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Running is returning and re-starting, but with big, necessary changes

By: Brian Metzler

Running is coming back, but, wow, what a difference a year makes.

A lot has happened in the past 12 months since the Covid-19 pandemic shut down most of the running world. But now we’re starting to see the light at the end of the limited-public-gathering tunnel we’ve all had to struggle through. We’ve survived Zoom sales meetings, online shoe intro webinars, and the weak substitute of virtual races. There’s a new running boom about to explode and the industry is scrambling to accept it with open arms, an open mind, open doors, open registration platforms and, hopefully, open-to-buy budgets.

The Boston Marathon just announced it’s planning to return on Oct. 11 with a 20,000-runner field. Even though that’s about a third less than previous years, it’s good news. Soon we’ll all be getting ready for the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials in that new monolith of a stadium that sits on the hallowed ground that was once home to the historic and charming Hayward Field. And the 2021 Olympics looks like they might actually happen in Tokyo this summer. The stage is set, but as retailers, manufacturers, race directors, training group coaches and product reps, are we ready for the show? Are you ready for it?

From an industry point of view, let’s hope runners will start returning to local specialty running shops in their communities to a greater degree than 2020. Local running shops are still the lifeblood of communities, especially amidst the social changes afoot in America. There is a concern that that safer-at-home limitations of the past year might have permanently dented brick-and-mortar retail shopping. It will be on retail shops (and their brand partners) to go above and beyond to welcome their communities back with inclusive fun runs, training groups and other in-store events as soon as it’s possible under new safety protocols. But they will also have to embrace an omnichannel approach with more gusto, too.

Also this week, The Running Event announced it would be back Nov. 30-Dec. 2 in Austin, Texas, and, honestly, that can’t come soon enough. And no, I’m not talking about the legendary Brooks party that closes the show every year, although I can already see Jim Weber singing along with the Spazmatics raging at Cedar Street. The Big Gear Show (Aug. 3-5 in Park City, Utah) and Outdoor Retailer (Aug. 10-12 in Denver) are also on the horizon, too. But here’s the thing: the lingering, old-school aspects of the trade show model are mostly dead. What’s needed are reinvigorated events that offer educational seminars, tools for proactive change to coming trends, the recognition of change agents, invigorating viewpoints from outside of our own industry, creative ways to check out new gear and, of course, the ability to run, socialize, network and reacquaint with others in the industry.

The communal gathering of the running industry in one place is more crucial than ever, and that takes nothing away from all of the Zoom calls and online webinars The Running Event, Outdoor Retailer and The Running Industry Association organized in 2020. As much as we all like to talk about big numbers, the running business is a face-to-face business that’s conducted one person at a time. The more an event like TRE can incorporate all aspects of the industry — shoes and apparel, mass participation races and the competitive side of the sport — the better, even if just for a portion of the show.

What’s at stake as the new running boom approaches? Here are a few questions to ask yourself, no matter what role you might play in the running industry:

  • Do you have an immersive understanding of your customers’ digital running, buying and spending habits and trends?

  • What will be the impacts of smaller or fewer races over the next year?

  • Is it likely that all running races will have a virtual component going forward?

  • What role will product reps play going forward? Are your employees earning a good living?

  • Has your staff dealt with the social unrest and changes that rose to a higher level of understanding in 2020?

  • Are there better ways for local retail shops to use local content and athletes to sell shoes and apparel and promote healthy running?

  • Have you embraced the initiatives of the Running Industry Diversity Coalition yet? Some of the biggest stars of our sport are people of color, but we haven’t always act accordingly or done enough to promote inclusion.

  • Do your staff, marketing efforts and overall vision reflect an inclusivity of people of all races (BIPOC) and gender identities?

  • Is there more we can do for aging masters runners who might be giving up on running in droves because of age and the pandemic?

  • How can your organization benefit from collaborations outside of the health and fitness industries?

  • Can we continue to learn more from the turmoil within the New York Road Runners, the negative culture inside some of Nike’s pro running ranks and the horrific fate of Ahmaud Arbery?

Never before has the running industry needed to work together, express vital concerns, share best practices and develop new business approaches as it has right now in the running restart that’s about to go gangbusters later this spring and into the fall marathon season. With more new runners coming into the fold and a more diverse running population than ever before, it’s time to embrace what’s next in running. That’s not just because we need to optimize sales and opportunities, but also just to make sure we can all embrace and continue to initiate the changes to make running great for everybody.


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