Q & A

Marathon Planner Makes Critical Race Changes

By Courtney Thompson November 1, 2007, 3:51 PM EDT

Marine Corps Marathon business manager Angela Huff.

Photo: Courtesy of the United States Marine Corps

Marine Corps Marathon business manger Angela Huff has produced 14 marathons in her career, including the race held this past Sunday. After 12 months of planning (she’s already focusing on next year’s), Huff said the 2007 marathon, which had 21,000 participants and 150,000 spectators, was her best yet, thanks to some critical changes. The avid runner is also delving into her next project: planning the USMC’s first-ever half marathon, to be held in Fredericksburg, Virginia, on May 18.

Some key changes were made to the marathon and the surrounding festivities this year. What brought these changes on?

We always listen to the runners, and we take their feedback seriously. Last year we had runners pick up their registration packets at the D.C. Armory, where we always host the vendor expo. Because of bad weather, the majority of the runners came on Saturday, and at one point we had to stop people from entering because it was unbelievably crowded. So this year we decided to erect a huge tent in the parking lot outside of the armory, where runners could pick up their registration packets. This was much better. There were no bottlenecks, no crowds, and the runners really seemed to appreciate it.

We also revamped the finish-line festival by basically taking over downtown Rosslyn. Last year, the festival was right where the race finished, by the Iwo Jima Memorial, and it was just honestly a nightmare. This year we opted to end it in Rossyln, which is just one third of a mile from the finish line, and we really spread it out so there wasn’t any crowding or backups. So we learned something new; even though we’ve been in business this long, we can never learn enough.

How do you go about getting feedback from the runners?
We talk to the runners throughout the year via multiple outlets, such as our Web blog and direct emails. We also set up a customer service hotline where runners can call in with questions and comments, and we sent out email blasts every two weeks for four months prior to the marathon. So there is constant communication. I’m a runner too, and I sign up for other races, and oftentimes there isn’t much back-and-forth between the planners and the runners. We make a huge effort to take what our runners are saying into account.

How was this year's marathon different from years past?
I found that overall there was just a sense of calmness throughout the day. We had perfect weather, which is huge, and hardly anyone had to go to the hospital—we only had seven transports this year, which is minor compared to years past. And we had plenty of water, which has been a problem for big races lately. I ran the Army 10-miler in October and they ran out of water, and it was just terrible.

So I’d say the marathon was just a smooth race this year—it was the smoothest race I’ve ever worked. I used to come back to the office on Monday with 800 emails with feedback and changes and complaints, and this year I had 100 and most of them were thank-yous.

What were you doing the day of the race?
We have a timing trailer right at the finish line, and that’s where I spent most of the day, ensuring all the race technology pieces were working perfectly. Our runners get text messages letting them and their families know how they’re doing, where they are, or if they’ve stopped at a medical center. We’ve had these systems in place in past races, but this year we enhanced our map track, creating an interactive map on the Internet that gives runners a bird's-eye view of where they were at any given point during the race. And during the race, if a spectator wanted to track a runner, they could see how they’d done until that point.

And, of course, I was providing info to the runners and spectators, fielding questions—anything from “Where are the bathrooms?” or “How do I get home?” to “Where is the finish-line festival?”

How were sponsors incorporated into the race this year?
Our sponsors were very interactive this year. Many were present at the expo, where a total of 300 vendors and sponsors showcased everything from sneakers to food—a lot of companies wanted to promote new products to the running community.

We have sponsors incorporated in technology. Cisco, for example, helps us set up the wireless network. We also have UPS, who comes with 40 trucks for our baggage—the runners typically come bundled up because it's chilly in the morning, and they have baggage to drop off before the race, which they then need to pick up at the finish-line festival. UPS has been doing this for three years, and their process is just flawless at this point.

Wal-Mart provided the water points on the course this year, and they had groups of volunteers to man the tables. The volunteers cheered the runners on, and a huge Wal-Mart truck was parked each behind the table. It was very interactive.

Another major sponsor, Saturn, gave us all of our lead and pace vehicles for the race, and this year they also donated a fleet of cars the week prior to the race so we could get around, which was nice because in years past we’ve been stuck, just hopping on the metro to get from point to point.

The race is known to drawn thousands of spectators. How did you prepare for them?
We coordinate year-round, and we have rehearsals. For instance, we set up water points and pretend to hand out water, and then we determine where we have to improve. We always take into consideration what the runners tell us—maybe the spectators were crowding a certain mile—and that’s how we improve year to year.

We also coordinate with seven police jurisdictions, and we have monthly meetings with all of them, taking their advisements into consideration. It’s not a one-man show; it’s a team effort from all areas.

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