Only a week before, it looked like the 2019 Run Houston! University of Houston race event would go off like all of its sister races that year. Hundreds of runners and participants gathered at the start line for a family-friendly event through the University campus and the surrounding area.
And then Tropical Storm Imelda landed.
Historic flooding reminiscent of 2017’s Hurricane Harvey ensued and put the University of Houston underwater, prompting race organizer Kevin Miller to make the unenviable choice of canceling the race only three days out.
“We essentially had ordered everything [for the race]. Medals, shirts, event equipment. Everything was prepaid for and done,” recalls Miller, who worked late nights the entire week to try and find a solution.
Surrounding roads were swamped with stormwater and debris, and when the campus closed down to all but essential staff, he had no choice but to follow. While a virtual race and deferral options helped offset some of the costs, it still hurt the bottom line of Cadent Events, Miller’s small, family-owned race business.
Miller, who manages eight races in the Houston area, was grateful that he was able to stay afloat, noting that “for the most part, those kinds of things are a freak occurrence.”
Tropical storms, ice storms, firestorms, and other random acts of God– any race director worth their salt knows to expect the unexpected. But Miller, along with race directors around the globe, had no idea that six months later they’d all be facing a challenge of unprecedented proportions.
A Rapidly-Changing Landscape
Just last week, the Los Angeles Marathon, one of the largest marathons in the country with over 25,000 participants, still went off on time. Today, entire cities in California are under virtual house arrest for the foreseeable future.
It goes without saying that the swift descent of the coronavirus has wreaked havoc on the everyday routine and lifestyles of Americans. And while running outdoors may be one of the last activities to go, running in large numbers was one of the first.
Waves of would-be runners have now been replaced by waves of race cancellations. First, a week out from race day, then a month, and now indefinitely.
For runners, it’s been an inconvenience at best, and a canceled culmination of career goals at worst (all NCAA championships have been canceled, and high-profile professional events like the Boston Marathon have been postponed until the fall).
However, the brunt of the impact has been shouldered by those whose actual livelihood depends on runners showing up to the start line– race organizers and their staffs.
Running a Race
Once upon a time, race directing involved setting out a couple cones and a timing mat for a race in the spring or fall. However, the running boom of the last two decades has led to larger races-turned-experiences with Instagram-worthy swag and post-race entertainment. In the process, race directing has become a full-time (oftentimes 24/7), year-round job.
Lee Corrigan, president of Corrigan Sports Enterprises (CSE) in Baltimore, Md., began race organizing in 2001 with the Baltimore Running Festival. Corrigan knows what it’s like to put on a race in surreal times– that inaugural race almost didn’t go off on account of 9/11, and a year later, the race was in limbo as two snipers terrorized the Washington D.C. area.
While those races still went on, the spread of the coronavirus has already seen the rescheduling of four other CSE events in 2020, including the Oakland (Calif.) Marathon, and the highly-anticipated Guinness Open Gate Brew Run in Baltimore, a race that sold out in minutes.
While that may be fine for now, the timeline of self-distancing and quarantining is unknown, a moving target set to warp speed.
“Our whole organization is like a family, a traveling circus family,” says Corrigan, whose son, daughter, and cousin all work for the company. “It’s really, really tough. I’m hoping the government can provide support for small businesses like ours because frankly, we don’t have that kind of money to keep funding payroll for months and months on end without any money coming in.”
Most runners see the front-facing view of a race: they pay registration costs and fees, and in return, they get a great race day experience that almost seems to happen magically.
The truth is, race organizing is a juggling act of sorts, a coordinated Cirque de Soleil of obtaining permits, coordinating with local government, securing sponsors, finding porta-potties, managing marketing, running promotions, and doing it all efficiently. In a normal year, the entire process can be a bit like herding feral cats, especially when working with overseas vendors on different timelines (ask any race organizer who’s tried to place an emergency medal order during the Chinese New Year). And did you know that a police presence for just a mid-size race can often cost hundreds of thousands of dollars?
“One misconception I always hear is that since we’ve done this race for 20 years, it must be easy,” says Corrigan. “But you’re constantly tinkering the course because of construction, or because the Orioles might make the playoffs, or there’s another event going on, etc.”
This delicate balance is held together in large part by early registrations, specifically those in the first six months of a race’s annual cycle. The income from those registrations provides the funds necessary to ensure everything is ready for race day. This includes permitting, medal and t-shirt orders, down payments for entertainment, equipment rentals, food and drink purchases, etc. Many of these orders are placed three to six months in advance.
However, as uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus has spread, registrations have ground to a halt. Supply chains have been disrupted. Guidance on social gathering limits and the timeline of the recovery change almost daily. Runners, unsure of whether a race will be happening or postponed, are taking a “wait and see” approach rather than worrying about race refunds or deferrals.
Bill Nolan, a running enthusiast from Minneapolis, Minn., typically registers for at least one race a month, often a year in advance. But as five of his current races have posted cancellations, he’s pressed ‘pause’ on future race registrations for the fall. They’re on his calendar, and he’s blocked the time off work. He just hasn’t registered yet.
“I’m not sure that’s entirely rational,” Nolan admits. “In most cases, if they’re not granting full refunds, they’re granting credits. But especially for races I know won’t sell out [like the Twin Cities Half Marathon], it’s just ‘wait and see.’”
Race organizers understand the hesitance. Nobody wants to invest in something that may not see a return (just look at the current state of the stock market). When cancellations happen, they are not taken lightly. Dating back to the first caveman mud run, no event organizer wants to see their race canceled. After all, most of them are runners themselves. In an industry that thrives on word-of-mouth and grassroots marketing, a cancelation is about the worst PR hit a race could take, especially for registrations going forward.
And when the specter of race cancelation arrives the day before your event, it can be terrifying.
Small Business Trials
Willie Fowlkes directs The Woodlands Marathon in The Woodlands, Tex., one of the last races in the country to go off on March 7 before the coronavirus restrictions. Only 14 hours before the race start, he was running around in a panic.
“I get a phone call from my medical director saying, ‘Trump’s about to make an announcement from the CDC saying to shelter in place and any events this weekend will need to be canceled,’” recalls Fowlkes. “I’m thinking, ‘Are you freaking kidding me?’”
Of course, that call for cancellations wouldn’t come for another week, and the race was still able to happen, but Fowlkes couldn’t know that as he was facing thousands of dollars in losses while standing on the floor of his race expo.
“I was thinking, ‘If this happens, what are we going to provide when everyone is screaming “Refund, refund, refund!’” recalls Fowlkes. He understands the frustration of runners, but as one of his largest events, it would’ve been impossible to provide full refunds without taking a devastating hit.
Miller, of Cadent Events, can sympathize. His company is managed full-time by his father and him, in addition to a contracted race director and a few part-time employees. “The runners and participants are being just as impacted as we are. Not just in the lens of the race, but in life. For me, we want to do what we can to be as fair as possible, but I also have a family to feed, so it’s a tough balance.”
Mortgages, savings, and day-to-day living expenses become unmoored even when one race cancels, let alone a whole season of them. While larger races have more of a corporate feel with big-name sponsors, the majority of races are the very definition of mom and pop businesses.
“Just like the community is being asked to support your small business, like going and getting take out from your favorite pizza place– if you have a race you’re registered for, for you that may be $40, but for the organization, it’s $40 times thousands. It can shut down organizations like ours,” says Amanda Napolitano, race director of the DONNA Marathon in Jacksonville, Fla.
Her event directly supports The DONNA Foundation (where she also serves as the executive director), a non-profit whose mission is to provide financial assistance and support those living with breast cancer while funding groundbreaking breast cancer research. The DONNA Marathon raises hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for the foundation through the fundraising efforts of its participants.
“The demand for our programs is going to increase dramatically because we deal with people who can’t afford to pay their bills because of a breast cancer diagnosis. Couple that with the fact that a spouse cannot work,” she says. “They really are going to be in a situation where they cannot pay their bills, and they’re fighting cancer at the same time. So when events don’t happen, not only are we not able to get the funding we need for events, but there’s also not this platform people have to raise money for our nonprofit.”
Luckily, the DONNA Marathon just took place in February, giving the organization some breathing room going into the 2021 race. Napolitano is well-aware that they dodged a bullet.
“If this had happened six weeks ago before our race, we wouldn’t be able to make payroll,” she said.
Adapting and Surviving
This is the state of race directing today– that while directors are eternally optimistic and making every effort to keep their small business running, they are at the mercy of a global event the likes of which nobody alive has ever witnessed.
Going forward, race directors are looking for the silver lining in all of this, as the industry sees inevitable consolidation and unforeseen opportunities open up to provide an even bigger and better race experience.
“What I’m focusing on right now is: 1) how can I take care of my participants, 2) how do I take care of my business and the people that work with me and for me, and 3) how can we be creative as an industry to support people who are involved,” says Miller.
But first, the runners must come.
“Once this breaks, I’ll be ready to flip the switch or write the check,” says Nolan, who is looking forward to running in warmer spring temperatures after a long Minnesota winter. “It is a way to use this time to just focus on the love of running. Just do it for the love it of it. And it’s still training, but it’s not for a particular race.”
As anyone who’s spent any time running knows, it’s a community that thrives on supporting one another, through ups and downs, personal best and injury worsts, in online groups and long run gatherings. Race directors are counting on that camaraderie to pull them through to the other side.
“People may be fired up and hate you for canceling an event, but a lot of that is just coming from a place of true fear for their own livelihoods and life,” points out Napolitano. “I think the running community is one of the best communities there is. We’re the ones that come together when bad things happen. If the runners can understand the implications that race directors are facing with these cancellations, hopefully, they’ll be okay with the loss of a registration fee [or a deferral] so these events can live. Because the fact of the matter is, you’re going to want to turn around and run it next year, and it’s gonna be gone.”