Risk Management in Running Race Events

July 17, 2011

Katie Helms
Assistant Director, Intramural/Recreational Sports
University of Arkansas

Road and trail racing events have surged in number and participation in the last few decades, and their popularity is certainly understandable. Running and walking are easily accessible forms of exercise, and race events provide structured opportunities to test performance goals, interact with other enthusiasts, and celebrate physical accomplishment. Races are great components of campus recreation programs, either as stand-alone events or in coordination with other program efforts such as homecomings or campus health initiatives.

Despite the appropriateness of road racing within campus recreation programs, many program managers find the task of administering a race event to be daunting. Dramatic incidents and deaths in several high-profile race events have understandably contributed to misgivings regarding the safety of such events as well as reluctance in undertaking their administration. While race administration entails some specific risk management considerations, race directors can ensure that their race is as safe and well-managed as possible by utilizing some basic risk management principles.

Foot races carry risks that are both known and unknown to the administrator. While race directors have the responsibility to provide the safest conditions possible, participants have an equally important responsibility to ensure activity readiness. While the management of known risks seems like an obvious step in the event planning process, there are additional responsibilities that race directors should undertake to account for risks that are not necessarily able to be anticipated.

What are the differences between known and unknown risks?

Many risks that should already be known to race directors are similar to those in other sport and recreation activities with inherent risks. Such risks include hazards along the course, such as traffic, terrain, or obstacles. Other known risks involve participant management. USA Track & Field recently revised its “no headphones” policy to discourage, rather than ban, the use of headphones by participants, allowing individual events to enforce this rule as they see fit. The Road Runners Club of America also strongly discourages headphone use in races, emphasizing the importance of hearing in avoiding hazards. Other considerations of participant management involve giving proper instructions (run only along designated course routes), enforcing age parameters, and equipment requirements such as proper footwear.

Other risks, such as injury or weather conditions, are not always immediately presented, but are common situations for which recreation professionals should be prepared. The anticipation of injury can be especially difficult to manage in a road race, considering that the activity area encompasses several miles, rather than being neatly contained within a field or court. Participant injury or emergency plans should be carefully outlined (and documented) in advance, and should contain the following considerations:

  • What kinds of first aid equipment will be provided, and where will aid locations be?
  • If any equipment (such as an AED) needs to be transported to a particular location on the course, how will that transportation take place?
  • How will course monitors communicate an incident to race directors, and how will race directors deploy aid?

Other risks that should be anticipated by a race director include special precautions involving event weather conditions. Weather conditions involving heat, cold, or precipitation each have unique considerations that should be addressed. Not only should race directors make special provisions to reinforce course safety or participant aid during adverse weather conditions (such as providing extra water on the course in hot conditions), but participants should also be made aware of any special needs brought about by such conditions (such as informing participants of water locations).

Other risks in road race administration cannot be as easily known or anticipated by a race director. Such unknown risks include a participant’s knowledge of his or her own health. Most deaths during marathons are the result of heart congenital heart conditions that participants themselves were not aware of. Other considerations of unknown risk include the fitness and readiness levels of participants. This consideration is especially important given the increasing emphasis on walking and running as activities for all ages and abilities. Event participants should be made aware of the risks of vigorous exercise, as well as the specific risks associated with road racing. Participants should also acknowledge that they are adequately prepared to the best of their knowledge. This information should be made available in participant waivers, and should be re-stated during a pre-race briefing before the race start.

Finally, race directors should consider the appropriateness of liability insurance coverage for their specific event. Organizations such as the Road Runners Club of America provide policies for event directors. However, many campus recreation departments can obtain appropriate coverage through their university’s existing policies. Race directors should check with their organization’s legal counsel to determine their specific insurance needs.

While maintenance of a safe course, proper risk disclosure and instruction to runners, and injury/emergency planning are key components to a safe race, each race is unique and contains additional risk management considerations. The risk management concerns discussed here are not meant to be comprehensive, and will have to be addressed at a more personalized and detailed level for each particular event. There are several event management resources that provide guidelines containing helpful management details. The Road Runners Club of America makes their “Guidelines for Safer Road Racing Events” available on its website, at http://www.rrca.org/resources/management/roadraceguide.pdf.

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