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Runners seeing red after colorful dye event in Santa Rosa fizzles (w/video)

A Run Or Dye event in OshKosh, Wisconsin in August. (WWW.FACEBOOK.COM/RUNORDYE)

LORI A. CARTER AND JAMIE HANSEN, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Scores of runners who entered a family-oriented running event at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds on Saturday left feeling disappointed and ripped off, with many demanding refunds from the company that put on the event.

Dozens of participants flooded the for-profit Run or Dye company’s website and Facebook page this weekend with grievances, virtually all complaining about a disorganized and understaffed event that left participants unserved and confused, without dye packs or race bibs, or the souvenir T-shirts they’d paid for ahead of time.

“The event was a total bust,” said Tina Suhrke, who says she paid roughly $45 to register and park at the fairgrounds for the 9 a.m. Saturday event.

That fee was supposed to cover, among other things, a T-shirt, a dye packet and a photographer for the run. But no photographer showed up and organizers ran out of T-shirts and dye before even half the crowd had registered, she said.

Run or Dye is one of a number of companies that host themed events where participants run through clouds of colored powder on their way around the course, a riff on a Hindu religious festival where colorful dyes are thrown.

Representatives for the company didn’t respond to several voice and email messages Sunday, and the live chat customer-service function on their website wasn’t operating Sunday.

A representative for the Sonoma County Fair, which rents out facilities for events, said Sunday night she was unaware that there had been problems. A Run or Dye event a year ago at the fair went smoothly, Deputy Fair Manager Katie Young said.

“We have to wait to speak to organizers in the morning when we get to the office and see from their perspective what happened,” she said.

But based on the complaints relayed to her by a reporter, she said “We certainly would think twice about booking the event again.”

“We want to book events the public is going to enjoy and are going to be successful for the community,” Young said. “We take that into account when we book for the first time, or choose to bring them back again.”

Several runners who said they tried to contact the company behind Run or Dye said they had heard no responses, and one said the company deleted some complaints from its Facebook page and blocked her from commenting.

This was Suhrke’s first time participating in such an event and she said she’s unlikely to do it again.

“It put a bad taste in my mouth,” she said.

The event, which was billed as 5 kilometers, or about 3.2 miles, inexplicably ended up being just a little over a mile, Suhrke said.

Other participants said they’d been told that two or three identical laps were needed to make a 5K.

Suhrke said she tried to find someone to complain to during the event but could only find apologetic volunteers, not employees. Afterward, she complained via the only avenues she could find: The company’s Facebook page and “contact us” feature on their website. She hadn’t heard back Saturday night.

Leslie Mola of Sebastopol went to the website Yelp to complain, which led her to check out Run or Dye on the Better Business Bureau’s web page, which rates the company an “F” and shows 169 complaints in the past three years.

“I just went to another 5K down in Tiburon last weekend and it was beautifully run — super organized with plenty of people involved,” she said. “And there was a limit to how many people were allowed to sign up. I don’t think I’ve ever done one that didn’t have a limit. It just seems like a money grab to me. They definitely cleaned up on this one.”

Sometimes such runs are fundraisers for local nonprofits that share in the proceeds in exchange for providing volunteers or other services. In this case, the Run or Dye website didn’t promote a nonprofit partnership. A local radio station was there giving away prizes, but participants said the station didn’t appear to be staffing any booths.

Santa Rosa resident Keith Becker said he and his son showed up about two hours before the event started and as a result were among the few who received the promised T-shirts and racing gear. But that didn’t improve his perception of the event.

“I could see early on it was a disaster in the making,” he said. Before the run started, an organizer announced that while 2,500 people had pre-registered, far more had showed up, he said. And, he remembers her saying, just six employees were present to staff the event.

That meant that the paint stations, a key part of the course where employees normally fling colorful powders at runners, would go unmanned.

“It was sort of funny but pathetic at the same time,” he said.

He estimated that a maximum of 20 percent of the people who showed up got the goods they’d registered for.

The run also got off to a late start and wasn’t staggered as it was supposed to be, he said.

Becker said he ran the same event last year and enjoyed it. “It was a well-funded, well-organized event,” he said. But after Saturday, he wouldn’t attend another Run or Dye event, he said.

“There were a lot of pissed-off people,” he said. “I don’t think anyone from Santa Rosa said, ‘Gee, that was fun.’ ”

Randi Brown of Santa Rosa went with her two nieces, ages 19 and 27. They registered months ahead and ordered extra dye packs to throw at each other, which Brown said is part of the fun of such an event.

“There was a line that almost stretched from one end of the field to the other. It took some gentleman who didn’t even work there to tell us that we didn’t need to stand in line, all you had to do is walk to the other side of the booth to get your stuff and go,” she said.

She said they were in the second or third wave of runners to start and the dye ran out shortly after that.

“By the time we got to the next two or three stations to run through, there wasn’t even anyone there to throw dye,” she said. “We walked by the last dye station and a woman and her little boy were there. He was trying to pick up some (dye) powder that was on the ground. She said, ‘I’m sorry, bud.’ ”

Since they had some extra dye packs, Brown said her niece threw some on the boy: “The lady was so thankful.”

“Online, it says they were supposed to spray us with dye and have these big bazooka things that they shoot the powder dye at the crowd. None of that happened,” she said.

Other Run or Dye events over the weekend — including events in Florida and Vermont — had enthusiastic reviews on the company’s Facebook page.

Regina Panelli has worked for Team in Training and was a walk coach for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society for their events, so she said she knows how a well-organized run should be.

“This was by far the worst,” she said. “I don’t want to lay blame on the staff that were there. They worked their tails off trying to make the event the best they could with what little support they were given. But the head organizers should be tarred and feathered for the results of this event.”

There were six family members in their group and they registered ahead of time for the shirts and extra dye packs. They got most of what they ordered, but not the shirts.

“The first dye station was destitute. It was sad, it was depressing,” she said. “There were kids making snow angels in the dyed dirt, little kids picking up what they could to throw at their family members.”

Eliza Carrington took her daughter’s Girl Scout troop to the run. She said no one answered a telephone number they were given for questions. They arrived an hour early only to find one huge line, with about 200 people behind them and 50 in front.

“We still had not received any dye or shirts,” she said. “We then heard a young man behind the check-in table yell, ‘These are the last of the shirts that we have.’ Dye packets ran out. It seemed to be three young people working. One gal and two boys, all between the ages of 16 and 22.”

She said someone yelled at about 9:30, a half-hour after the posted starting time, that the run could begin.

“No one could really hear her, but all of a sudden people started to run and walk,” Carrington said. “It was total chaos.”

According to the Better Business Bureau’s website, 67 of the 169 complaints against Run or Dye had received no response. The site states that it has received “numerous” complaints about the company rescheduling or canceling events without providing refunds.

The website reads, “Complainants state that they signed up for a specific location’s run and then subsequently received communication from the company that the run was being canceled ‘for logistical’ reasons or was being rescheduled for a different city, sometimes many miles from the original location.”

The company has responded to complaints in two ways, according to the Better Business Bureau: In some cases it has provided the requested refunds and in others it has referred upset customers to a “no refund” policy on its website.

Staff Writer Clark Mason contributed to this report. You can reach Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter. You can reach Staff Writer Jamie Hansen at 521-5205 or jamie.hansen@pressdemocrat.com.