One thing you can count on in any Hood to Coast relay is traffic. There are always a few exchanges where the van gets stuck in traffic, and the next runner and a person with the timing device has to run an extra mile to make it to the exchange ahead of the runner, or even with the runner. It’s not fun, but it’s expected, and it’s part of the adventure. It’s fairly common speculation that more professional traffic control and fewer vans on the road could solve it.
But this year? This was a cluster fuck of epic proportions. Fortunately for me, my team was all committed to having a good time and the crisis only seriously impacted one of us – our runner who had to wait in the cold for 20 minutes at exchange 24 before finally walking back her entire leg to find us still stuck in traffic.
The worst part was not knowing what was going on or what we could do about it. We had the foresight to send our timing device ahead with our runner #12, anticipating that she would meet our Van 1 without us. Which she did. She also had the presence of mind to keep her sweatshirt tied around her waist, instead of leaving it with us before she took off, in case she got cold waiting for us. Which she did!
So what caused this huge back-up, and how could it have been handled differently?
I still don’t know the whole story, but we heard that ODOT shut down the exchange because of unsafe traffic conditions.
There are plenty of experienced relay racers who have suggestions for how to avoid the traffic issues. Apparently, these suggestions have fallen on deaf ears at HTC:
I don’t have the answers to how this could have been avoided, but I have a few thoughts on how it could have been managed a bit better once it did happen.
Crisis communications 101:
What we needed, while we were stuck in traffic for two hours with our runner stranded at 24, was information from the race officials:
1. Here’s what happened. “ODOT shut down the exchange due to safety concerns. No vans are being allowed in the exchange until we address a few issues.”
2. Here’s what we are doing about it. “Safety is a top concern for us, and we are cooperating with ODOT to get the exchange reopened as quickly as possible.”
3. Here’s how it affects you. “Your van may not be able to catch up with your runners for some time. You will likely be stuck here for X amount of time.”
4. Here’s what you can do. Various options:
- Send your timing device with your #12 runner to pass on to Van 1 runner #1, instead of having a third team member/van there to record.
- Send a sweatshirt with the runner, and have them walk back to the van after they exchange with Van 1.
- Once you have your runner, take an alternate route (provide directions) to Exchange 31.
I’m just providing these messages as examples – Since I don’t know the actual source of the problem or what factors went in to the shutdown, I don’t really have the answers. But addressing those four key areas of concern are critical in any crisis situation. There were race officials going back and forth on motorcycles, they could have shared a few key true message with the volunteers at the various exchanges to spread the word. Crisis Communications 101.
The fifth and maybe most important crisis communication technique? Honesty. Instead, race officials posted this on their Facebook page:
I’m not buying it, and neither is anyone else.
I have two more points to make:
1. If the big delay really was due to ODOT shutting the exchange down for safety reasons, then I’m glad it happened. As awful as it was for all involved, it will all be worth it if real and substantive changes are made to increase the efficiency and safety at the exchanges for years to come.
2. In addition to helpful communications, it would have meant the world to the stranded runners if they had been provided with blankets, hot tea, a heating station – anything to keep them from freezing in their wet sweaty clothes while they waited. I’m surprised more of them didn’t walk back to their vans – but after finishing a grueling run on 2 hours of sleep, you can hardly expect anyone to have rational problem-solving skills.
As I mentioned before, my team, the Asphalt Cowgirls, didn’t let the frustrations ruin our experience. We still had a great time, and still managed to break our projected finish time by just under an hour. All of our runners ran great times, we were resourceful in addressing the challenges, and we maintained our good spirits by not fretting about things that were beyond our control. Recipe for success, despite all the challenges!
I hope that some good discussions can come out of this, and real improvements to the safety and efficiency of the troublesome exchanges in the future.