Thursday, November 10, 2011

The race that was not

Back in the middle of the summer, I registered for a half marathon.  It was the See Jane Run half marathon, which would be held for the first time in Austin, TX on October 9th.  Even though October can be quite hot in Austin, I wanted a race to motivate my summer running, and the convenience of a fall race in my backyard was highly appealing.  It all seemed so ideal.  Until October 9th, that is.

A storm passed through Austin (early in the morning) and for the first time in three months (literally), we were blessed with soaking rain.  I woke to rain and thunder around 4:30am.  The race start was 7am, so I was unconcerned at the time.  My alarm went off at 5:30am, and there was still rain with occasional thunder and flashes of lightning.  Thinking this might cause a race delay, I booted up my computer and quickly checked my email and the race website, figuring if there was a change, it would be posted there.  Nothing.  Well, I have run my fair share of workouts and races in the rain, and being a hearty New Englander by birth, I was unphased.  I finished getting ready and was out the door by 6am.

The line of cars to approach the parking lot was long and moving slowly.  I got there by 6:15 and then just creeped along.  I knew I had plenty of time, so I didn't panic.  I finally got close enough at about 6:25 and realized all the cars were being directed to turn around and leave.  "Race is canceled" someone yelled to me.  I unrolled the window to confirm.  I drove further up to double check with someone of authority.  I expected to talk to a race director or volunteer, but sadly they could not be found.  There was a police car, no one else to be seen.  They confirmed the race was canceled and sent me home.

When I got home, I had an email waiting from See Jane Run.  They informed us that the race had been canceled; they had been asked to cancel the race by the police because of lightning and rain (i.e. asked, not told).  There would be no rescheduling or refund.  The email was time stamped 6:24am.  The race start had been 7am.  By this time, 6:45am, the lightning had completely stopped and the rain was more of a drizzle.  By 8am, it was not raining at all.  The sky cleared and the early morning was greeted with sunshine.  Needless to say I felt pretty disappointed and adamant that See Jane Run race organizers had made the wrong call.

The next day, I got on their facebook page to express my disappointment, ask some questions, and try to make some sense of their decision.  While lightning poses a threat to runners, it seemed obvious to me that the correct call would have been a delayed start.  SJR had permits and plans to keep the half marathon course open for five hours.  A 30 minute delay would have been enough time for the lightning to clear completely and would still have allowed the majority (if not all) of the field enough time to run the course.  The radar for Austin clearly showed this storm was fast moving.  SJR organizers claimed they could not delay the start because of permits (I guess they never considered ending the race at the same time regardless).  They also used the excuse that the rain had resulted in flooding of the starting area.  While lightning presents a legitimate safety concern, flooding does not, and I have never heard of races being canceled because the ground is too wet.  In fact, I ran many a gnarly and soaked cross country race in high school, trudging through ankle deep mud and water.

Furthermore, SJR race officials should have stayed at the course well past 7am and explained to all of the runners arriving what was going on.  Instead, they were nowhere to be found, and one police officer was left to inform all the participants that they race was canceled.  When I asked SJR organizers about this point, they became very defensive, and didn't understand why runners would want to talk to race organizers instead of police (!).  They then told me that at 6am when the decision to cancel was made, all the organizers went inside to get dry and started tweeting, facebooking and calling radio stations.  What they failed to realize was that by the time they emailed the participants (a mere 36 minutes prior to race start), nearly everyone running the race had already arrived or was in transit.  Organizers' time would have been better spent talking to all the participants instead of calling radio stations.

Finally, I was disappointed by the way SJR organizers handled the criticism they received.  Thousands of women paid to partake in a race that was abruptly canceled and clearly did not have a backup plan in place.  Given how quickly the weather changed, many participants questioned the legitimacy of the decision.  While organizers did make an effort to distribute souvenir items, including wine glasses and t-shirts, they did not seem to grasp that a lot of people were disappointed that they didn't get to run a race.  In fact, they asked the public to consider how disappointing it was for them (organizers) after days of hard work.  This argument is completely insensitive to the fact that registered runners trained for months (and paid) for a race they never got to run.  Instead of explaining how they made their abrupt decision to cancel the race, they defensively stated that they had over 20 combined years of racing experience and therefore made the right call.  Then, when asked why communication regarding the event being canceled wasn't better, they stated they weren't FEMA and can't be expected to have the best communication.  I am, however, skeptical.  While this runner only has 14 years of race experience, she thinks its pretty obvious the race organizer should stick around the race start and talk to participants, instead of heading inside and out of sight a full hour before the race was scheduled to start.  While some people did post comments that were below the belt, the majority of them were fair criticism.  Sadly, SJR organizers were unwilling to accept any criticism.

So clearly you can tell that I was: (1) disappointed I didn't run a race that I trained and paid for.  I don't even like wearing the shirt, because I don't feel I earned it!  I also wasted two weeks on an unnecessary taper.  (2) I think the right decision would have been to postpone 30-60 minutes.  I have previously run races right here in Austin, TX and they were postponed for weather related safety reasons.  The lightning was long gone by the time the race would have started, and a little rain never hurt anyone.  (3) Communication by race organizers was abysmal.  They jumped ship too quick (not staying at the start to talk to people) and after the fact became defensive and unable to accept criticism.

In fairness to SJR, I will mention what they did that I think deserves kudos. (1) They donated all of the medals for the race to Medals for Mettle, a charity that gives race medals to children fighting debilitating diseases.  (2) They are offering a reduced, $30 entry fee to the half marathon next year.  I personally will not chose to run another SJR event, because I was extremely disappointed by the organization they demonstrated.  However, I think that whenever an event is canceled and refunds are not possible (entry fees had already been used to pay for costs that could not be recuperated), a reduced or free entry fee is the best way to resolve the issue.

So that is my race that was not.  Now its November, and I haven't run a race since an Easter 5k.  Fortunately, I have something on the calendar for December, which I will be sure to talk about in an upcoming post.


  1. Wow. It's amazing how poorly they handled the situation, considering the many, many times races have been delayed or canceled for any number of reasons and how previous race organizers have usually handled it by communicating directly with the runners at the race start rather than just online.

    Hopefully, despite how they did this time, they will take this response and the criticism they received into future events, so if they are in this situation again they can handle it better.

  2. Your report is a totally fair criticism of SJR's decisions. This sounds really disappointing for so many runners....there should always be a back-up plan for something like this, and SJR should have been prepared to make choices such as whether the race time could be delayed, whether to allow races to run at their own risk, etc.

    For the CA bay area race, I give the race directors credit for REALLY listening to the complaints that came in from the 2011 race. They stepped it up big time for 2012. At this point, my biggest complaint is still that they pander to the stereotype of girl women (chocolate and champagne!) instead of the tough chics that runners often are. I would seriously prefer a beer over champagne any day....

    1. Thanks for the comment RoseRunner! I am really hoping that this fall the Austin race is better; SJR offered a free entry to this year's event to anyone who was registered last year to make up for the cancellation. As much as I was turned off by the organization, even I don't think I can pass up a free entry fee to a race that starts <3 miles from my house.