Behind the Scenes of a Relay Race

Luther's 150th

If you ask me how many races I’ve run in my life, I wouldn’t be able to give you a number.  I’ve been running most of my life, about 27 years (started at 10 and I turn 37 this month).  Between cross country and track and everything afterwards, the number has to be in the thousands.

If you ask many how many races I’ve RUN, I can give you a number – One.  The Luther College Sesquicentennial Relay Race.  The race takes place this weekend (June 4 & 5) and covers the distance between the college’s birthplace in Holmen, WI to its current home in Decorah, IA.

After having experienced this, I can safely say that I probably will never organize another race in my life and I will have the utmost appreciation for anyone who has organized a race of any size.

Here’s a glimpse into what goes into making a race like this:

Day One

Preparing the Route

From the start, the Relay Race was supposed to be 150km in length. After all, the college is turning 150 years old with a motto of Transformed by the Journey.  Holmen and Decorah are indeed 150km apart, so why not do a race?

Well, for starters, it’s impossible to run 150km between the two cities.  That route follows interstates, crosses major highways, and takes you on stretches of road that no sane runner would even consider for a Sunday morning jog, to say the least about race directors who have insurance to worry about.

So the route had to change.

Day Two

We opted to take our runners on a slight detour to follow the Root River Trail for a good 40+ miles (64+ kilometers) and through two states.  Of course, the Trail is a bike trail, not a car trail.  So this meant that the race directors had to get out onto it and bike the length over the course of several days to pick out the rightexchange points.  After that, we kept our runners on county highways and other sparsely traveled roads.  Every turn has to be inspected to make sure its not dangerous and there’s no chance (or a minimal chance) of a runner getting lost and turning what should be a 4 mile leg into 10.

Actual course distance?  178 km (110 miles).

Yes, it’s a longer route but its safe and quite scenic.

Picking a Date

We had our date all planned out – June 4th & 5th.  We figured this would work out pretty well.  It’s the start of the summer and before it’s gotten too hot.  School would be out (for the most part) and we could tap into the recently graduated alumni who still had that college spirit.  The date was picked in November of 2010, well in advance of the actual race date.  We were set.

Until Wisconsin decided to pick that same weekend to hold the State Track & Field Championships in La Crosse, a mere 15 miles away.  Every hotel room for 60 miles was booked.  Event equipment was no longer available.  This was one of those things we just couldn’t control.


Telling people about the race was easy.  Advertising started 10 months in advance and was publicized in a lot of locations.  We had a huge number of teams express interest, enough that we were actually starting to talk about putting a cap on the number of teams that could run.

Getting people to sign up?  That’s another story.  Long story short – of the 35+ teams that expressed interest, less than 10 signed up.  It was highly disappointing.

The reasons varied.  Some complained about the cost ($60 per person), which I personally don’t think is a valid issue.  Marathons generally cost $80+ and those are single day events with 1/3rd of the distance.  One person mentioned the price of gas.  Others talked about graduations or soccer tournaments or some big track meet.  Sometimes valid, sometimes not.  Either way, we didn’t get the numbers we were expecting.

Race Packets & Logistics

How best do you package information for a two day event?  Race bibs … where do you get race bibs from (RoadID, as it turns out).  And safety pins.  Has anyone ever purposely bought safety pins or do they just breed in drawers?

One for you and one for you ...

Who gets how many shirts?  Which team gets what sizes?  How many extras?  Are they going to be here in time?

Signs for the course?  Who was responsible for printing that? What do you mean we need permission to use the Sesquicentennial logo?  Okay, let’s get that.  Who puts them out on the course?

Course breakdown?  Did it get printed off?  And every team has one?  What about the race directors?  Do *we* all have a copy of the race course?  Not all of us have gone over every mile of the course.

What do you mean the company can’t make the medals in time?  Do we have an alternative?  Great.  Okay, the medal image has changed a bit but we’ll get them in time.  They’ll be here Thursday.

Emergency contact numbers?  Got it.  Stop watches?  We’ll need that too.  Let’s hit up Athletics.

The Rest of the Stuff

Mixed in there is putting together the website for the race.  There’s communicating with the Team Captains, answering questions, providing interviews for the press (!), and coordinating with other departments on campus.

At some point in all this mess, you sit back and take a look at everything that you’ve done and wonder what it is you’re missing.  That’s when you realize you’ve done just your part.

The other race directors have been working on the permits and coordinating with law enforcement over multiple counties and three states.  They’re dealing with catering.  Getting a pastor to do the blessing before the race (we are a Lutheran college after all).  Visiting Rushford to find out where people can camp and what there is to do that night.  Finding volunteers, where to put those people, and how to get them shirts.  Dealing with budget issues.

But at some point, all that has to end.  For us, that’s Saturday morning at 7:30am.

At that time, all that is left is to start the race and see what happens next.  I’ll let you know how it goes on Monday.

3 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes of a Relay Race

  1. “If you ask many how many races I’ve RUN, I can give you a number – One.”

    Untrue. I ran in the summer races you put on the year I stayed on campus. So you’re up to at least 4 or 5 now. 😉


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