Race Directing Has Its Ups and Downs

During its history, the Napa Valley Marathon has built a reputation as a well-organized, mid-size marathon held in the picturesque Northern California wine country.

Like many of the country's road and trail events, the event has a long and healthy relationship with its runners. The race organization values the participation of runners of all abilities, and the participants often write glowing post-race letters to the organizers.

In short, the event and its entrants have synergy.

But whether it's a rural marathon through wine fields or the Mom & Pop Grocery Store 10K, not everything is well with running events -- not even those with sterling reputations.

On the contrary, the world of race directing -- local 5K charity events to the country's largest road race -- has become increasingly challenging.

Race entry fees are rising as organizers face increased expenses. As a consequence, the one-time "rule of thumb" of paying $1 per racing mile is now pass.

Conversely, runners are demanding more for their buck, and they're holding race management to higher levels of competency.

Sometimes, the scrutiny is fair and warranted, while sometimes it's unfounded. Sometimes, increased race entry fees are warranted. Sometimes, increased costs are reflective solely upon a race director's greed.

But consider the dilemma from the Napa Valley Marathon organizers' perspective.

In addition to many complimentary letters, for the past several years the race's board of directors has received derogatory letters from several runners.

The subject of the letters? For various reasons, runners have complained because the race has started on time.

One woman angrily wrote that all of the other events she does each year never start on time. When she decided to use the portable restroom at 7 a.m. -- the race's scheduled start -- she figured she had plenty of time. She argued in her correspondence that the race should have made a more concerted effort to let participants know it would begin on time.

Another runner complained because he was kissing his wife goodbye when the race began and he didn't hear the start.

And, finally, a runner detailed in a pointed letter that the time on his watch was two minutes ahead of the time of the official race clock. He demanded the race take two minutes off his official race time.

"Runners expect a lot more," said Rich Benyo, one of three Napa Valley Marathon race directors. "It's not like the old days when the runners would show up, the race director would point to a chalk starting line and then say, 'three, two, one, Go!' On the course somewhere, you'd hand the fastest runner the stopwatch and have him time the rest of the runners when he finished."

Benyo, the former editor of Runner's World magazine and now a freelance journalist and editor, directed his first running event, a 10K in rural Pennsylvania, in 1971. He's seen the running boom come and go and come back again. And he has watched race directing evolve from a simple, uncomplicated endeavor to a world of hidden cameras and computer chips.

"I think a lot of runners get involved with race directing to give something back to the sport," said Benyo, editor of the niche publication Marathon & Beyond and author of the recent book Running Past 50.

"I don't think it's a large percentage of the runners who complain, but those who do seem harder to please ... I think being a race director is largely a thankless job."

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