Chicago Marathon working hard toward October finish line


By: Brian Metlzer


We heard from a lot of event professionals last week after we published our story entitled “Even with Vaccine Roll-Outs, Race Directors Still Face Tough Questions.” Shortly after the story ran, we connected with one of the most respected people in the industry, Mike Nishi, the Chief Operating Officer for the Bank of America Chicago Marathon. While the pandemic has been bad for many business sectors, it absolutely wreaked havoc on the big-city marathon industry. With announcements of canceled and postponed races mostly in the rear-view mirror, people like Nishi are getting down to the hard work of figuring out the details for this fall’s events.


The Chicago Marathon canceled its October 2020 race last July, approximately 12 weeks in advance. That allowed it to avoid laying out cash for major purchases, but it’s been operating in a whirlwind ever since.The race has adapted to the ever-changing health and safety outlook and requirements while planning for the 2021 race slated for Oct. 10.


That means keeping up with the latest regulations, infection rates and vaccination progress in the City of Chicago, Cook County and the State of Illinois. Nishi’s team has also had to reconfigure its packet pick-up, pre-race expo, starting line, aid stations and parts of its race course. There will also be new social distancing guidelines, as well as the likelihood of rapid testing stations and modified volunteer needs.


“I have to tell you that as big as our events were in 2019 and all the hard work that went into it, planning for this year’s event, even though it will be much smaller, has been three times as hard,” says Nishi. “The different types of plans that you have to have for all of the different scenarios is very complex, very time-consuming, and you have layer upon layer in every case. What complicates it all is that we’ve been so focused on the Covid mitigation and safety for months, which is of absolute importance, but we still have to produce a high-quality event on race weekend.”


The Chicago Marathon smartly offered four options to last year’s registered runners: a refund or deferment to 2021, 2022 or 2023. Although it hasn’t yet released details, that allowed the race to have pared down numbers and flexibility for 2021 and, to some extent, make the task of filling its next race a bit more manageable.


Working with city officials and local and state event regulations, Nishi says the organization should be ready to announce its 2021 field size and list of registered runners by late March, but it still has to accommodate its charity partners that offer post-registration entries. (Those 170-plus charities raised $27 million in 2019.)


Nishi said the Chicago Marathon has been able to manage the madness of the new normal with proactive communication with city officials and holding several town hall online meetings to keep all of its partner organizations updated. It has also benefited by being able to communicate and work with its event partners in the Abbott World Marathon Majors. The 2021 Boston, London and Tokyo marathons have all been moved to the fall, meaning they’ll be held in about a six-week window along with Berlin, Chicago and New York.


“It’s really the entire industry that’s working together and pulling for each other,” Nishi says. “Whoever is first out the blocks, we want them to do it safely and want them to do it well, and so I know there will continue to be a lot of sharing of best practices and ideas and plans and giving each other support where it’s needed.”


Lost in the wake of the Covid-related cancellation of the 2020 Chicago Marathon was the debut of the Chicago Half-Marathon and both the 2020 and 2021 Shamrock Shuffle 8K. The organization was able to put the inaugural half marathon on indefinite hold and turn this year’s 8K race into a virtual event that attracted about 10,000 runners with a $30 entry fee. It wound up taking a big loss for the 2020 event, however, when Covid-19 was declared a national emergency just a week before the event. Although that left the race stuck with 30,000 t-shirts and finisher medals, it’s been donating shirts to charities, homeless shelters and other organizations for the past year and it was able to cut the ribbons off the medals and send them to a metal refinery for recycling.


No question, marathons are facing a new normal, the delicate balance of managing — and paying for — the knowns and the unknowns. Nishi says re-engaging past and new participants will be a slow process, one that will happen only as individual and collective confidence around public events rises over the next several years. He figures that some of the health and safety mitigation will continue in the future, but so, too, will the excitement and satisfaction of reaching the finish line — for the participants and the organizers.


“It’s been a long road and journey, but we have a great team and partners that are going to get us through it,” Nishi says. “We’ve been putting all of this hard work into it knowing what the outcome will be, to be able to create these safe and unforgettable experiences for our participants, our sponsors, our partners and our volunteers again this fall. And I think this year, after all we’ve all been through, the emotional rush of reaching the finish line this fall — not just the accomplishment of finishing the race — will be truly unprecedented this fall.”