Plan a 5K (or any race). The basics.

So, you want to plan a 5K – where to begin? There is a ton of information out there, so we wanted to pull it together and put it in one easy post. This really is just skimming the surface, and we will probably need to go into all these points in further detail down the road, but we wanted to get started.

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First things first: talk to the town. We can’t tell you how many times a hopeful race director has called us to book services only to be told “no” by the city they were planning in. Things you need to consider are town permits, road closures and police detail. Every town has different guidelines here – some are more strict (how many 5Ks do you actually see in downtown Boston?) whereas others are lenient. But do this first, and plan on doing it early. We have seen great races be pulled together in a couple of months, but as a rule of thumb, a year out is probably a better time to start this part of the process.

Pick a date. This is something that shouldn’t be a totally arbitrary process: dates matter. Sure, you want to plan a turkey trot because there isn’t one in your town yet, but you should also consider this fateful Thursday morning is the biggest race day of the entire year, read: competition. Trust us. Thanksgiving at RaceWire is like ‘Nam… we imagine.

Assemble a team or committee. Once you finish reading this post you will realize that to plan a 5K takes a village. Well, it at least takes a few people. In addition to absorbing some of the workload, you are going to want to have other people to bounce ideas off of. Also, the more people involved, the more families you can tap into to volunteer race morning. Seriously, it’s like a family reunion at some of our races -we love it! Roles should be clearly defined and decisions should be discussed with the crew.

Try and estimate the number of people you expect. Trust me, I know that is tough to do. Because I care, I am going to tell you the brutal honest truth: you probably (probably, not definitely) will not have as many runners as you expect your first year. I know, I know, you have three high schools in your district or an entire company to tap into, but for the most part, we find that first year events are smaller than they expect. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, but I want to manage your expectations. Do your homework – look into other events in your town and see their turnout.

Plan your course – this is a great time to be creative depending on your location. Do you have great water views? Want to start and end near a central point downtown? A well (or poorly) designed course can make or break your race. Once you have an idea, and this probably goes without saying, but measure your course. Measure it a few times, and if you can, use a few devices. Map My Run, Garmin and Runkeeper are just a few. Once you do this, be prepared: even the most diligent race directors will hear from their runners that their course was too short or too long… just ignore ‘em ;). While we’re talking courses, mile markers. Totally optional if your race is a 5K. Absolutely necessary if it is longer than a 10K – no exceptions!


Optional: sanctioning and certification via USATF. For the more serious events, this is probably an avenue you’d like to go down. Certification through USATF just verifies the distance of your course – not a bad thing, but unless you want your run to be a qualifying event, it probably isn’t a must-do unless you’re a marathon. The same can be said for sanctioning, which is a more strenuous set of rules you agree to follow, in exchange for a stamp of approval from USATF. Again, if you are looking to create the next Boston Marathon, you’ll want to do this. Trying to raise a few thousand for a hometown charity? You can probably pass. Last thing about USATF – if you need event insurance, look here.

Sponsorship – this is a huge part of event management. You can really tap into ton of local (or national if you’re a hot shot!) resources. Restaurants, breweries and even small business are a great place to start. When you’re planning an event, every.dollar.counts, so if you can get a few big sponsors to chip in, you’ll be able to put more of your money where it belongs: the charity or organization your event supports.

Book a timing company. Depending on the time of year, you’re going to want to get in touch with a timing company as soon as you have a race date. Sometimes we book out a year in advance for certain weekends! If you’re planning a race with less than 200 runners, check out our timing software RaceWire Lite.

Have a website and at the very least, get an online registration page up and running. Want to use RaceWire? Even better. Click here for more details. But seriously, you need this. A few self proclaimed old school race directors still swear by mail-in registrations, but people want ease, and online is the way to go. Big events open up to nine months in advance, but we typically recommend 4-6 months for most races. You can still allow for mail-ins and walk ups on race day, but everyone appreciates a streamlined process, so go online! While you’re online, try and create a Facebook, Twitter or other social media page for runners to visit. For more on that, go here.

Take a stand on refunds: and just say no. This is a whole other post. But just trust us, say no.

Aid stations on the course are extremely important, especially for longer events. But, even for a 5K, it’s important to be prepared. You’ll probably only need one, but you will want to make sure it’s fully stocked. If you are planning a longer race, consider a sport drink or even a gel pack of sorts. Your runners will thank you!

On that same note, you are going to want to have some sort of medical plan and/or presence. Presence is most important (again) for longer races, but at the very least you want to have a few safe guards in place.

Post-race festivities. This part of the plan is totally subjective, but we are biased to some cold beers, light snacks and some good music. We’ve seen super in depth parties with live music and even a festival, but as long as you have something you should be okay. For a longer race, you will need some more substantial food, but if it’s just a 5K, bananas or a granola bar should be fine.

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Port-a-potties: not the most glamourous part of the plan, but I’m telling you, if you are not stocked, it is a literal and figurative mess. We recommend 1 porta per 100 people.

Swag: we don’t need to tell you – runners love swag. Whether it’s a tech tee, a shiny finisher medal, a hat or even a goody bag, you’ll probably want to give runners some sort of freebie. Runners have come to expect that from races, and in order to attract repeat runners year after year, you’ll need to stand out from the other races. Consider your price and what they get for it, and for goodness sakes, throw in a tee-shirt or something!

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Lastly, take a deep breath and enjoy the ride. There will be ups and downs during your race planning process, and that’s okay. Not everything will unfold as perfectly as you want it to, so be flexible. Having a back up plan or a get-it-done outlook is the way to go. It’s going to be OKAY. Now get out there, and get racing!