What makes a good race?

Running columnist

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One result of being around awhile is getting your arm twisted to be on committees. In my case, after many years as president of the Oak Park Runners Club, I'm on the Chicago Area Runners Association (CARA) Racing Committee. We evaluate the many races held each year in the Chicago area, and recommend about 20 of the best to the CARA Board for the annual CARA Race Circuit. Competition in those races determines team and individual age group championships each year. And these races must adhere to a long list of standards designed to assure higher quality running events.

But what makes for a good race? After all, it's only running. But if you've ever been in one where the total distance was incorrect, mile splits were inaccurate, the results were messed up, water stations ran out of water and there weren't enough toilets, you know the difference. Also, a primary requirement is safety ?#34; protection from street traffic and other hazards. Runners expect races to start on-time, the courses to be safe and accurate, and results to be timely and correct. Beyond that, most other stuff is amenities, but still important when comparing over 200 races.

We also recognize that there are many casual runners who enjoy simply participating in big events rather than pushing themselves in strenuous competition. For them, course accuracy and results may not be a particularly big deal, but nice premiums, an attractive t-shirt, plenty of restroom facilities, lots of post-race refreshments and entertainment make for a popular event. A few races aren't highly regarded among the running purists, but still are very popular events, attracting large numbers of entries. These are the "party" races which are fun for those who don't obsess about PRs, splits or how they place in their age groups. These folks are out for a little exercise and some fun. The events usually have some sort of post-race party and lots of food. And the top circuit events manage to combine quality races with some of the festive elements.

But putting on a race is far from easy. It's one thing to say "let's do a race," and another thing to actually do it. Since a race route will cover 3 miles or more, that's a lot of streets needing volunteers at every intersection for runner protection. Then each runner's age, sex and address must be properly entered so age group race results can be tabulated. Managing a finish line also takes an experienced crew to make sure that everyone who finishes is recorded in proper order. Those are only a few of the many, many details involved. And don't forget, races rely on volunteers to do most tasks.

The races that handle these details right year after year are the ones that stay on the CARA Circuit. And I'm proud to note that The Race That's Good for Life 5K, managed by the Oak Park Runners Club, is one of them (on April 10 next year). But there is some circuit turnover ?#34; races have gone out of existence, others have deteriorated in quality and been dropped from the Circuit. Our committee evaluates Circuit races as the season progresses, checking evaluation sheets from participants as well as written reports from committee members who were there. At year's end, we look back on these races and recommend whether to keep them for the following year. We also look at non-circuit races which request consideration for future Circuit status. It's a careful process.

Not that all Circuit races are perfect and never have problems, but these events have done things well in the past and usually offer consistently high quality, well managed events.


Paul Oppenheim is a member of the Oak Park Runners Club.

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