 

START POINT AND FINISH POINT

  • Ideally, starting and finishing at the same spot keeps it simple but is not necessarily an easy thing to make happen.
  • Keep it convenient for those participating as well as those managing it.
  • Point-to-point courses can be very challenging to manage and can be inconvenient to all involved versus going with an out-and-back or loop course.

PERMISSION

  • Getting permission for your proposed course could actually be the toughest challenge you might have.
  • You need to know who ultimately is making the decision on the permitting.
  • You need to be very prepared when asking for permission, anticipating and addressing well in advance any and all questions that might be asked of you.
  • Often, the permitting authorities are more concerned about the impact your race has on the community and how you plan to allow traffic to get around your race course.
  • Never, ever promote your race until you have permission to do so!

CERTIFYING YOUR COURSE

  • Above all, the course needs to be accurately measured and be the exact distance you are advertising it to be.
  • To be sure, retain a local USATF official certifier to measure and certify your course.
  • However, you first should do the upfront work in designing and measuring the course, using either MapMyRun or other mapping software.
  • Note that measuring the course in your car is not an accurate method.

COURSE CONSIDERATIONS

  • Know in advance what it will cost to secure and manage the course, e.g., what is the number of police needed? You don’t want to end up losing money on your event!
  • Volunteers: How many volunteers do you estimate you will need to manage the course and can you secure them? Many times public safety will also “tell you” how many you will be required to have.
  • The community: Instead of just impacting the community, try to actually get them involved in your race.
  • Do all your runners have to be beyond a certain point on the course by a certain time? 
  • Safety considerations: Are your runners sharing the road with traffic or have you been successful in acquiring full road closure? This will also impact your budget in terms of how many “safety devices” you will need on the course.
  • Potential course hazards: Careful of drawbridges, railroad tracks, speed bumps, and the overall condition of the road. Always drive your course the day or two before to make sure there are no new course surprises.
  • Will public safety be “pulsing” traffic across your race course? Although this is not ideal, it could help in minimizing vehicle gridlock and thus have an impact on obtaining future permission.
  • Starting time and date of your event will impact course design, e.g., if on a Sunday, might have to stay clear of churches.
  • Pinch points: Be aware of any sections of the course that narrow significantly and plan accordingly. Wave starts are one possible way of addressing this.
  • If you put a lot of turns in your course, runners wearing GPS devices will tell you the course is long.
  • If your race is during a hot and sunny time of year, including some shaded areas on your course is a plus.
  • Talk with local authorities about any possible sections of the course that may be prone to any drainage or flooding due to severe rain.
  • Develop alternative detour routes in case of significant course emergencies.
  • Course closure and course re-opening times need to be discussed and communicated well in advance to all involved.

In conclusion, designing a race course can be the most challenging aspect of creating a new event but it can also be the most rewarding when it finally all comes together.