Q&A: The Crippler’s Chelsea Luttrall on how to organize a grassroots gravel race

Think you want to put on a gravel race? There's a lot more to consider than a cool course and a fun afterparty. We spoke to Chelsea Luttrall, founder and "one-woman show" at Colorado's The Crippler race to find out what it takes.

Gravel is booming right now, and its lack of sanctioning and official rules can be just as intriguing to someone considering hosting an event as it is to the people who participate. Think you’ve got what it takes to throw your own gravel party? We spoke with Chelsea Luttrall, the founder and promoter of The Crippler, a 65 mile gravel race in Cañon City, Colorado, about what it’s like to organize a grassroots gravel event.

Chelsea Luttrall is the race director at The Crippler. Photo: Tony Hill/Tony Hill Photography

VeloNews: Help us understand the cost of putting on an event. What part of race promotion costs the most, and how much is that?

Chelsea Luttrall: A small event like mine often costs about $10,000-$15,000. Depending how good you are at book keeping, I’m terrible, it could be more or less. I always start off good, and as the event nears, last minute purchases end up taking me over-budget. Custom swag and chip timing are my biggest bills, but all the supplies and workers’ labor, permits, porta-johns and other rentals, and racer perks end up just adding up to quite a lot more than you expected by the time it’s all said and done. Last year I bought a trailer to store and haul everything in. I actually bought several supplies last year that I won’t have to buy again for a while, so I’m hoping I got a big chunk out of the way for future races. We’ll see.

Photo: Tony Hill/Tony Hill Photography

VN: Do you make money? If so, how much?

CL: I actually haven’t gotten to pay myself yet with The Crippler. I like to think that next year is the year. I’ve pretty much spent everything in the early days on the race and racers in hopes of getting the race established and respected, so it becomes a staple on peoples’ calendars. I’d really like to some day be able to pay myself for my labor, but we’ll see. It’s truly a labor of love. But it would help my family if I could turn it into something that at least compensated me for my time. The Crippler is such a unique and beautiful race, I can see it making money, some day. I hope to always be able to use that money to grow the event and donate to local charities that look after these beautiful spaces.

Photo: Tony Hill/Tony Hill Photography

VN: You have a day job. Will this ever allow you to work less or leave that job behind?

CL: When I was putting a great number of races on, I had a day off per week to work on this stuff. My hope was to earn enough money to justify the time off. I can’t say that came true, but that was in a different style of race, adventure racing, which isn’t as popular as cycling. I’d love to some day go back to the one day per week, off work, to work on The Crippler. I’m not sure if I’ll ever do that or not. I suppose it would have to prove that I could pay for that time I was not working my real job. I’m a prosthetist/orthotist in Colorado Springs.

Photo: Tony Hill/Tony Hill Photography

VN: Is race promotion for anyone?

CL: Well, nearly anyone can put a race on, but you have to jump through a lot of annoying hurdles and endure a lot of sacrifice – most of which folks don’t realize. Most are looking at the end “big picture” without considering all the organizing and details that went into planning it. There are more details than you initially realize that have to be ironed out well before race day. I’ve seen tons of excited folks wanting to put on a race piddle out at the first stage, [obtaining] permits.

Permitters’s processes are all different and all have different requirements. Most of the folks who are working on permits for the land owners are overworked and underpaid, so they’re often less-than-excited that another event is coming to town, as that means more work for them. The permitting process is long and often frustrating as road block after road block need to be worked out. And only once you have the permits, are you ready to move forward with what most of us think of when considering race planning—all the nitty gritty.

But if you’re not a planner, race organizing is not for you. My husband is a big-picture guy. He has great ideas. He can come up with a great end-vision. But he has zero patience and ability to consider every little, tedious detail and get from the beginning to that end-vision. It’s a lot of tedium. It’s not for most people. And it’s a lot of time sacrificed for focusing on the tedium. If you have a job and a family, it’s hard to justify without pay, and it will be without pay for several years at minimum.

Once you get to race day week, you have to forget your family to bring to get all of your details to come together at the same time. You will be sleep deprived, and you will likely not eat during the event. Self care gets pushed to the side as you have to manage all the details of the event for the racers.

Photo: Tony Hill/Tony Hill Photography

VN: What part of race promotion makes you cringe?

CL: Something that is totally not my cup of tea is trying to earn sponsorship gigs and marketing. Thankfully, the companies we team up with, we already have a personal relationship with. If we didn’t, it would be impossible for me to seek out quality sponsor relationships. It’s not in my personality type. And I’ve learned that many folks who think race production is fun, also detest that side of the business. It’d be awesome if I made enough money to hire it out, but not yet. Not yet.

I like hosting people. I think ensuring people have a fun and enjoyable time at my event is very fun. So, for my personality type, it’s hugely gratifying at the end of the race, when folks have had a fun time. But, I can see how some personality types might be saddened by not getting to participate in the event first-hand, if they were organizing.

Lastly, the event doesn’t stop once the race is done. Cleaning up after the event and cleaning up the final details is probably the most difficult part for me. I’m exhausted and I just want to be done, but have to push through that crux to the actual race director end. There are so many bills to pay, results to figure and post, pictures to get out, and hopefully, finally, eat and sleep and catch up on a little lost family time.

Photo: Tony Hill/Tony Hill Photography

VN: So, why do you do it?

CL: It’s hard, but for certain folks, it’s fun. Type-two fun. If you’re motivated by the potential reward of putting on the race—money, promise of alternate career, hopes for an instantly successful race—it’s probably not for you. If you like the idea of the process of bringing a fun event to your area, then it might be more your type of gig.