Apr 21, 2017

From Road Races to Road Rage, Run Organizers Scramble to Finish Line

Reporting Texas

The average Austin driver spent 47 hours annually in traffic congestion in 2016, making its streets the 13th-most congested among all U.S. cities on the 2017 INRIX Global Traffic Scorecard.

Now add a 26.2-mile marathon — or a run of any distance — that attracts participants from around the globe. Drivers sit at intersections watching numbered shirts run by in droves, while traffic funnels into fewer lanes than usual. It happened on Feb. 19 for the Austin Marathon, and it’ll happen again on April 23 for the 40th running of the Austin American-Statesman’s Capitol 10,000.

The inconvenience is considerable. But what drivers might not see, perhaps due to the traffic, is how meaningful it is to runners such as Allison Cleaver to carve a city-centered course and cheering section out of those busy streets.

“[The people in the crowd] don’t even know who you are, but they’re screaming your name because your name’s on your bib,” said Cleaver, 28, a graduate nursing student who ran distance races at the University of Texas at Austin through 2011.  She’s a two-time winner of both the Austin Half Marathon and the Cap 10K.

“So, it’s like, you don’t even know this person, but just the fact that you’re both runners, that’s the little relationship that you have with people in cities all over the nation.”

But run organizers understand the feeling of sitting in traffic caused by big races, which happen in cities such as Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, New York City and Houston. They expect it. It makes for a lengthy planning period and a complex approach to day-of event operations.

“Whenever you’re looking at something that’s this big on an operational and a logistical scale, planning is essentially a year-round process for us,” said William Dyson, communications manager for an Austin-based production company, High Five Events, that will organize 11 runs, triathlons and cycling events in 2017. “It never ends. I mean, we just finished up the 2017 Austin Marathon and we’re already beginning preparations for the 2018 Austin Marathon.”

That long process includes getting a city permit, which requires an application six months in advance of the event. Dyson said organizers then coordinate with community groups to make an event “as easy on the city as possible while also making it as successful for the city as possible.”

Part of making a running event easy on the city is a technique called a rolling course, which includes closing intersections only as needed and cleaning up during the race. Because the courses for events such as the Austin Marathon and Cap 10k don’t loop over themselves, Dyson said, a cleanup crew can follow the tail end of the field.

“Once the race starts, the entire course isn’t just automatically shut down,” said Dyson, who added that traffic plans are approved by local and state police and traffic officials. “When the first runner comes, that’s when the streets shut down.”

As soon as the last runner goes by, Dyson said, the cleanup crew gets to work and police begin removing barricades.

“Then, traffic reopens as if we were never there,” Dyson said.

Dyson said the Austin races that High Five Events produces often attract more than 14,000 runners. While the company has just 10 full-time workers, more than 3,000 volunteers and additional part-time staff come on board for race weekend.

Lanes will be closed on parts of nearly 80 streets for the Cap 10k, which Dyson’s company produces for the Statesman. Most closures last about three hours. Much of the crew scheduled to work that day shows up at 2:30 a.m. to prepare for lane closures at the starting line that begin 30 minutes later, and volunteers work a full eight hours on race day. Dyson said the more than 100 police officers hired for the race begin showing up at 6:30 a.m., along with the early bird runners.

The inconveniences mean big money for the host cities. Dyson said a company event report found that the Austin Marathon brought $25.7 million to the Austin economy, thanks to visitors such as Cleaver’s out-of-state running friends.

“We explore different restaurants with each other before the race,” Cleaver said. “Even after the race, too, if we haven’t decided to leave. Most people like to leave right after the races and head back home, but I like to spend time exploring different restaurants.”

One runner’s explorations are another Austin resident’s source of complaints. Bill Manno, the City of Austin’s corporate special events program manager, said there are “always going to be people upset” with traffic and street closures that block their normal routes and Dyson agreed.

“Life happens outside of the marathon, and we get that,” Dyson said.

Dyson said his company invites those residents to come out and cheer participants on the marathon if they can, because “that’s what the runners love.”

Cleaver loves having people to cheer her on, and she loves the course itself. She’s won’t be there this year due to prior commitments.

“When I race in Austin, I know every little divot,” Cleaver said. “I know when the hills are going to happen, I know everything. I just know every little turn, hill, bump. I know where the potholes are — it’s kind of funny, but it’s also a huge advantage.”