by Josh Merlis
In 2010, I worked the 3M split of the BOLDERBoulder 10K in Boulder, CO. There were over 50,000 participants: it’s the same number of runners as the NYC Marathon except 20 less miles in distance. To be fair, nuances aside, it could be equated to say that the 3M split of this 10K is (roughly) as dense as the 3M split of the NYC Marathon. In short, it’s a lot of people in a short amount of time.
I was provided a basic cargo van to work from, the kind with no windows and is sometimes featured in movies with either the good guys inside running a sting operation (and monitoring their surveillance equipment) or, essentially the same task being performed by the bad guys, keeping tabs on security while they complete the heist. In any event, before setting up my timing equipment, I had put out barricades that slightly narrowed the road and also framed around the giant mile markers so that people wouldn’t run into them.
With my attention glued to the timing equipment that I was setting up on the side of the road beneath the still dark pre-dawn sky, I heard a violent crashing sound as several of my barricades went flying. Before I could react in any fashion that would have been helpful, the car stopped just a few feet in front of me. I was physically fine but irate. I went up to the car to find a clearly drunk man sitting in the driver’s seat. There were no passengers. I don’t recall my exact words to him, only that he didn’t know English, and I had a job to do. While I wanted him arrested, I didn’t have time to escalate the situation since nothing was technically broken and I wasn’t hurt. He drove off soon thereafter and I re-positioned the barricades as the sun began to rise.
Back then, cellular Internet access was in its infancy, particularly for the data demands of an event like this. As such, the event had the local utility company run a hard-wired DSL line to me at my split; in simple terms, to ensure I’d be able to provide live data, it was the equivalent of someone running a super long Ethernet cable out of their house - except I was getting it from the utility pole, itself.
We had been warned about the street sweepers. Indeed, cities generally want to “look their best” when lots of people come to visit, so shortly before the start, they send out the street sweepers. Needless to say, their priority is to quickly do their job, without much attention to what perhaps shouldn't be swept away.
I was in the van, doing some testing of the equipment and my connectivity when I heard the whirl and swooshing. I honestly don’t recall if the race had started yet (it’s very possible that it had) but as I popped out of the van to supervise the street cleaner as it passed through my area, it was already too late. While they thankfully lifted their equipment as they passed over the timing mats (which otherwise would have been sent flying), the street sweeper ate the DSL Internet connection, which had been tucked against the curb by the utility operator. In a race for which the winners run faster than 5 minutes per mile, I now found myself without a live connection and very little time.
I immediately called into Timing Race Command, making them aware of my predicament for which they said they’d try to get someone to me with a very high quality portable Internet device. I did have a Cradlepoint router with me that used a USB modem which I setup having no other option (beyond actually considering asking a nearby house if I could run a 200’ Ethernet cable out of their living room at 6am) - thankfully, somewhat long story truncated, the USB modem did the trick, and the 3M split provided live data with no participant or their family and friends tracking them any worse for the wear lacking the knowledge of what transpired at that split in the hours and minutes before runners got there.
Yes, it’s possible that sometimes an outside circumstance can impact this, and we’ve had this happen, but unless it’s a major reason, we start on time.
But if a race starts late (ie. at 9:10am instead of 9am), in the grand scheme of deadlines in the business world, that leaves no wiggle room for an endless amount of items and tasks that must be completed in advance and ready to go. A portable toilet company delivering the toilets a day late is not going to be appreciated. Giveaways like shirts and awards, food, water stop setup and general course preparation all have to be received, setup, and ready to go on a very strict timeline. Countless other components like individual pieces of equipment and personnel all need to be in the right places, and, generally speaking, for events held on public roads, access to these locations is typically restricted to a very narrow amount of time; in some cases, portions of road racecourses only get closed to traffic a few minutes before runners reach that location of the course.
In its most beautiful form, it is a symphony for which the collective instruments coalesce to make beautiful music. For those who have had the experience of attending an event for which it is not described as such, there can be a multitude of reasons why and often one thing that isn’t done as it should be can impact many of the other aspects down the chain.
It is that time-sensitive nature of races (“event production”) that I find most thrilling. The job must get done, and “now.” And our job literally is timing. Yes, we are often hired for other aspects (and, of course, for events that we direct, our responsibility is the entire event) - everything is on a schedule. One of the coolest skills that one develops in doing this is the ability to estimate how long it takes to perform related tasks. For example, how long does it take to mark a half marathon road race? How many crews should be setting the course up? How many cones are being placed? How long does it take to drop each cone? Must the truck come to a complete stop or is the team working in that truck so efficient that even if cones are being placed every 2 hash marks on a major road, can the driver maintain a speed for which the team in the back of the truck can safely pull cones off stacks and place cones on the road like a well-oiled machine?
How long does it take to setup a 6’ folding table? How long does it take to setup 30 of them? To place arrows on cones, to open sandwich boards? To setup 1,000’ of barricade and then adorn it with fencing? What is the typical amount of time it takes to attach a zip tie? Multiply that by 300+ for some events. How big of a crew do we need? What interpersonal experience of working together optimizes their efficiency? Tasks that take seconds individually are repeated sometimes hundreds, if not thousands of time - and the ability to reduce that piecemeal time by even just 10% can save numerous minutes that make one available to attend to other needs as they arise.
This past June, we celebrated a milestone that is mind-numbing for me to think about: our 20th Dodge the Deer. What makes it so surreal to me is that mathematically this relatively pleasing number also denotes one half of my age, and therefore that I’ve now spent the past two decades of the four that I’ve completed putting on events. We’ve worked over 2,000 events in those 20 years, and many members of our current team have been working these events for 10 to 15+ of those years, assembling a level of expertise and proficiency that only comes with experience. From working snowshoe events in literally 3’+ of snow to surviving a monsoon while timing a mile race in Bermuda, to road races in 3 digit temperatures, the team has operated outdoors in all conditions. We’ve had events canceled due to fire and storms, including the time that Jim Sweeney and I flew out to Omaha, NE to put on a triathlon, set up all the equipment, and then right before the start, there was lightning and the event was canceled, so we packed everything up and then went back to the airport.
While COVID-19 certainly impacted our schedule, we anticipate working upwards of 125+ events this year as our schedule gradually returns to where it was prior to 2020. Our client events and their organizers span the spectrum from non-profits to friend groups to professional race companies; RDs (race directors) who are athletes themselves to those who have never even been to a race before the one they are directing. To that end, I generally now begin the conversation with organizations that reach out to us by asking for their personal experience at events. For those who have none, it is strongly recommended that they attend an event first, and, if an option, also participate in one (ie. attend at least two, one to observe everything, and another to get the participant experience).
The conversation then moves on to what do you want us to do? Which, in many cases, morphs into a discussion surrounding their own curiosity of what has to be done? For that, we’ve developed this comprehensive outline of putting on an event:
Even if you’ve never considered producing your own race, if you’ve participated in any, you might find it of interest.
The minutiae aside of what makes events different (and indeed, for as similar as some events can be, ultimately they all are unique in some way), perhaps the best way in which they are similar is the overall experience of seeing people come together to be active and to better their own health. It is what makes it such a joy for the team at ARE Event Productions, namely that every time we show up to “work,” ultimatelyRun4TheRiver
we are creating the environment and underpinnings that become foundational experiences that motivate us to continue to be the best version of ourselves. It makes those early morning alarm clocks and freezing fingers worth it. And we can’t wait to see you at the next one!
Editor's Note: Here are examples of several races Josh has covered this year to give you an idea of the scope of his company's reach.
March - Princeton 5K in Princeton, NJ
April - PNC Parkway Classic in Alexandria, VA
April - Brooklyn Marathon in Brooklyn, NY
May - Bridgehampton Half Marathon in Bridgehampton, NY
May - Capitol Hill Classic in Washington, DC
June - Freihofer's Run for Women in Albany, NY
July - Finger Lakes 50s Trail Ultramarathons in Hector, NY