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Expert Tips & Tricks for Planning Fun Runs and Walks

By Sheila Mickool

Nothing could be more fun on a gloriously sunny day than participating in a run or walk-especially in support of a good cause. Friends and family can feel virtuous while getting some fresh air, exercising those muscles and bonding over the experience. Whether it’s a community run celebrating good health, a charity fundraiser or a challenging road race, there are a multitude of resources out there to help you plan one. Here are some expert tips to get you started.

First Things First: Set Goals

Before you dive into the details, you’ll need to answer some questions: What type of race do you want to have? Will you include a separate event for children? Do you want to include both a run and a walk? Is the purpose of the race to raise money or awareness for a charity? Although the steps are similar, the details of your plan for a leisurely community 5K run/walk with families on July Fourth at Cannon Beach will be different than those for a trail run in the Cascades.

Every event needs a definitive goal to provide a framework for planning, says Carol Atherton, publisher of Race Center NW magazine and president of AA Sports in Beaverton, Ore., a company specializing in running/walk and multisport events, like triathlons. “For new races, this goal setting is even more important than for existing races,” Atherton says. “Charity races want to maximize profits and increase exposure of their organization. Business conventions add 5Ks to enhance the experience for their attendees. Running clubs fill a void in the calendar or add a race with a distance not currently available within their community.” In each case, the goal and desired results will be different and the plan needs to be specific to each.

When setting your goals, think about what will make your event appealing and attract participants. “With the introduction of themed experience runs like the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon series, the Warrior Dash, Hot Chocolate 5K/15K and other similar events, a well-organized race with a good participant experience that raises money for a good cause simply isn’t enough,” says Jeff Orswell, president of Orswell Events, based in Bellevue, Wash. Orswell’s company works on events like the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon and the Seahawks 12K Run at the Landing. “Those looking to start up a new event need to get creative and offer a fun, unique and compelling participant experience,” Orswell says.

Select the Date and Location

Once you’ve determined your goals and the type of race, you can start making decisions. First on your list will be selecting the location, date and time. The location needs to be suitable for the event, easy to get to and attractive to participants and spectators. A fun run/walk with a start at a remote trailhead on Mount Hood at sunrise might be exquisitely beautiful, but if parking is limited, there are little to no available services and it’s a 300-mile round-trip by car to reach the starting point, participation is likely to be limited.

When choosing the date and time for your event, the basic scheduling rules apply. “Look at the local event calendars to make sure you are not competing with a large event,” says Paula Harkin, founder of Runwithpaula Events and co-owner of Portland Running Company. As founder of the Hippie Chick Half & Quarter Marathon, Pints to Pasta 10K and Crawfish Crawl 5K, Harkin knows a thing or two about fun runs.

Atherton cautions planners to choose a venue, location and course wisely. “For the longer, endurance races-15K and up for running, multisport or obstacle-type races-participants will travel from a greater distance, while the shorter races (10K and under or nontimed fun run/walk events) usually draw only from the surrounding communities,” Atherton says. “In planning your course, safety should be your first priority, and then aesthetics. Participants typically prefer looped courses with interesting winds and twists, rather than simple out-and-backs. The start/finish is best in a wellmanicured park versus a paved parking lot. Reach out for community acceptance of the event. You want their support and involvement.”


Now the fun really begins. It’s time to start planning the details. You’ll want to make sure everything is covered and tasks are assigned, from registration and permit application to recruitment and training of volunteers. “Keep the participant experience in mind throughout the entire planning process and execution of the event,” Orswell says. There are dozens of very well-organized races with high-quality participant experiences raising money for phenomenal causes in the Northwest. Word spreads quickly if an event offers a great participant experience-and even faster if it doesn’t.

“Use your goals to drive every element of your planning,” says Alex Bennett, who is with Competitor Group and is the race director for the Western Region Rock ‘n’ Roll events. Bennett, who lives in Seattle, but also works in San Diego, will oversee the San Francisco, San Jose, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, Montreal, Chicago and Arizona events this year. “It sounds simple, but having a clearly defined goal and set of objectives for what you want to get out of the event as an organizer will keep you focused,” Bennett says. “Whether it’s a certain number of participants, general awareness building or amount of fundraising dollars, it’s important to know what success will look like after the race.”

Atherton also stresses the importance of understanding the logistical elements required to produce the event. “No matter what the distance or type of event, it is best to plan at least a year out from the desired event date,” she says. “There are so many elements to putting on a safe, well-organized event, and allowing for the proper preparation time is essential. The optimal situation is to create a committee or support team whose members are responsible for specific tasks such as promotion, sponsorship, course layout, permits, post-race refreshments, entertainment, results, awards, etc.”


The safety of participants, volunteers, spectators and the community where the event is being held should be the main priority. “A safe, accurate, well-marked course is the most important item you can deliver,” Harkin says. “Runners and walkers expect a lot from events these days, but the basic No. 1 item is to have an accurate distance and a safe course. Safety means not only working with local police to secure a safe environment for both parking and running or walking on the course, but also having hydration before, during and after the race, and a medical plan in case of emergency.”

Budgets and Sponsors

Even the smallest, most casual fun runs cost money. Careful consideration of financial matters is important. “Race budgets will vary extensively based on a number of factors. Entry fees alone may not cover event costs, especially for first-time events,” Atherton says. “Races held outside a city in a rural setting may have a much lower budget than a downtown city event. It will be important to understand what your overall expenses will be before moving forward with planning and promotions, especially if the race is a fundraising event.”

“Oftentimes, startup event planners will falsely convince themselves that they can attract more than 1,000 participants and sell thousands of dollars in sponsorships in their inaugural year,” Orswell says. “It’s important to create a realistic and conservative budget in the early stages of creating a new run/walk event and keep expenses as low as possible.” Bennett advises organizers to form partnerships.

“It’s important to get support from the community where you are hosting the event,” he says. “Working with neighborhood organizations, business associations and the media not only creates awareness, but can help secure valuable sponsors.” And that will help keep costs down.

Race Day

After months of preparation, the big day arrives. The hard part is that once the race starts, you no longer have control. Runs and walks are fluid and take on a life of their own; the weather does its thing and volunteers don’t show up. No worries. Experts suggest you have contingency plans in place. Hope for the best, but plan for the worst. Have everything done two weeks before the event. Arrive one to two hours early, just in case. And to help remember everything when it gets crazy, use a comprehensive race day checklist.

“Don’t try to do it all yourself,” says Bennett. “Putting on a run or walk is a complicated endeavor with a lot of moving parts. Having good people to help and share the responsibilities is critical to ensure no task gets missed. At the end of the day, you want the event to be safe and secure for all of your participants, as well as the local community.”

Harkin says that for participants to feel good about the event, “a great volunteer staff, starting on time, accurate results and a quick and fun awards ceremony are a definite plus.”

After the Run/Walk

How you take down the event is just as important as the event itself. Experts suggest a separate team be assigned to oversee removal and disposition of traffic cones, signs, tents, leftover goodie bags, etc., and that you plan as diligently for this phase as you do for the race itself. Your community will thank you. And don’t forget to officially thank your volunteers, participants and sponsors over the next few days. You want them to come back next year.

And Remember: Have Fun

Planning a run/walk can be complicated-and at times, downright frustrating. Don’t forget to have fun, Bennett says: “You’re not putting people on the moon or negotiating peace in the Middle East. You want to create a fun environment for participants to have a good time, so they will tell their friends about the experience and come back next year.”