An open letter to my run community from the (home) desk of a runner and Canadian Race Director
(with permission from race directors (RDs) mentioned in this op-ed. Thank you friends)
Written on Sunday March 15, 2020 at 11:00 a.m.
By reading this, I hope you, the reader-runner, can better understand why and how your favourite races are making decisions.
Moreover, I am hopeful our industry can recover from this global health crisis and be stronger than ever. Thank you for reading, keep running and be well.
If you have been running for any length of time, you have probably suffered an injury.
What is happening now to the global race industry is the equivalent of having a myriad of injuries including ITBS (IT band syndrome), paired with a stress fracture; compounded by a recovering runner’s knee, because many races have been hurting from declining participants numbers for a few years now. Unfortunately, the prognosis is grim. Some of your favourite races are crippled and will never run again.
Kirsten at the start line of the 2015 Calgary Marathon
Race Directing is a stressful business to begin with. Compounded by the uncertainty of the current situation and the onslaught of questions, many of which we don’t yet have answers for, has made for an impossible few weeks if you’re in the event management industry. I now speculate full time for a living. If this, then that… over and over and over again. Nothing is certain. And race organizers are trying to predict every possible outcome, then backing out each scenario to understand what we can do now, to positively affect the results later. We are not unique in this situation, as we know many industries are hurting in a terrible way.
The race directing community is really just a niche within the larger community of runners since most of us got into this business because we have a passion for running. In fact, we come together often to help at our events, to celebrate one another and to share best practices both informally and formally at conferences. Just like you, we even go on runcations together.
November 10, 2019
Race Directors (Charlotte Brookes (Canada Running Series) Kirsten Fleming (Run Calgary) Maureen MacDonald (Run Calgary) Rachel Munday (Manitoba Manitoba) Jackie Cooney (Run Calgary) Steph Symington (Run Calgary) Holly Bird (Run Calgary) Stacey Embretson (LA Marathon) Sherri Robbins (Blue Nose Marathon) Rachel Fetherstonhaugh (Race Roster) in San Diego to race the inaugural San Diego lululemon 10K
February 9, 2020
Kirsten Fleming (Run Calgary) Erin Roza (Canada Running Series)
Charlotte Brookes (Canada Running Series) Alan Brookes (Canada Running Series)
Matt West (DMSE) Dave McGillivray (DMSE) Mike Nishi (CEM) T.K. Skenderian (Conventures) Brian Lyons (Running USA) celebrating Alan and Mike being inducted into the 2020 Hall of Champions for their contributions to the race industry.
February 11, 2020
Canadian Race Directors Cory Freeman (Sporting Life Toronto 10K and Toronto Womens’ Series) Cory Jennermen (RunGuides) Ian Fraser (Run Ottawa) Charlotte Brookes (Canada Running Series) Erin Roza (Canada Running Series) Rachel Munday (Manitoba Marathon) Sherri Robbins (Blue Nose Marathon) in Las Vegas for Running USA conference.
I am incredibly grateful for the guidance, mentorship and friendship of the people behind the races you run and love, more now than ever.
We were not prepared for the intense and devastating disruption a global health crisis would create. Was anyone? RDs have been monitoring the COVID-19 crisis through the lens of what races are doing since February 17th when Tokyo Marathon limited its field to elites and wheelchairs. That was 1 month ago.
Many of us hoped there would be some sort of solution or that the virus wouldn’t spread in North America to the extent it has in other countries. We also held out for the spring season to be salvaged and began collaborating on increased health measures to reduce exposure and risk to our volunteers and participants. Last week there was much optimism perhaps April and for sure May events would be safe to hold. As the severity of COVID-19 took hold around the world, things began changing by the hour, as governments tried every tactic they could to contain the virus. I am certain by the time you read this even more restrictions will be introduced.
Postponement announcements quickly followed the Tokyo Marathon. First by the Paris Half-Marathon (March 2) and Rome Marathon (March 5) and eventually the New York City Half Marathon (March 9). By then, Run Calgary was holding internal and external daily briefings with city partners and sponsors, as well as sharing ideas and updates in industry group chats and email exchanges, some with upwards of 40 race directors. Many of these threads batted around emergency preparedness and mitigating risks to participants, our organizations and the industry at large. It always circled back to “what if” (and eventually) “when we have to postpone and or cancel”. As of this writing, that list of races had more than 300 races around the globe in the half-marathons and longer distances that have cancelled or postponed. That doesn’t include the thousands of smaller fun runs, 5k and 10k races and charity events.
Rescheduling an event, especially large road races, to a later date is complex and requires many stakeholders to sign off. We (I mean every race director from Blue Nose Marathon to Boston) are all working tirelessly with our many stakeholders (sponsors, municipalities and private venues where we hold our races such as stadiums and community centres) to find alternative dates. In some cases, it’s just not possible. Circumstances might include, no available weekends or emergency services can’t commit the resources or there are other events on the calendar that would be compromised. For international events (such as BMO Vancouver Marathon) rescheduling for a later date (when we don’t even know what the future holds and when “things will get back to normal”) doesn’t service participants who have hotel and flights booked EVEN if venues were available and the city on board with a new date.
I have been watching from the sidelines silently as devastated race organizers, forced to cancel and postpone are being harassed and vilified online. Many runners are showing compassion and empathy to the tough decisions we are having to make. But a small, loud and mighty minority are lambasting RDs for enforcing existing policies that will prevent their organizations from going bankrupt.
Ultra-legend and RD, John Lacroix (Sherpa John) of Human Potential Running out of Colorado wrote a spot-on blog in response to how his friends at Mad Moose Events were being treated and the challenges RDs are facing. He wrote in part, “It’s not just that runners were asking for refunds, it’s that runners were treating these good people so poorly that they felt a need to ask you to be kind. I support the Ricks and Mad Moose, and I am appalled by the behavior of the entitled. THIS IS NOT OUR SPORT...WE ARE BETTER THAN THIS. No RD should have to ask you to be kind to them when they’re the ones in the trenches facing the adversity.”
Adversity is what our friends at Run Van are doing their best to overcome. First, the province banned gatherings over 250 into May, forcing them to cancel. Then the backlash started. I watched it play out online, realizing I couldn’t keep quiet any longer. The future of our industry relies on it.
Screenshot of BMO Vancouver Facebook comments after announcing cancelling
This is a deep dive on what race directors all over the world are going through right now. Our written statements to our respective communities basically all say the same thing. However, these short statements presenting alternative solutions (I will outline some and explain more below – stay with me) clearly aren’t conveying what will happen to your races if we were to refund your registration fee.
Let’s talk about the no refund policy and where race registration fees go.
As someone who regularly participated in running events before I was a RD, I had no comprehension of the financial and personnel resources it takes to put on a race, until I worked in the race industry.
Michelle La Sala, owner of the small business and race organization Blistering Pace Race Management (California) wrote an update on her business Facebook profile that reads in part, “Everyone is trying their best and trying to make the most sensible decisions for the runner and for their company. By the time a race rolls around, there are so many sunk costs that have already been spent - shirts, medals, permits, venue fees, water, nutrition, awards, etc. Not to mention a lot of registration platforms have return fees so refunding everyone would cost more than the money they took at face value. I am just trying to provide a (very initial) look behind the scenes, but please believe me when I say that someone who has had to cancel their race and is only offering a cancellation with no refunds or deferment options is not taking your money and running.”
There seems to be a myth, races are making massive profits. I assure we are not. Run Calgary is a not-for-profit, which means we budget on a good year to have a small surplus (for times like this!) and on a bad year (for example a cold Canadian winter keeps people from training and signing up) to break even. When we land in the black (we don’t know where revenue will land as it correlates to how many runners sign up) we pump excess dollars back into the event to try new things (50K relay! The Roundup! A new event!) to make the guest experience even better next year.
Banks do not own races. Many banks (including the title sponsor for Calgary Marathon) generously invest in the community by sponsoring events. Small independent and family-owned businesses and not-for-profits operate the majority of your races. Both types of organizations rely primarily on revenue from registration to pay for all goods and services to put on a race. These revenues are supplemented by generous partners that sponsor events, some with cash and/or some with goods that offset costs we might incur ie. Nuun generously provides Run Calgary with product for runners we would otherwise have to purchase, and they are a Run Calgary series sponsor.
Line items you will see in every race budget from a 300-person race to a 30,000 person race include: bibs, medals, swag, venue rentals, food, equipment, permits, insurance, volunteers (yes we support them with donations, food, shirts!) etc.
Service line items include both event and year-round staff, police, timing, medical, fencing rental and labour, AV, warehouse storage and office space, technology etc.
Goods are ordered in many cases nine months to a year out, as is the case with service contracts and venue rentals, all of which require non-refundable deposits. The race might be one or two days, but it takes a year to plan and financial commitments are being made with your registration fees in good faith. It’s not just races that will have come back from this crisis, the people who own timing and registration companies and many other supporting vendors will suffer from this unprecedented cancellation of events.
For those races that cannot reschedule, race directors are getting creative with solutions. Let’s get into some of what we are seeing.
Converting to a virtual event ensures registrants can take their victory lap on their own time alone or with a small group of friends and still receive their swag and medal. There is both a financial and time investment from race directors to pivot to this model – the larger the event, the bigger the cost and more staff time it will take to fulfill.
For context, Run Calgary launched a Christmas virtual race which sold out at 300 people and we had 60% of our virtual participants pick up their packages from our office (not an option during a pandemic for obvious reasons) and it still took 75 staff hours to plan, execute and fulfill at the average cost of $11 CAD a package mailing within Canada. Imagine moving a 10,000-person race to this model, when we can’t invite people to pick up at our office. Run Calgary was already excited about how virtual races are contributing to the run community. And now it turns out they are a perfect way to ride out a public health crisis, if you are healthy and can still run. Virtual high fives to the race directors working on virtual events and the incredible partners like Race Roster (registration company) and Sportstats (timing company) that are turning around fast technological solutions to support races and participants who are also excited about this option.
Run Calgary Virtual Christmas Run collage and digital engagement
Next let’s talk about deferring your registration fee to next year, which is essentially refunding. It hits hard because we have already paid the direct runner costs and overhead for this year and those 2020 swag items can’t be carried over (neither can most hard costs) and we still have to purchase new goods for next year without the 2021 registration fee. I can’t speak for other events, however on a normal year when you are injured and you ask Run Calgary to defer, we are happy to help. It is not an unreasonable request and we make this exception all of the time. But it’s race organizations that are injured this time.
Deferring everyone to next year or offering deferment over 3 years like Monterey Bay Half Marathon did in 2018 when they were forced to cancel because of the California wildfires, moves the problem and creates cash flow uncertainty next year, or in the case of Monterey Bay, losses over 3 years. This non-profit race, with more than 7,500 paid entries, had to absorb more than $600,000 USD in lost entry fees as most runners chose to defer to their 2019 race. They also provided more than $125,000 USD donation to victims of the fire, as directed by more than 1,600 entrants who chose this option over deferral.
We have seen few races offer refunds. Those that have are taking the hit and have enough savings or they are relying on lines of credits. Event Cancellation Insurance (if the race is cancelled, insurance pays out the refunds to participants) does NOT cover COVID – 19. And even if it did, few races can afford that coverage. Run Calgary was quoted $11,500 CAD for partial coverage for 1 of our 7 annual races. And again, this pandemic would not have been covered, because event cancellation insurance, like many of your home and car policies, has strict exclusions. This is a cost most races would have to pass on to our guests. The same guests who are telling us through survey feedback and showing us through a decline in numbers, that they are cost conscious and won’t pay more.
Most races will come back from the damage of COVID-19 just like most people who catch it will. But not all. And because we don’t know when it will be safe for races to resume (we are making huge assumptions by moving events to the fall) and there is little historical data to determine thresholds for loss and long-term affects to the confidence in the industry, we don’t yet know how bad it will get and how hard the bottom line will be hit. I am asking you, our run community, to be kind and patient with race directors and to understand we are not stealing from you by not refunding. We are doing the best we can under these trying circumstances. No one wants the show to go on more than us. While you’re pounding the pavement in preparation and marking down the days until your big day, we too are spending our time planning in anticipation. Let’s get through these uncertain times with compassion. We can still run, support one another and wait for sunnier race days ahead.
For those in our run community at the top, there is so much more at stake. Dozens of Canadian elites are looking to qualify before the May 31st deadline for an Olympic Games we don’t know will happen. My heart breaks for them. It also breaks at the thought of not hosting the Calgary Marathon on Sunday May 31st and letting our community down by not offering satisfying alternatives.
We need to be able to laugh right?
I am getting through these stressful, strange times with the support of other race directors, sponsors, partners and the many runners who are showing compassion and understanding despite their own disappointments. We are all working together to learn from this, come back from it stronger and to ensure the sustainability and longevity of our industry. And I will also get through this by going for a run.
Happy running and until we meet again
Kirsten Fleming, Executive Director Run Calgary and Calgary Marathon
With the support of many of her peers in the industry who graciously contributed to this letter.
Another great read from Race Director Ryan Heisler of the Greater Hartford 1/4 Marathon HERE