Monday, November 23, 2009

The Boxing Day Run - A Classic

Now working the second iteration of their Emergency Website, after a year of the original Emergency Website, the Saltwood Boxing Day Run (BDR) continues to be a study in how not to manage a running event, and yet it remains one of my favorite - if not favorite - races on the running calendar.

The race starts and finishes by the Saltwood village green, takes you on a three-mile spin around local farmland and woodland, and includes a number of steeplchase-like obstacles. Race HQ is the village pub, and it's four or five deep to get to the bar after the race. Love it!

2008 start.

The three years I have run the BDR, the timing has been something of a shambles and each year Stuart, the race director, seems to quite comically come up with new-fangled ways to mess up the results, stubbornly dismissing tried-and-tested methods of race timing.

In 2006, race organizers managed to list a majority of the 1,000+ finishers in the official results, but by no means all of them. They used the fairly orthodox finishing chute method, but rather than rip tabs from bibs, there was a guy with a ratty notebook at the end of the chute scribbling numbers as they walked past him. Needless to say, many numbers failed to make their way into the notebook and, by extension, the official results.

For the 2007 race, the organizers chose to do away with the ratty notebook, deciding instead to radio finisher numbers to Stuart in Nottingham (hundreds of miles away) as they crossed the finish line. This method was not a success, and apparently the back-up video of the finish line was a disaster too. The results were maybe 70% complete. And then there was last year: the bullhorn fiasco.

The finish line chute was done away with - why, I don't know - and race numbers were bullhorned to somebody somewhere (maybe Stuart in Nottingham) as finishers crossed the line. Inevitably, as the hordes started filing through, the bullhorn operator and scribe quickly became overwhelmed and only a scattershot of finishers were captured in the results - maybe a 50% success rate. Again, the back-up finish-line video was a failure.

I finished fifth last year, so my result was recorded before the system broke down.

Matt finished top 20, but his result was never recorded as the bullhorn system had begun its downward spiral!

And this year? Well, the newest results-capturing system has recently been expounded upon through the (second emergency) race website: "We are using bar codes this year! We didn't want to revert to a slow funnel, even though it has been the most reliable system in the past."

Brilliant!! Why revert to your most reliable system when you can try something completely new and hatstand instead? I can't wait to see how the bar-code system will work. Will there be a guy with a bar-code scanner scanning us as we cross the line, or will we be picked up and thrust across a grocery store checkout as we finish? I'm almost as excited to find out how this unique system will work as I am to get to Saltwood to toe the line for the fourth annual Clark and friends Boxing Day outing in the 35th running of the BDR.

At the end of the day, despite the fact that we all go out and run it as hard as we can, the race is not really about the race, it's about getting out with family and friends on bloated Xmas stomachs to romp around the great British countryside. In fact, the organizers, true to the history of the event, refuse to call it a race, referring to it simply as a 'run'.

An aside on the registration procedure: You email Stuart your details and he emails you a Word doc attachment of your race number with instructions to print and "plasticize" it - the first year we received these instructions there was much discussion (and chortling) about how best to plasticize our numbers. Stuart then requests payment be put in the mail, relying on the honesty of the British public to follow through with ex post facto payment. I would imagine that the payment rate is about as successful as the various timing systems - patchy, at best.

Nephews William and Thomas in the pub with their plasticized numbers

No number for Alistair, so we went bandito. Race organizers were none the wiser.

If you ever find yourself in or around Kent on the day after Christmas, don't miss out on this gem!


  1. I think it may be the perfect run; it's going on my wish list. Perhaps the timing could be called a Pub Code? They could stick with it no matter what the confusion and have a good excuse as well.

  2. So have you set your 'run' goals yet?

  3. Podium. PR if conditions are as firm as last year. You?

  4. Yes, brilliant! I love every aspect of this race, the flyer itself, and your writeup, including delightful Briticism's like "hatstand" which I had to look up.

    *Please* report back afterward and tell me that there ends up being a guy in a bullhorn calling out bar code numbers! Or that they're all written down in a notebook, and then scanned days later (for some reason).

    Seriously, good luck and have fun!

  5. Mike - yeah there'll be a report for sure. Glad you enjoyed the British'isms - plenty more where that came from.

    Let me know if you want to get out for a run some time in the near future. I'm thinking of doing the Horsetooth/Lory loop again this weekend, or some version of it, if you're around and interested.

  6. Wonderful write-up. I turned up at the desk saying 'I have my number, but haven't paid, so the bloke took my fiver with a bemused expression and didn't write anything down. Non-plasticised number fell off half way through.

  7. Hi Nick,
    Stuart here. I am not the Race director and never have been. His name is Greg Boorman. I have been the messenger throughout the last 20 years, receiving the results culled by "hatstand" style and making the best of them with photos and video.

    In 2007 I was indeed in Nottingham, only 200 miles away. The mobile phone is remarkable and no bullhorn required. There was also two good videos which actually DID work and yielded good results, with racetime on both recorded sound and DVD. I got a video via email by 2:30pm. Low tech but 98% - 99% accuracy. It was done despite Greg saying results weren't important and he wasn't going to funnel.
    For the second time in the millenium I was in Saltwood for 2008. This year Greg had decreed that he was only interested in prize-winners and no other results. So, my operation was clandestine - and here you were right, I was in the back of a van. The video and my vision was blocked out by invading unmarshalled spectators. Very poor results (65% of entrants recorded as finishing) and prizegiving was a travesty - U18 male winner awarded to 45 year old lady who was in bed (gave her number to the lad) and 14 year old youth who came 4th overall was assumed to be a joker and got no cup! Nearly everyone had gone home anyway.
    For the 2009 run I was to come down and implement a bar-code scheme. I was very ill
    but as bad was Greg's lack of faith in my improving things. Dinosaurs still survive in Kent. I have built a database of 1500 past runners so that they just had to sign to say they had read the waiver against their data, pay and receive a number. Nothing was done to get pre-entries to me, observe the closing date, record them properly or reply to my emails. This eventually accounted for many finishers having no names and my not coming down. Behind this was a suspicion that Greg wanted to re-visit the "bullhorn and notebook" in the hands of his Event Organising team 3i's . I sent the bar-code reader down with software and made a succession of phone-calls trying to get someone to use it. Had it failed, at least it would have been worth a try (with a fallback anayway).
    I know you are a technical guy, but for readers.... The bar-code reader plugs into the USB port of a laptop, open up Excel and load up my spreadsheet. Place the cursor in cell B1.
    The bc's range is 1 metre. When a bar-code is read the number gets put into column B, the runners name is "looked up" and appears in columns C & D. Their stored DOB enables their age-group class letter to appear in column E. I have written a Macro (computer code) to calculate the time of scanning to 1/100th of a second and enters it into column F. Column A contains the scanning order (i.e the race position). Cursor moves to B2. Good eh? I tested it in local CC race. Runners just kept running through. The club were well pleased and runners went home with full results.
    Your quote from my website cites a slow funnel (infering it worked well before). It didn't. It would have been a fast funnel, walking pace. You have said elsewhere about the the volume. I cannot imagine any other race you do has to process 1000 runners in 40 minutes. No longer my problem. I have resigned.
    No problem with your comments - my website admits all. Some others should read them. One last few comments on a slightly glasshouses and stones variety. Your number plastication decision was evidently wrong looking at your picture! The great British public do pay up - need a reminder after Christmas in some cases but we do expect a charitable approach and many pay more than expected. Well done with the Texas race, Nick. The great report made me tired reading it.

  8. Hey Stuart - thanks for the comment and sorry to hear that you've retired from the event. As an RD myself, I can attest to the thanklessness of the task. And sorry for the sarcastic nature of my post - probably just trying to be funny or something. At the end of the day however, the BDR truly is a classic and a race that I look forward to every year - so thanks for being a part of that.

    With all that said, the race obviously has some major logistical challenges, especially in the timing department, but they are not insurmountable. An investment in chip timing is the most obvious solution, but if that takes away from the total donated to charity, then the rip and pull funnel system has to be the way forward, in my opinion.

    There will be a few inaccuracies, but as long as you have one person in charge of getting finishing splits, and enough people to ensure that finishers move through the funnel in the correct order with a couple of bib rippers at the end and one person collecting them all, you should be able to move people through quickly and get pretty accurate results.

    Obviously, there is a fair degree of data processing that needs to follow that, which is tedious, but at least you would have accurate results. Sounds like the barcode system would save a lot of that work, but I'm thinking you would have issues with reading all the barcodes, especially on a wet year like we had last time out. And, yeah, decided not to plasticize my number this year - an error that led to the disintegration of my bib within the first mile.

    Also, glad to hear that British sensibilities towards charitable giving continue to make the event a success in that department.

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