Monday, December 10, 2012

How (not) to organise a marathon

In last week's lengthy account of some of the tribulations I'd suffered in participating in an 'Ultra-Marathon' event in south-west China last month, I mentioned that I had a further rant brewing in me about this. And here it is.

I had been assured by the folks in Beijing co-ordinating registration for the event that it was a "very well organized event". Their bullishness was overstated, of course: what they meant was "very good, for China" - which is to say, a bit of a dog's breakfast.

Now, credit where it's due. The organization relating to the actual running of the races did go pretty smoothly: the courses were well marked out, huge numbers of beaming locals were rallied to provide support, and the race-bag pick-up at the finish lines worked well.

The less positive points, though, would be.... well, EVERYTHING else.

Amongst the points you might like to try to address next time, dear organisers....

1)  Provide as much advance information as possible.
This is a perennial vice in China. I'm sure most of the salient details of this event - the dates, the courses, the accommodation arrangements - must have been finalised weeks or even months ahead; but nobody saw fit to pass any of this on to the participants. I hold Beijing's Heyrobics group, who were working as agents to recruit foreign participants for the event, partly culpable here as well. They were pretty hopeless at passing on promptly even what pitifully little information the organisers had deigned to give them. I had, for example, been led to believe that the event was to be centred around Guizhou's provincial capital of Guiyang. I had therefore planned to travel to the prettier and more touristy city of Kaili in the east of the province under my own steam after the event. I only found out the day before I flew down there that in fact the event was centred around Kaili, and thus had to change my hotel bookings to arrange some time in Guiyang instead. Lack of information about the locations and hotels to be used had scuppered the hopes a few friends of mine had had about possibly coming down to support me during the weekend. And none of the participants from Beijing had been told that the final day's race was based in Zhenyuan, another 2 hours or more east of Kaili, and at least 5 hours away from Guiyang airport - a fact which made it severely impractical to try to join the event for the last day only, as many had been encouraged to do. (Several people, in fact, came within an ace of missing their flights home. My pal Ruby only made hers - with minutes to spare - because she had eventually managed to browbeat her minibus driver into taking her straight to the airport rather than making drops in Guiyang city centre first.) And so on.

2) Provide maps and diagrams of the courses
The only maps we were given were squiggly lines on a blank white background. The few features marked were in Chinese only (no English or even symbols for drinks stations and so on), and far too small for anyone to read anyway. No place names or geographical features were indicated. And no larger scale map was provided to let us know which part of the province we were in, where we were in relation to the major cities of Guiyang (where we'd flown in) or Kaili (where we'd stayed prior to the opening race). In such mountainous terrain, a diagrammatic representation of the hills to be covered is pretty useful, too. A few of the other runners claimed to have seen such a thing, but perhaps, as independent competitors, they'd been able to request additional information directly from the organisers. There was nothing of the sort in the official information pack for the race. And the Heyrobics gang had refused to provide any contact information for the event organisers. On the first day, a German runner told me (perhaps on the basis of what he remembered from running the event in a previous year; apparently, there had been numerous changes to the courses this time) that the first race ended in a very severe hill-climb. I reined myself in over the last several kilometres, trying to save my strength for this cruel finish; but it turned out that the last few kilometres weren't too hilly at all. On the second day, however, the rumour had been that the course was almost completely flat - but we discovered that it ended in a brutally steep 3km hill. This sort of thing matters to runners! Provide a goddamned diagram of the elevations, please.

3) Provide clear information about the race arrangements
The runner's information pack was clear as mud. In fact, much of what little information it did contain was WRONG, so I pretty soon disregarded it altogether. In particular, NOTHING was done to publicise where the race bag drop-off or the assembly point for each race was. There had been diagrams in the runner's guidebook, but these were - again - completely unlabelled, and bore no obvious relationship to features we could actually see on the ground. The assembly points were all fairly nearby the hotels where we were staying; but not so nearby as to be easy to see or easy to find. On Day 2, several people missed the race altogether because the assembly point was quite a long way away, and was not visible from the hotel; and because many of the volunteer helpers were mistakenly directing people that they had to get on a bus - which was in fact supposed to be taking injured runners directly to the finish, twenty miles away. On Day 3, many people ran without being officially 'logged in' to the race start, because they had gathered at what appeared to be the obvious assembly point on a plaza next to the starting line - unaware that on this day, the official assembly point was actually half a mile away inside the hotel.

4) Don't spring a 'health check' requirement on participants at the last minute (though doing nothing to publicize it, or enforce it... and making vague statements to the effect that it can be ignored at the individual runner's discretion)
I refer, of course, to the ludicrous blood pressure checks about which I moaned at length last week - and which I spectacularly failed, though I went ahead and took part in the races anyway.

5) Sort out a better system for transferring bags between hotels
We had to stay in a different hotel for each of the three stages of the event. This is, of course, severely non-ideal: you really don't want to be dealing with the hassle of packing your luggage and clearing your room and checking out of a hotel in the last few minutes before you're due to run a marathon (it's not good for the blood pressure!); nor do you want to be cooped up on a bus for two or three hours heading to a new location immediately after you've finished running. But, if this is unavoidable, at the very least, the organisers need to make the transfers run as smoothly as possible. Now, in fact, we kept the same coaches throughout the event; and the coaches all travelled together in convoy between locations, so everyone left at the same time (which was a bit rough on the faster runners, who had to wait around for hours while we slowcoaches huffed and puffed our way to the finish). There was therefore no reason why we could not each have been assigned a numbered place on a numbered bus, to be used throughout the event; and why we could not then have put our luggage ourselves in the luggage bays on our personal bus; and why we could not have put more valuable or fragile items (computers, cameras, wallets, etc.) in bags on our seats, trusting our driver to ensure that the bus would remain locked until our return at the end of the day's race. No reason, except that this is China, and nobody will ever go for a simple and sensible option if they can do something half-assed, unnecessary and inadequate instead - like throw everybody's bags on to the backs of flat-bed trucks, and then have an unseemly scramble to recover them each day on arrival at the new hotel. (My inability to find anyone who was willing to undertake the safe-keeping of my laptop for me almost prevented me from taking part in the races altogether.)

6)  Make yourselves known to the participants
Only one member of the organising committee made a public announcement during the whole five days I was down there. He didn't introduce himself by name. And he disappeared immediately afterwards, never to be seen again. Few of the senior organisers were visible at all; none of them made any attempt to communicate - formally or informally - with the race participants. No public notices were displayed or announcements made, in Chinese or English, during the event. Hence, nobody had any idea what was going on - ever. Business as usual, in China.

7) Brief your volunteers about what's going on
There were large numbers of volunteers, and they were very nice - oh so cheerful and eager to please. There were rather too many of them, really. I think they quite comfortably outnumbered the competitors - the old 'Infinite Number of Monkeys' approach so beloved in China: why bother to plan a solution to something, when you can just keep throwing more bodies at the problem? This meant, of course, that it was almost impossible to find someone you'd spoken to about a problem previously; your would-be saviour would just merge into the crowd again, and, as like as not, never been seen again. And not many of the volunteers had sufficient initiative even to offer an empty promise to try to solve your problem; most of them just frankly admitted that they didn't have a clue. I felt sorry for them. They wanted to do their best to be helpful, but no-one had told them anything. They each seemed to have a very limited scope of responsibility - such that, for example, at the end of a race, the girls handing out towels could not tell you where to get water, and the girls handing out water could not tell you where to get a towel, and neither group had any idea where there was a toilet. Most of the volunteers based in the hotels seemed to have been charged with trying to help with accommodation problems only, and had been told NOTHING about the race arrangements; so, they were generally unable to answer even the most elementary questions asked of them - like "Where is the race bag collection point?" or "What time do the buses leave?" or "Where does today's race start?"

8)  Make the most of your English speakers
This is an event that aspires to an international profile, and is so desperate to attract more foreign competitors that it actually pays weekend fun runners like me to take part! And yet it does bugger-all to look after its foreign competitors. Only one of the main organisers and very few of the volunteer helpers spoke any English at all. Since just about all of the foreigners taking part - a few Germans, Russians, and Kenyans, as well as the expected Yanks and Brits - spoke some English, but, in most cases, little or no Chinese (and even those who could speak some were struggling; the local accent/dialect down there is pretty weird), it is kind of a high priority to find at least a few people who speak decent English (just a few; until all the fun runners arrived for the last day, there were only a couple of dozen or so foreign participants; it wouldn't have been that hard to find one dedicated minder for every 5 or 6 of us). The situation was better - not great, but not hopeless - at the first location in Kaili, quite a big city with a lot of university students; the subsequent two locations out in the sticks could barely muster any English speakers at all. Given the importance of communication in English, would it be so hard to bus some of those university students from Kaili out to the other venues as well? And why can't you give your best English speakers a little more responsibility, and brief them clearly about what's going on? I found a guy at the final location who spoke excellent English. He was actually part of the media liaison team, but he offered to try and help me find a way to get a late-arriving friend all the way from Guiyang to Zhenyyuan. Alas, he had been told that the airport pick-up service from Guiyang had only been operated for those participating in all three days of the event, and had thus been discontinued on Wednesday. This would have been most unwelcome news to my friend arriving on Saturday evening - but, luckily, it turned out to be complete bollocks.

9)  Don't change the parameters of the race at the last-minute
The second day's race had been advertised in the runner's guidebook as being 35km. We were told at the 'technical briefing' on the evening of Day 0 (which comparatively few people attended, because nothing had been done to advertise it) that this had been reduced to 32km. In fact, it had been increased to 38km. 38-and-a-bit km. However, the time allowed was reduced - without any announcement having been made to this effect - from 4'30" to a niggardly 4 hrs. Many people who narrowly missed the new, less generous cutoff point were denied an official classification for the entire event (something which didn't bother me, but rankled with the more serious competitors in the field quite a bit). I think the time allowed for the first day's full marathon might have been reduced as well: the cutoff had been advertised as 5'30", but the race clock already seemed to have been dismantled when I finished just on the 5-hour mark.

10)  Do measure the goddamned courses - and mark the distances - accurately
I believe the organisers may have calculated the distances using a flat map, not taking into account the effects of hills. As I recounted a week or so ago, I was pretty damned sure - having walked that part of the route on the previous day - that the first "5km" of the first race was perhaps as much as 30% long. People with GPS height and distance tracking gizmos on their smartphones reckoned the course overall was certainly between 1.5 and 2km longer than the regular marathon distance it was supposed to be. The last day's race was supposed to be a half-marathon, 21km. At the last minute, it was extended to "22km"; the guys with the smartphones said it was closer to 24km. There were a few eccentricities with the distance marker boards as well: there were a few stretches where there were no markers for 2 or 3km (this tends to cause the poor runner a lot of unnecessary anxiety, when he's got used to seeing a reminder of his progress consistently every kilometre along the way); and there was one point in the later stages of the short last race where a "1km" interval between boards was in fact very nearly 2km.

11)  Don't f*** with people in the finishing stretch
A regular marathon is only supposed to be 195m more than 42km. On the first day's race, the finishing line was at least 450 or 500m beyond the 42km marker (which was, in any event, something over 43km from the start!), and the course was so twisty that you couldn't see where it was until you were almost on top of it. There was a similar deal on the final day, only worse: the course just went on and on and on, after the final kilometre marker. And then one of those big red inflatable arches that they use to mark the finish of a race finally hove into view. But it was a dummy - not the finish at all. WHY??  People yelled at us to keep running for a few hundred more metres. Another red arch came in sight and I sprinted for it - but guess what, it was a SECOND dummy. The real finishing line was yet another 200 or 300m further on; but, of course, by this point, we no longer had complete confidence that this really was the finish. I had had enough by that point: I refused to 'finish' the race, walking in along the sidewalk behind the crowds. Misleading course markings and false finishes are a big no-no.

12)  If you're going to have souvenirs of the event, let them not be crappy and worthless
We were given free race shorts and shirts. Disgusting design, poor quality manufacture - and ridiculously small (the largest size they had was ostensibly XXXXL; usually a Chinese XXXL is fine for me, equating to an XL back home - but this "XXXXL" was surely no more than an M, I couldn't get it on over my head!). Large numbers of them were abandoned in waste baskets in the hotels. That's not good for spreading awareness of your event and boosting participation in future years.

A Baker's Dozen Postscript: Don't steal your star attraction's passport. One of the professional athletes from Kenya who'd been brought in to give the appearance of this being a serious international competition had had his passport confiscated by the organisers for the whole time he was in the country. No clear reason had been given for this; I heard his minder spinning him some bullshit story about how they'd needed it to buy an air ticket home for him. He had been promised that it would be returned to him when we left Zhenyuan the day after the final race. It wasn't. And it seemed that nobody knew quite where it was. The minder made some anguished phone calls, and eventually announced that someone in Guiyang had it, and would come to the airport to return it to the athlete - an hour or so before his flight was due to leave. He was a lovely guy, very sweet-natured and laidback; but he was starting to get a mite pissed off about this unfolding clusterfuck. I suspect even his super-athlete's blood pressure was getting a little elevated. I was staying in Guiyang for a few days rather than flying straight back out myself, so I don't know if he was able to make his flight that day. I do hope so.


Froog said...

I wonder if some people on the organising committee did know how long the courses really were. The event was officially named as an "over 100km" race, and was frequently referred to elsewhere as a "105 km" race. However, the distances specified in the runner's guidebook would only have amounted to a smidge over 98km. It seems that the true distance was in fact slightly more than 105 km.

Yep, I think somebody knew. They just didn't want to tell the participants!

Froog said...

Because I went down a couple of days early, and was one of the very first foreign runners to arrive, I got to know the problems of the set-up (and most of the English-speaking volunteer staff) quite well, and actually found myself taking on the role of an additional helper, trying to guide new arrivals through some of the hassles that I'd faced and overcome.

Froog said...

On the eve of the last race, for example, when quite a lot of people were arriving to take part in the final 'fun run' on Sunday morning, there were NO volunteers on duty in the hotel lobby. Folks were turning up and wondering what the hell was going on, uncertain how to check in, or where they could get any information about the race (er, they couldn't).

Froog said...

One of the biggest problems was that there was no harmonisation between the umpteen different lists of competitors. There were accommodation lists for each of the three hotels, and a list for the airport pick-up schedule, and a registration/information pack list, and lists for who knows what else. They all assigned different numbers to the competitors.

The smart thing to do would have been to arrange all these different lists according to the allocated race numbers (although, of course, we hadn't been told these in advance) - the most obvious number identifying a runner, and the one we could all be expected to easily remember. (I think even the list with the race numbers on it was arranged in some different order; there were two different numbers on it, and the 'identifying' number determining the rank order on the page was NOT the race number itself!)

Hence, there were numerous exchanges along the lines of...

"What is your number?"

"My RACE number? Er, 21."

"No, you're not on the list. Oh, you're No. 49. Why don't you know your number??"

Really, this happened every single frigging day.