Shit Happens – How to handle it when problems occur at races.

Once again, another major race had problems this past weekend – busses didn’t show, so some racers didn’t make it to the start of the full marathon in time, and the half marathon was cancelled, sort of. This is not the first, nor will it be the last time something like this has happened. Yet, many race organizers don’t seem to be prepared to handle these situations, haven’t learned from mistakes others have made in the past, and end up making the situation worse than it could be. Here’s a guide of what to do when problems occur.

As some of you know, I am a race director and have been putting on races for myself and others for many years. Although my races are much smaller, I have had management positions with major races including BolderBoulder and the original Boulder Backroads Marathon.

Communicate: Let the racers know as soon and often as possible when there are problems that will affect them. When racers are standing around, delayed, but not knowing what or why, that creates frustration, anger, resent.

This appeared to be the case at Revel as a couple of thousand racers were left waiting for busses, standing, getting cold and stiff, not knowing what was going on. It would’ve been better if, as soon as they knew there was a problem that was going to affect the race, to let the racers know. Don’t wait until you have a resolution or answers. They could’ve had a series of messages, starting with something like, “There’s a problem with the busses. We don’t know what happened, but we’re working on it. Please be patient as we try to resolve it.” Then, come back fairly soon with updates, even if you the situation hasn’t changed and you don’t have any answers yet, and continue coming back until you have a resolution or decision.

Control the message: Or, it will control you. This has always been true, but is even more so in this era of lightning fast social media. Get out early with information, as much as you have. Don’t keep secrets. Don’t keep people guessing. Don’t let those who are the most vocal, often the most angry, lead and dictate the conversation.

Apologize, be humble, and explain. Don’t assign blame to others. Don’t defend yourself. Explain what happened without assigning blame. Tell them you’ll make it right. Simply say something like, “I’m sorry. Busses we contracted for didn’t show up. Because we couldn’t get most of the runners safely to the start, we thought it best to cancel the half-marathon. We allowed those who were already at the start to run the course. We know some full marathon runners also didn’t make it to the start. We will do our best to make it right for those affected. Now, we are busy managing to situation. We are listening you you, and will come up with a plan to make it right shortly.”

Follow the conversations and respond, cautiously, if you have the resources. If you don’t have the resources, a simple post that you are listening. Look for major, repeated themes in the conversations and correct gross misinformation. Don’t get into arguments. Don’t defend yourself. Don’t assign blame. Don’t respond to the most vitriol and outrageous comments and commenters. Often, the population of other racers will control that on their own.

Lifetime didn’t do this after the problems with the 2013 Leadville 100 run. They let the blogosphere and social media run wild and free with comments and criticisms. They didn’t say anything for months, only after they had a full response. By that times, many who might’ve listened had already tuned out.

While Revel could’ve said more earlier, they did have a good response that included the following, closing line, “We take complete responsibility for this distaster and will gladly accept your constructive ideas and critism [sic] as we evaluate and analyze the various options.”

Be consistent in your message and actions: As decisions are made, be communicate and follow them consistently. If you are canceling the race, cancel the race. If, as in this case, you are going to let people run the course anyway (in this case, those who were at the start were allowed to run down, and many who didn’t make it there decided to run up-and-back half-way from the finish). It’s one thing to time those who ran, but don’t give out awards when so many couldn’t (and certain don’t give out the wrong awards).

Safety first: The safety of runners, volunteers and staff should always be an overriding consideration when making decisions. Other major factors to consider include the impact on the environment and the neighborhoods.

In this case, while many people posted that they would’ve driven to the start had they known, there wasn’t parking available near the start to handle many cars. At the 2006 the Imogene Pass Run, they altered the course due to snow the night before, starting and finishing in Ouray. Although is was sunny on race day and some runners did choose to go over the pass, snow towards the top meant it would’ve been difficult to get rescue vehicles up, and more likely that people might’ve needed help (with frostbite). In both cases, I think they made the right decisions.

Make it right: Offer full refunds or free entries to other races. It may be appropriate to offer racers a choice. You might even consider throwing in some free merchandise. Whatever financial hit you may take in doing this now, pales in comparison to the hit on your reputation and subsequent loss in reputation in not making it right.

It is impractical to make everyone whole. There are people who spent money traveling to the race, time off of work, away from families, etc. You are not going to be able to make those people whole. Do your best to be humble and apologize, and make reasonable offers. More than a few of the comments about Revel have asked for some of that. Recognize that some people are just going to be angry, and there’s not much you can do about it. Don’t waste too much time trying to make everyone happy. If you do a good job with most, they will help counter those comments for you.

Plan and over correct: Any large race organization should’ve thought through potential logistical issues and have contingency plans in place. It’s something called Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA). That’s just a fancy way of saying that you look at all the critical functions and steps in a process in advance, analyze the risk and consequences of failure, come up with solutions in advance if possible, and contingency plans if not. You ask a lot of what ifs. Any major project, whether it’s a NASA mission or the Boston Marathon, has done something like this.

Over correct for whatever problems you have. The worst thing that could happen is to have the same mistakes or problems happen again. For next time, get even more busses, have backups on stand by, get even more aid station supplies, volunteers, swag, whatever it was.

If you are humble and apologize, if you make it right, the people who were affected can become your greatest advocates in the future.


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