Race Organisation – The Other Side of the Race.
It was early August, 2019 when I received a call from Venkat, asking me what I was upto, and I replied saying I was blissfully enjoying my retired life. Little did I know that all that was going to change very soon, and I suspect Venkat was not very happy with my answer, or with my blissfull state! Venkat has been a friend since 2009, when running brought us together, and somewhere in August 2010 when we organised a private run near Amby Valley Lonavala, where we camped the night out at a bungalow owned by the Freemasons, of which Venkat is a torch bearer, we bonded. The whole experience, the ambience, the run in the clouds and the stay with awesome Parsi food made way for the friendship that we have today. Later on Venkat started YouTooCanRun a private enterprise (He has a penchant for starting/ taking over and selling of companies!), as a registration platform for running events, and I still remember, for a trek organised by me with Navi Mumbai Runners, we had used his platform for registering some 40 odd members. Well the fledgling company grew and is today handling a variety of products directed at the running community.
Over the conversation, Venkat asked me to join him to look after a new product that he had conceptualised. I tried to argue that I had no experience in product management, and as a lawyer I was always at the other end asking uncomfortable questions. Venkat argued that all he required was passion, work ethics and knowledge of the sport of running. The first two I had for sure, the third one I was perceived to have. Well you can hardly sustain an argument with Venkat, and I found myself agreeing to return to an unblissful state.
Through the months that I worked on the project, I got to learn many many new things about race organisation and race management, or rather about my ignorance of them. For me it was like back to school kind of feeling, with known faces and friends in the organisation – Venkat and Payal. Then I learnt that the next big event to be handled was the WNC Indian Oil Half Marathon scheduled to be held on 17th November, 2019. Having participated in the event in 2017 and getting a hand carved wooden plaque, I have wonderful memories of the race. This time I was watching it inside out. I did want to participate badly, having missed the same in 2018, and had also registered for the same. However as the D Day came near, and the frenzy of activities picked up, Venkat vetoed my race participation and I was thrown into the deep end (one of them!), albiet with lots of support. We needed all the help possible from within. It is another matter that I ended up doing more than the 10k distance that I had signed up for by running around!
The preparation for the race had started six months in advance, and interaction of the team with the Navy team was initially on a weekly basis, and later on a daily basis. The response to the event has always been overwhelming and it had reached the limit in three years, wherein the registrations had to be stopped. Even this year the registrations had to be closed two months prior to the event. Positively the run has been liked by everyone and of course, more and more people are opting for a healthier lifestyle. One of the main pain areas for any race organisation is the approvals and permissions required from multiple Government agencies. During one such meeting we were informed that the BKC route may not be available in view of the Chunabatti – BKC link flyover scheduled to be commissioned in October. That’s when YouTooCanRun proposed the South Mumbai route. At the back of the mind, the not so pleasant experience of an earlier race handled there, and the challenges faced was playing up. Lot of planning went into conceptualising Ballard Estate as a race area and the route around it, as the place is full of heritage buildings and bylanes, with no single large open space. This was not a typical “Maidan Event” where you get a whole large ground to set up the production facilities as in the previous years. Therefore a lot of innovation had to be done. The initial reaction of the Government agencies was not very encouraging, but when the Navy pitched in its might, things began to fall in place. We received total support from the Office of the Municipal Commissioner, Commissioner of Police, and the Traffic Police. Thus the concept started taking shape.
The Western Naval Command likes it big, so Commodore Swaminathan, who was overseeing the event pulled all stops and involved himself and his officers into the nitty-gritty of the event. Meetings, meetings and more meetings, long hours, late nights and brainstorming were the order of the day. Venkat, Hiral (our Sales Head), Anish (Account Management), and Payal who pitched in, must have lost count of the numbers. Vendors were finalised. Route was measured, re measured and re-re measured. All possible turns were examined, loopholes identified, markers painted. Venkat being a certified course measurer, and being the Race Director for this race, was the one who measured the route repeatedly cycling it at midnight with the Jones calibrated counter. The expo for distribution of the bibs as well as for the Vendor stalls was fixed for 8th, 9th and 10th November, a week ahead of the race, so that only bibs of outstation runners would be remaining for distribution a day before the race. Meetings were held with the government agencies briefing them about the route and road closure. The last two weeks before the event saw a frenzy of activities from all quarters. Pressure at an all time high. It was at this time that the race day events came into focus. Then on it was endless hours of debating, simulating the race, the numbers, pace of the runners, the lead pack, the average pack and the slow runners, the time taken to reach each crucial portion. Analysing the movement, the simulation was done for every 15 minutes starting from 4:30 am till 9:30 am. Accordingly indicators were provided in the race handbook that was emailed to the participants. Despite such meticulous planning we were still faced with the inevitability of mix up of the 21 k runners with the 10 k runners as this was unavoidable considering the two loops that the 21 k runners had to endure.
As a part of the event, and since the same was being held in the Heritage precincts, Venkat came out with an idea to conduct Heritage Walks. This was liked and approved by the Navy. Accordingly YouTooCanRun organised two Heritage Walks on 9th November and 16th November, in association with INTACH, an organisation that works passionately to restore the heritage buildings in and around the area. The slots got filled in a couple of days, indicating that people were really looking forward to information about the history of the place. The walk led by Venkat (from INTACH) led the participants through the Maritime history of Ballard Estate. An application (Zello) was sourced, which could be downloaded on mobile and Venkat (from INTACH) broadcasted his talk, which could be heard by participants on their mobile, in real time as they went around seeing the heritage structure. The walk led through the over hundred years old Yazdani restaurant, where the participants were treated to the traditional “Bun-Maska- Chai”. The walk ended with a sumptuous buffet breakfast at “The Taste of Malabar”
On the operations front, a lot of things happened. The buildings in Ballard Estate, were requested for space to house the facilities for the event and to which the owners of these buildings gladly agreed. Without their co-operation, this event would not have been what it was. The dining hall of the Prince of Wales Seamans Club, was converted into a hospital ward, with ICU et all, having 26 beds, 85 paramedics, led by Dr. Ashish Contractor and Dr. Darshana, courtesy HN Reliance Foundation, with Hiral managing it from our side. There were two additional medical stations enroute with two beds each. There were three ambulances stationed at crucial junctions, ready to reach any area. The nearby hospitals were intimated and had assured reservation of vacant beds should an emergency arise. The Kamani Chambers doubled up as a recovery area with Dr. Rajani Patil and her band of physios manning it, with Supriya from our side. HPCL gave its entire canteen area to store and repack the food items for refreshments. The Mackinnon Mackenzie Building, gave out their entire ground floor to be used as a refreshment area – capacity 3000 persons. Aftab, Anita and Sheela managing this section from our end. Nadeem from our end looked after the volunteers. The items for breakfast like Garge, and Methi Mattri, was sourced from Athavle’s of Pune, which was found on one of Venkat’s visit to Pune. The same was sample tested by the entire team, including the Navy.
Anish and his team must have done route recce a zillion times to check the logistics and ensure which locations were to be barricaded and ensuring that the traffic would not come in at any portion of the route and cause hindrance to the runners. The Municipal Corporation was contacted and requested to sanitise all the public toilets enroute. YouTooCanRun supplied all the materials required for cleaning, as well as the freshners and sanitisers. The total volunteer count for this event was over 700. The Times of India who were the event production partners along with Pentagon, were co ordinating the Stage Area, and the flow of events, the props etc. This was ably supported by Krishna, our HR.
The most important of all was the Control Room housed at the conference room of Vakil House, courtesy J Sagar Associates, with Payal at the helm. This was the nerve centre of the operations, with LCD monitors and feeds coming in from the timing mats, it could throw up figures of runners crossing the mats on a real time basis, so that the crowd at each point could be monitored. The Police had their Radio network and the Navy had their own network which was being manned at the Control Room. But additionally we had 18 HAM radio operators stationed all over the route providing their inputs on the situation on a real time basis to the Control Room. This was admirably managed by Payal. Mr. Prakash Wani ex cop lent his experience to support us. The entire staff of YouTooCanRun, barring the ones who had gone to Vizag and Hubli (We had events there!) were up at the venue before 4:00 am, and pitching in wherever they could. Each had been assigned specific duties, and needless to say, they worked tirelessly. Venkat was moving from one section to another briefing and ensuring that the instructions were understood. Few of us were there for the whole of Saturday, and went to guest rooms to catch a wink at around 1:00 am and were back at the venue at 2:45 am.
I was manning the Finish Line, and had a real rough time managing the same, and this coupled with my lack of experience being on the other side of the finishing line, was a lethal combination! At the entrance of the race area we had 20 volunteers with Scanners, which linked with a software, threw up the photo IDs of the participants. Over 200 imposters were caught and turned back. We take security very seriously. Sagar and Neet from our end were managing this crucial area. The runners were divided into four corrals in accordance with the timing certificates submitted by them, and they were ushered through different by lanes. And the race was started for each following corral runners 4 mins apart. This ensured that the runners were spread thin over the route. The race for each category started bang on time with the Naval Officers flagging them off. And immediately my work to sanitise the finish line commenced. Since the loop was of a little over 10k, the first runners were expected to reach the bypass lane near the finish line in 35 mins. As expected the Runner came in a bit over 35 mins. Atreyee from YouTooCanRun was manning the entrance of the bypass and guided the runners efficiently through the lane. Once the elite pack had gone, there was a little breather before the bulk of the runners came in. Then a flurry of activities started with Payal calling from the Control Room that the first 21k runner was approaching the finish line. Shortly the wailing of the siren from the Navy pilot bike announced the arrival of the winner. He came in at 1:11:52. One by one the elites started racing in, and by the time the 10k race started at 7:00 am, most 21k runners were ahead by a margin. All this time the HAM operators were continuously updating the control room of the situation. I was relaying the information from the finish line on the winners and medical issues which was then relayed to the stage and the medical team for action, and within minutes the assistants would be there with the stretcher.
As the major part of the runners arrived, the situation at the Finish line was a bit chaotic and claustrophobic. Runners for some strange reason refuse to leave the Finish area. They fail to understand that the area is not sufficient , nor designed to accommodate thousands of runners. They are designed to be a comfortable pass through to the other areas, like medical, recovery, baggage and refreshments. This act of the runners despite repeatedly telling and coaxing them led to a minor choke at the post Finish area, and not so pleasant experience for the later runners coming in for the finish. Thankfully no casualties occurred there, else it would have been a task for the medical team to find their way in the maze. As time went by, the pressure kept easing, and there at the Control Room, the portions marked Yellow for concerns were slowly but surely turning green, and when the last runner crossed the mat at 9:39:17, the whole screen was marked green, signifying that things were under control and everyone could heave a sigh of relief. Finally the demons of the earlier race at the same venue were killed and put to rest!
The on stage activities went on for a while, with winners and prizes and photoshoots. And offstage there were five giant LCD screens which displayed the results of the runner present there, to give them a memorable photo op. The entire YouTooCanRun team was treated to breakfast with the Naval Officers. Sadly I reached there quite late as my Finish Line duties included arranging to copy the files from the 20 odd photographers who were engaged for the event, for Vasanthan from MyRace to take it up for uploading. Apart from this there were 4 automatic cameras which were shooting at will. Once the formalities were over, we regrouped to take stock of the day and the event, what worked and what did not. By the time I reached home it was 3:00 pm, and within a few minutes was dead to the world. So now atleast I know what goes behind the scenes.
Most runners who organise events would have already gone through this experience in varied degrees, but to those who have not been on the other side, this is an important read if one wishes to understand.