Proper course marking is one of a race director’s most important tasks and is essential for putting on a safe and successful trail race. Trail races can be more challenging to mark than road or cross country events because they are often staged in large parks, forest, or mountainous areas with trail systems with complex webs of intersecting trails. Junctions with other connecting trails, trailheads, roads, creek crossings and switchbacks must be marked to ensure runners stay on the race course and don’t follow alternate routes.
Making sure runners stay on course during the race will help ensure their safety and result in a positive experience. No runner likes to lose time by running “bonus miles” or even worse, get disqualified for going off-course and missing checkpoints. First time trail runners will find that being able to stay on course is a learned skill and sometimes even the most experienced trail runners may “zone out” from mental and physical fatigue and miss course markings from time to time.
I interviewed American Trail Running Association board member and Arizona based race director Ian Torrence, who shared his methodology for marking trail running race courses.
[TAYTE POLLMANN] What items do you use when marking courses?
[IAN TORRENCE] At the Flagstaff to Grand Canyon Stagecoach Line 100 Mile Run we use: flagging, flagging with reflective material, large yellow arrow signs, in flags, pin flags with reflective material and humans (course marshals).
[TAYTE] What are your favorite items to mark courses with?
[IAN] Any directional materials that are large, colorful, and well placed.
[TAYTE] How do you make sure all course markings are cleaned up after the event?
[IAN] We have course sweepers who are volunteer runners and bikers that follow behind the last runners and pull and pick up course materials.
[TAYTE] Have you ever not had enough markings for a course?
[IAN] Yes this has happened, but now that we’re in the eighth year of our event we have learned where all the tricky turns are and make sure those areas are marked very well.
[TAYTE] Have you ever had to make last minute course changes while marking a course?
[IAN] We’ve had to cancel our race in the past due to tornados, lightning and torrential flooding and, of course, COVID-19. Those are the biggest course changes we’ve had to apply. Our course has changed over the years, mainly due to the addition of single-track built by Arizona Trail Association volunteers—we’ve been able to take our race off dirt fire roads and move it onto flowing single-track.
[TAYTE] How many markings do you typically use? How do you decide the amount of markings to bring with you while course marking? How often should runners see some sort of marking?
[IAN] We like confidence markers every quarter-mile. At turns and intersections we mark heavily. We may place an arrow sign if the turn is tough to figure out (like out-and-backs and road-to-trail or trail-to-road junctions). We may even place a human course marshal at points where vehicular traffic is an issue. Roughly, we use five to eight ribbons/flags per mile. At intersections we may use up to ten ribbons/flags.
[TAYTE] Do you personally mark your own trail race courses?
[IAN] I do not have the time to mark a point-to-point 100-mile race alone. I need help and I must have complete confidence in my course marking team. That said, I do mark some of the course, but also rely on others who have run the race before or know the area well. I like to pair course experts with a novice—that way the newbie learns the course for future course marking duties. No novices mark the course solo.
[TAYTE] What is the biggest thing you have seen go wrong with course marking?
[IAN] Simply that we mark too lightly and runners miss a turn.
[TAYTE] What is the main reason you believe runners get lost on courses? What can race directors do to minimize this risk of participants getting lost?
[IAN] Night hours are a tough time to navigate—especially after fatigue sets in. You have to put yourself in the runners’ shoes while marking. Likely you’re marking a section that, in the day, makes sense, but imagine doing the same section at night after having run 80 miles. I’d rather over-mark than under-mark if ever there’s a question. Course vandals are another potential problem. At one event, course marking was removed and re-established by someone sending runners in the wrong direction. We have to assume this will happen on race day. Being close to the course and communications is critical to staving this off. We have also asked volunteers to run/bike some sections of our course to monitor for correct course markings.
[TAYTE] How do you mark a course that intersects itself (ex: outbound and inbound runners meeting at the same intersection)?
[IAN] We use signage—real words on big signs with arrows—and human course marshals to direct traffic when it’s a very critical turn.
[TAYTE] Do you have any tips for course marking on busy trails that get heavy use from bikers, hikers, and other trail user groups?
[IAN] We post signage at trailheads the week before the event alerting other trail users that there is an event happening on this day at this time and we provide our contact info. One section of our course runs on a popular downhill mountain bike trail. We post a sentry at the top to alert bikers that runners and other bikers are coming up this trail.
[TAYTE] Is it important to have people out on course directing runners or should a properly marked course be enough to guide runners without assistance?
[IAN] Yes and yes. You have to consider the runner’s experience. For example, the Hardrock 100 and Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run attract expert trail runners, so there are prerequisites to run those events. Our race does not require qualifiers, so we often have first time 100-mile runners on our course. So, we expect some of our runners to be a little “green” which is why we do use course marshals at critical turns.
[TAYTE] What is the protocol if runners get lost?
[IAN] Coconino County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue are present at our entire event—all day, night and day long. Search and Rescue (SAR) accompanies me along the entire course. We also utilize Coconino Amateur Radio Club to track every runner through each aid station. With communication between radio, SAR, aid station captains and myself it’s easy to determine where a “late” runner might be and set in motion actions to find them. We set up a base at the “point last seen” and work back from the aid station that they didn’t arrive at. We search side trails and send SAR back along the course to find them. We’ve done this several times and have always found our person.
[TAYTE] What do you do if runners get off course and take a shortcut?
[IAN] It depends. I’ve sent some runners back on the course to redo the section they missed. However, if they missed a section(s) of course where checkpoints were set—I can’t give them an official finish. I have also had to enforce cut-off times for slower runners.
[TAYTE] What are some other course marking considerations you could share with us?
[IAN] We provide GPX and KML map files of our courses on our website. Runners can download these files onto their phones or GPS devices and, through the miracle of technology, never find themselves off course. We provide maps and profiles on our website too. We also recycle our course markings. We use clothespins that easily attach and detach from tree limbs (without ripping the ribbon or vegetation) and can reuse them year after year. We also share our course marking material with the other four Arizona Trail Association events. We do not mark the “wrong way” at trail intersections. This is distracting, especially for a colorblind runner and for other trail users not participating in our event.
Stay tuned! This interview with Ian Torrence is the first of a continuing series of articles where I talk with event directors across the country to learn about different course marking techniques and tips for keeping race participants on course.