RailsConf5k Recap: Organizing a Successful 5k Race
by John B. Hall
In the Spring of 2011 I organized RailsConf5k, an inaugural 5k race for the attendees of RailsConf. RailsConf is a four-day conference attended by over 1,500 Ruby on Rails web developers, and 139 of them participated in the race. I couldn’t have been more proud of how the event turned out, and I hope this recap will be helpful for anyone planning a 5k of their own.
Location and (lack of) Permit
It would have been very expensive and logistically complicated to use a course that required road closures, especially since the race was not open to the public. I was determined to find a road-free course, and the Baltimore Inner Harbor was the obvious choice. The Inner Harbor is the one park in Baltimore that is non-permittable, but the Parks department assured me that we wouldn’t need a permit anyway as long as we didn’t impede traffic and didn’t set anything up (no tables, tents, or speakers). To comply, we held the race on a Wednesday at 7am, and we used the natural park landscape for our staging area (steps, park benches, and park tables). Our setup included only a few cones and two strips of duct tape for the starting and finish lines. Avoiding a permit saved money and insurance hassles.
I live in DC and was not very familiar with the Baltimore area. Based on what I could see in satellite view of Google Maps though, I was confident the Inner Harbor would be perfect for our race. It wasn’t until I arrived at the conference that I was able to run through the park and determine the exact course. The two segments of out-and-back kept everyone close to the staging area at all times and provided good viewing opportunities for spectators and volunteers.
Almost everyone at RailsConf uses Twitter, so that was the best medium to get the word out about the race. We tweeted at @railsconf5k and bought railsconf5k.com to post race information, the registration link, the course map, and results.
We created an Eventbrite page for race registration, and we also allowed race-day registration. The data from Eventbrite gave us a sense of how many runners would participate and made it easy to generate the results after the race.
For a team competition, we decided to score the race like a cross country meet, counting the top 3 runners from every company. As soon as we announced it, registrations surged, especially for runners who were becoming the second and third registrants from their company. The competition provided just enough peer pressure to motivate on-the-fence runners to join, and it was great for teambuilding within each company. With 9 runners, Engine Yard was the biggest of the 13 teams.
Liability is a nerve-wracking issue. For the low-key nature of our race, we felt that a waiver on our Eventbrite page was suitable.
Our race was small enough that we didn’t need bibs for timing, but nothing says “This race is legit!” like custom-printed bibs. They also called attention to CustomInk, the race sponsor (and where I work). Some runners pinned their bibs to their backpacks for the rest of the conference, and I’d like to think that some have it hung on the wall of their office or bedroom, reminding them of their accomplishment. We ordered the “Deluxe Numbers” and pins from Electric City Printing.
RailsConf is oversaturated with free t-shirts, and I wanted to give away something that was not only a memento, but would enhance the race experience. The answer was @tenderlove-inspired headbands from CustomInk that were yellow with orange printing — morning hues that would stand out and look great along the water on a blue sky day. We handed them out along with the bib, and almost everyone wore them either as a headband or doubled-up wristband.
Our original plan was to have a self-timed race, but during a call to a Baltimore running store to inquire about borrowing cones and water coolers, I was referred to a guy who could do timing on the cheap. Ryan and two of his runner friends brought the coolers, the Gatorade mix, the timing equipment, and a bullhorn to start the race. He served as Race Director, and it couldn’t have worked out any better.
We hired two bike EMTs from the Baltimore City Fire Department. Fortunately no one was injured at the race, but it was crucial to have medical personnel on site just in case. The fact that the EMTs were on bikes was especially helpful because Dean and Aaron were able to bike alongside the runners and “bring up the rear” behind the last finisher.
14 people volunteered at the race, and they are the reason the event ran like butter. There were three teams of volunteers; each team had a captain and was responsible for a specific section of the course. As the race started, an Aquarium worker blocked one of the paths with a dumpster (not knowing we were coming), but the Group A volunteers quickly rerouted the course on the fly, making it a non-issue. We also had volunteer photographers, someone responsible for guarding the warmup gear and hotel keycards, and a designated live-tweeter.
We provided Gatorade, water, and lots of bananas after the race. By placing the refreshments along the home stretch of the course, not behind it, the finishers could easily cheer for the runners who were still in the race.
The issue of prizes was awkward because I won the race and CustomInk finished second in the team competition. We ended up not awarding any prizes, and simply announced the team competition results at the keynote the next morning. It worked out fine, but I’ll put more thought into recognition and prizes if I do this again.
Cost and Sponsorship
This started as a personal project and CustomInk had no obligation to sponsor it, but I appreciate that they did. The total cost was $1,286 — not bad for an event that encouraged personal achievement through exercise, built community, and was fun for all.