by Josh Merlis
One year. Life as we know it, upended. And for as bizarre as it has been in some peculiar way, it never hit me as hard as it did today, 24 hours after our inaugural Electric City 5 Miler. Today, for the first time in a year, I boarded a plane.
To that end, if I may digress, as I am wont to do, the past several months have remained a time of great introspection, curiosity, and uncertainty. What should I be doing? * The Albany Running Exchange’s first event ever celebrates its 19th running this spring, but since AREEP took-off 2008, we’ve primarily existed as a vendor. At the start of 2020, we had 200 client (non-AREEP owned) events on the calendar for the year; in the past 365 days, only three of those events occurred in-person.
As such, for the symbiotic trifecta of 1) we’ve always wanted to create more events but haven’t had the time to do it, 2) running events are an integral part of the identity and happiness of all of us, 3) if we don’t do something, we will cease to exist - since last summer, we added four events to the Capital District race scene: the “Hard as Hell Half Marathon”, “Upstate Classic”, “Miles on the Mohawk” and, as I’ll describe in more detail below, the “Electric City 5 Miler”.
It has been a bizarre experiential shift to go from spending 20% of the year traveling to various races, having new experiences and places be part of one’s job, to transitioning to being in the same general environment and physical space for 365 days straight. It made me feel like life has been on hold for a year. Nevertheless, in some strange way, for as unavoidably awful an impact the pandemic has had on us, finally returning to perhaps the one thing that I truly have not done in a year brought it home in a way I couldn’t have imagined.
When an event like the Electric City 5 Miler is planned, the race director and coordinators develop a guide for producing the event. AREEP calls it the “Event Operations Manual”, which provides an overview of all the staff/volunteer assignments. It, or supplemental material, includes schematics, diagrams, notes, and a host of other information to execute the event according to the plan.
And while it takes a lot of time to do those things, particularly for a first-year event, especially when it is at a new [to us] venue, and even more so when there’s a global pandemic, there is no other option. It’s simply part of the job. But we can’t control the weather, and that can have a large impact.
Due to COVID-19, we deployed this event with a significant stagger that required each participant to be assigned on the granular level of literally when to enter the “staging area” and, to the second, when they will start. To provide ample room for social distancing, we needed a lot more space to work with and a lot more equipment to delineate this space. .
Why did this race exist in the first place?
In the lead up to November’s Upstate Classic, as it, unfortunately, became clear that we’d have few if any clients holding events through late spring at the soonest, we decided to create new races to fill that void. We had been in talks with Mohawk Harbor over the past couple of years from a vendor standpoint for non-AREEP owned events to occur there but had always expressed an interest in producing our own events there limited by two main factors: not having the time to focus on it and not wanting to create events that compete with our clients. Voila! Having practically no client races happening addressed both of those concerns. Let’s do this!
The Electric City 5 Miler date of March 13 was chosen, in large part, for its symbolism as the first anniversary of the pandemic. And while the term “anniversary” is generally looked at positively, our perspective on the cycling of one full calendar was to commemorate our collective strength in persevering through it. We also wanted to put on a road race “sooner than later” into 2021 because it’s what we all love: being at a race. But as the course would use bike paths, sidewalks, and shoulders of roads, we also wanted to push it as late as we could in the winter to avoid snow and ice impacting the course. Indeed, we lucked out with an unseasonably warm week in the days leading up to the race, which melted all the remaining snow and ice on the paths. (We would have done it ourselves if we had to, but it was nice having Mother Nature save us the extra work.)
At noon on Friday, March 12, our convoy of trucks pulled into the Rivers Casino Employee Parking Lot to transform it for the event. There was a weather advisory for gale-force winds through 7 AM on race morning. Our event COVID-19 safety plan required an elaborate staging setup, which required lots of equipment to be in place. If it was all blown around the parking lot, we can’t set it up – then how do we hold the race?
We had plenty of sandbags with us, but they were no match for 40+ MPH wind gusts. And so, after we had unloaded most of the equipment (which takes a substantial amount of time), we headed out to get more sandbags - over 3,000 pounds of them. But even after placing them, it was clear that wouldn’t be enough.
Not just a race, but an event.
For the Electric City 5 Miler - as in all of AREEP road races - our goal is to make the event the quality of a “major city major event”. That includes branding the event. Not just simply having a cool logo, but literally printing it on lots of things: banners, fencing, signs, and tents. All of which must get erected, be it on poles or zip-tied to other structures. And even though we exclusively utilize a breathable vinyl mesh fabric, the fabric can still become a giant sail in strong winds. We’ve spent a lot on these printed objects for our events, knowing the value they add to the experience. But ultimately, we used virtually none of the fencing that we bought for the Electric City 5 Miler and had limited or non-ideal use of many other items because of the wind conditions.
Before leaving Mohawk Harbor on Friday night, we lowered in place many items we had set up, hoping that this would avoid damaging them while still enabling us to get everything back up in a timely fashion on race morning. We decided that evening to arrive 30 minutes earlier on race day than initially scheduled.
Race morning was beautiful. While it was still windy as we drove in at sunrise, the sky was morphing into crystal blue, barely a cloud in the sky. Pulling into Mohawk Harbor, we all braced for the answer to the question that kept us up with anxiety: what would it look like?
We were greeted ominously by the sight of all the portable toilets knocked over onto the doors. We uprighted them and learned the answer to the question: if tipped over, does the toilet water stay in the toilet? The answer: no, it swooshes all over the door, then freezes when it’s in the 20s, and when you upright it and open it, you are walking into a frozen wall of toilet water.
I immediately called the portable toilet company, and they were on-site quickly to clean all of them and make them usable for the race.
We then ventured over to the staging area. Thankfully, for the most part, it was how we left it. Ultimately it took us 35 minutes to be where we wanted to be, so the 30 minute earlier arrival was a fair estimate.
By 8 AM, the music was playing, and the earliest arriving participants were appearing. More and more cars arrived, more people milled about, and our 50+ volunteers headed to their locations to make it all happen. The course itself had over 25 course marshal positions (some requiring more than one person). We also had staff managing parking, packet pick-up, refreshments, staging/start/finish areas, and manning other ancillary roles. The participants get to experience all of it. But most of those working the event see only a tiny sliver of it, especially those on the last half of the course who generally don’t make it back to the finish until everyone is done and we are packing up. Other than placing the cones in the first quarter-mile of the race, I barely left the parking lot of the staging area, working with my team of a dozen who had a role in overseeing all that went on there.
In the final weeks leading up to the race, some non-COVID-related curveballs were thrown concerning the venue logistics. Our initial plan was to utilize a separate start and finish area, which was because we were uncertain (based upon field size and some other factors) if the last group would start before the first person would finish. When it shifted to a shared start/finish line, we knew how many runners we could accommodate as we wanted to avoid having to create additional directional lanes at the start/finish area and alter the nature of the stagger for the later starters. As such, it took 21 minutes to start everyone, which left us with barely four minutes before the first finisher. While there wasn’t much to shift around physically, it required some work on the timing end (i.e., ensuring that we could shut down the “start feed” and consider all of the data to be finish data, and testing all of this to make sure it would be smooth sailing as the runners came in).
In addition, we had a timing split at the halfway mark of the course. Before nearly half the participants had even started, our leaders had already reached there. From a timing perspective, we also needed to pay attention to ensure accuracy/the live feed to the online tracking system. Considering that we were also starting groups of six every 10 seconds (for those 21 minutes), it required a lot more staff and “glued in” attention than a mass start that takes 30 seconds and then gives us a 10-minute break until anyone reaches halfway and then another 10+ minute break until our first finisher.
The train has left the station.
I experience an insatiable rush working live events. A large part of that is the importance of deadlines. It is critical that we meet our timeline; road closures, police schedules, volunteer assignments, and every other logistical decision hinges on the event timeline. And, of course, there are the participants themselves who base their breakfast, arrival time, warm-up, and entire race plan around what time they will start.
As we approached a few minutes before the 9:30:00 AM start, Joe Benny was glued to his role as the event emcee, beginning his long procession of announcements welcoming each group to the staging area. At the exact time for which the Schenectady County Sheriff’s office and our partner agencies working in Glenville, Scotia, Rotterdam, and Schenectady were expecting the race to begin, it did. Like clockwork, over 100 unique starts occurred as scheduled, and then we quickly shifted gears to prepare for the finish.
On both the men’s and women’s sides, the race was close. The men’s race was a particularly impressive battle with just four seconds separating the top two, both of whom finished under 25:30! On the women’s side, our top two women came in under 30 minutes, an equally impressive accomplishment. Over the hour that followed their arrival, nearly 600 more crossed the finish line, many with arms raised in triumph and an overwhelmingly happy feeling for getting out and challenging themselves on the cold and blustery day.
When things are going well at a race that I’m directing, I generally find myself without any specific role at the event, other than keeping an eye out for potential problems. In a most positive way, the Electric City 5 Miler was one of those races. I stayed at the finish line, occasionally took over the microphone to welcome finishers, and biked the final quarter-mile to see runners coming in. Perhaps the thing I like least about having long staggered starts is that it prevents me from biking the course to experience the race as the runners do, to check on course markings, and to thank the volunteers. But with less than five minutes separating our last starter and first finisher and the race being just five miles long, the Electric City 5 Miler kept me at the staging area in case a situation arose that needed my attention.
It is an incredibly rewarding feeling to see the Electric City 5 Miler come together, particularly in its first year. What was just an idea several months earlier was brought to life. And we produced an in-person experience that enriched the lives of those participating in it. It was a shared moment for hundreds of people of different ages and backgrounds, abilities, occupations, and so much else, and yet our shared commitment to be runners united us in the most positive of ways. Most importantly, it’s an experience that we want to have again. I look forward to seeing you at the races to come!
Top Men & Overall
1. Brian Reis / 25:23 / 5:05
2. John Amenta / 25:27 / 5:06
3. Tyler Morrissey (Nark Running & Strength) / 26:00 / 5:12
4. James Anderson / 26:15 / 5:15
5. Jonathan Lindenauer (Willow Street AC) / 26:34 / 5:19
6. Nathan Brimhall / 27:08 / 5:26
7. Shaun Donegan (ARE Racing Team) / 27:20 / 5:28
8. Anthony Giuliano (Willow Street AC) / 27:28 / 5:30
9. Justin Guldenzopf (Saratoga Stryders) / 27:39 / 5:32
10. Mark Rabasco / 27:51 / 5:35
1. Karen Bertasso-Hughes (Willow Street AC) / 29:36 / 5:56
2. Christine Myers (Nark Running & Strength) / 29:51 / 5:59
3. Melissa Hine (Nark Running & Strength) / 30:02 / 6:01
4. Michelle Merlis (ARE Racing Team) / 30:30 / 6:06
5. Nicole Moslander (ARE Racing Team) / 31:01 / 6:13
6. Abbi Wright / 31:34 / 6:19
7. Courtney Breiner (ARE Racing Team) / 31:45 / 6:21
8. Allison Thayer (Willow Street AC) / 31:45 / 6:21
9. Kristie Pageau / 31:46 / 6:22
10. Janine Tedesco (Nark Running & Strength) / 31:48 / 6:22
+* Josh is the founder of Albany Running Exchange and the President of the ARE Event Productions (AREEP).