Even with Vaccine Roll-Outs, Race Directors Still Face Tough Questions

By Brian Metzler


Right about now, there should be a palpable buzz stirring in the American running community, that annual surge of energy and excitement tied to the Boston Marathon and other springtime running races.


But this year that buzz among runners, training groups, race directors and sponsoring brands is decidedly muted as most major spring races — both domestic and international events — have been postponed until fall amid the ongoing safety precautions and concerns tied to the Covid-19 virus. With the Boston Marathon, Cherry Blossom 10-Miler, Bay to Breakers, the Los Angeles Marathon and the entire Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series postponed until fall -- and hundreds of other races rescheduled, canceled or relegated to virtual events -- the once-vibrant running industry is entering spring with even more unknowns than last year.


While some states are allowing increased participation numbers at public gatherings and events as Covid-19 numbers start to drop and vaccination rates increase, other states have not yet addressed when running races might be able to return. For example, if the Boston Marathon wants to return as an in-person event on Oct. 11, Massachusetts has to get to the very last phase of its re-opening plan, which includes nightclubs, saunas and ball pits.


A year ago, Dave McGillivray’s DMSE event company had 35 races on its event calendar — including the Boston Marathon — but none of them happened. This year the event company has just one a fully registered field and a definitive date authorized by authorities under Covid-19 health precautions — the 60th anniversary Mt. Washington Road Race on June 19-20 in Gorham, N.H. McGillivray’s company has had to pivot to do event management for virtual races, outdoor movies, graduations, Covid-19 testing facilities and, since January, three mass vaccination sites in the greater Boston area.


“The hardest thing for any of us planning events is the whole degree of uncertainty and really not knowing what you’re planning for,” McGillivray says. “It’s just a moving target every day, but even if and when events do come back, you’ll have to look at how they’ll be different and how that will look logistically and financially based on the requirements and health precautions that will be necessary.”


The lights haven’t gone dark on the American running industry, but how brightly they shine varies greatly across different regions of the U.S. Overall running participation and online shoe sales appear to be up, but many small running shops and race organizations — the lifeblood of the running community — are struggling, have gone dormant or have shut down completely.


Generally, only smaller regional road races, a scattering of trail running races and some Spartan Race events have been held since the LA Marathon took place a year ago this weekend. That event drew 20,000 runners just days before the U.S. declared Covid-19 to be a national emergency and more or less shut down running events for several months or, in many cases, indefinitely, depending on state protocols and politics.


Still, the Gate River Run is on schedule to accommodate 8,000 runners on March 20 in Jacksonville, Fla., and will again host USA Track and Field's 15K national championship. The overall field size is about 33 percent smaller than last year’s pre-pandemic race, but it’s still the biggest running race in the U.S. since the LA Marathon.


In the meantime, virtual races have helped keep numerous events afloat or even develop a vibrant business line. For example, in January, more than 4,000 people paid $43 apiece to participate in a virtual 218-mile relay organized by the Marine Corps Marathon to honor troops that served Operation Desert Storm. But when it comes to live, in-person events, there will be only 500 runners at the Marine Corps 17.75K event on March 20 and 1,000 for its Historic Half weekend in May based on state protocols.


The financial success of that race organization, even though it is owned and operated by the U.S. Marine Corps, is contingent on hosting 30,000 runners at its live, in-person Marine Corps Marathon in October. This year’s race is slated for Oct. 31, but decisions and commitments will need to be made by mid-June if it’s going to go forward based on health precautions in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.


While that event has been known to sell out in 10 minutes in the past, race director Rick Nealis has a realistic assumption that the demand will be lower this year and the final field could be less than half of what it has been in recent years — if the race happens at all.


“The virtual events have been great to help open a door to new customers who might have never considered running Marine Corps, but we really need to get back to live events,” Nealis says. “Everybody wants to get everyone back to work and having events, as long as it’s done safely. But it’s a hard situation. The hospitals are still stretched to the limit and the last thing they want to see is a couple of hundred transports of people with heat stroke, heat exhaustion and people with bumps and bruises from a marathon.”


Still, Nealis, McGillivray and other race directors are optimistic races will come back by late 2021, but they know that Covid-19 precautions will impact everything — field sizes, race expos, starting line and other event management protocols— while also likely limiting event sponsorship, volunteer participation and even lesser local economic impact to host cities resulting from fewer destination travelers.


Events might return to full normalcy by 2022 — assuming herd immunity or comprehensive vaccination happens by then — but there might be some permanent changes, too, based on how customers and brands want to be involved. According to a Running USA trends report, 17.6 million people registered for a North American running race in 2019. What will it mean if that number is 50 percent lower for 2021 or 2022?


For the near-term, there are many big concerns. Race sponsorship has all but dried up as marketing budgets have been pulled back and events have gone on hiatus. Race expos have been eliminated or held outdoors based on state or local gathering protocols. Packet pickup is more challenging because it has required additional staffing, space and has been relegated to reservation-only or drive-through scenarios.


Plus, there seems to be a lingering “virtual event fatigue,” as well as a hesitancy among runners to register for live events that have opened, if only because many have been burned by a no-refunds policy in the past year. Also to be considered is what kind of long-term impact will result from canceled events — local races, bucket-list races, triathlons and, perhaps especially, school competitions.


“Even when events do come back fully, for the foreseeable future, there will be some relative fear factor from runners who are thinking, ‘I’m going to wait this thing out’ and not going to put themselves in this risky situation,” McGillivray says. “I just don’t know what to expect. If I were to open the Falmouth Road Race or Beach to Beacon registration this week, would there be a rush to the keyboard to register the way there was pre-pandemic? I don’t know. Maybe there is a pent-up energy and people would sign up, but maybe it’s going to be just the opposite. We have no idea.”


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