Insights from Indiana Sports Corp’s Caleb Kolby and the successful Indy Ultimate event

In late July, the Indiana Sports Corp’s Indy Ultimate moved forward in the streets of Indianapolis. This non-competitive run/walk that features unique experiences and activities in and around Indianapolis’ most iconic sports venues, arts and cultural organizations, and historic city landmarks. The course is roughly 5.5 miles, using a combination of closed traffic lanes, wide sidewalks, and paths. Participants signed up for waves leaving the start line every five minutes over two hours.

Indiana and Indianapolis allow events larger than 250 people provided the county accepts a COVID-19 mitigation plan submitted by the event. Caleb Kolby, Indy Ultimate Event Director, answered our questions about the event. You can also download the race’s COVID-19 Mitigation Effort document, a helpful resource.

How long did it take you to complete the event plan with appropriate safety measures in place?

Kolby: We started working on the event plan in mid-April, and had it approved and posted on our website by early July, two weeks prior to the race. We went through a couple different revisions with our internal staff and race management partner, and then did a couple more revisions with the local health department to ensure it was approved.

What takeaways did you have from working with your local government officials to get the plan approved?

Kolby: As always, communication is key. We first wanted to let them know that the event was on as planned, and we were working on a safety plan for them to review and approve. We had a great working relationship prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which certainly helped, and then we continued to communicate the details of the event. Most notably, there was a new city-wide mandate instituted two weeks prior to our event, and then two days prior to our event. With both mandates, we were able to ensure we received feedback from the health department and the City to ensure our event could still happen as planned with the approved safety plan.

What advice would you have for fellow race directors/operators attempting to put on similar modified events this fall? 

Kolby: We would recommend tackling each part of your event/race at one time. While it seems overwhelming to try and completely modify your event, if you look at each different aspect of the event and plan the safety of that aspect, it is helpful. Work with your internal team on each aspect and make sure they understand the safety plan and have input on it so they can help execute on race day.

What feedback did you receive, positive or negative, from your participants? 

Kolby: A few points included the below:

  • In light of Covid-19, 19% said that safety was a deterrent for their friends who didn’t participate
  • 98% of participants showed signs of comfort and satisfaction with the COVID-19 safety measurements taken
  • 81% said they will participate in 2021 and 18% said they are considering it
  • Other than people who work and live in downtown Indianapolis, 65% of the Indy Ultimate participants have not been to downtown since the beginning of the pandemic
  • Anecdotal comments included several people saying they were very appreciative that the event wasn’t canceled or virtual.

How effective was the staggered start approach?

Kolby: Our race was always a wave start, so we didn’t need to completely reconfigure our staggered start. However, we did need to lower the maximum amount of participants in each wave, and then separate them all out by 6-feet in our start corral. We even created waiting spaces that were appropriately distanced in the next wave area, which proved key to ensure participants followed instructions. Our race management partners, Vision Event Management, were key in helping determine a safe way to start the race, and it was extremely effective come race day when the participants followed the instructions we had communicated.

Did you find participants to be compliant with mask wearing?

Kolby: Yes, our participants were very compliant with the entire safety plan, including mask wearing. While there was a city-wide mask mandate in-place during the time of our race, there was an exception for anyone exercising, including our two indoor venues. So while we didn’t mandate a mask be worn during the race, we did encourage it throughout the race, especially at the start/finish line. To our pleasant surprise, many participants wore their mask in the start corral, then removed it during the race, and then put it back on when entering an indoor venue and when finishing the race.

Was bottled water effective as a hydration approach?

Kolby: Our event is a non-competitive running event, so our runners aren’t always trying to set a personal record. With that being said, the bottled water approach was highly effective in mitigating risks of open cups of water that many people passed throughout the event day. Participants seemed to stay hydrated and carry the bottle with them throughout the race.

Were you able to recruit an adequate amount of volunteers? Any lessons learned re: volunteers to share?

Kolby: Yes, we recruited more than 150 volunteers to assist during the race. While we were unsure of the volunteer recruitment environment during recruitment period, Indiana Sports Corp relies on volunteers to execute all of the events we do, and we were confident that our enthusiastic volunteers would assist. We would emphasize to over communicate with your volunteers, just like your participants, the safety plans that will be in place, and what we are asking volunteers to do that is different from a pre-pandemic event.  We were very clear in the recruitment process that they would have to sign an additional waiver, wear masks, and some positions had gloves.  This helped people determine early if they felt comfortable volunteering.

After the event concluded, was there anything you observed that you would do differently for future events held during COVID? 

Kolby: Each event is so different it’s hard to think of what we would do differently for events based upon what we learned.  We think having more cleaning staff assigned to the start finish area to wipe surfaces and clean the porta potties would be one. Also, we would not use the small cones again for anything around line management.

Do you have any additional events in the near future where you will make changes? 

Kolby: We hold a large Corporate Challenge event annually in the fall.  After hosting the Indy Ultimate safely, we felt confident that we could host the event successfully.  We ultimately decided to convert the event to a virtual experience, though, because of the market feedback.  The primary difference is that the Indy Ultimate is a B2C event and the Corporate Challenge is B2B.  With so many companies working remotely, and instituting policies that prohibit company-sanctioned, group events, we felt the event experience would be negatively impacted by the reduced team participation.  After converting the event to a virtual program, we’ve been pleased with the response from the market.  To our surprise, it’s mostly larger companies who are registering, and the participation within their companies has been strong.  This shows companies are interested in engaging their employees, but the experience has to be very turnkey and easy to implement internally.