What has the running industry learned from the struggles of 2020-2021?
By Leah Etling
We all learned something over the last year. It may have been how to Zoom, order grocery delivery or work from home. For those of us in the running industry, it was likely all of the above with some serious business-related education mixed in.
Some of these lessons were tough. Like how to lay employees off. Or how to tell your runners they wouldn’t be running together in person. Perhaps how to explain why you couldn’t issue a full refund. They were lessons that nobody would have chosen to learn, had there been a choice. The pandemic forced the running industry to change, and change is hard.
In this article, we talk to race directors about the things they have learned over the last year, and what they’ll do differently in the future.
One of our favorite lessons came from Geneva Lamm of the Little Rock Marathon. In late fall 2020, Little Rock was able to host several small in-person events, their first races since March 2020. That was great, but Lamm quickly discovered her usual style of personal support and congratulations had been effectively stifled by COVID precautions.
“Not hugging people when they come across the finish line – that is very difficult for me not to do,” discovered Lamm, a race director of more than two decades who also works and volunteers at events across the Southeastern U.S. “The only thing I will not do again when this is over is be hands off. That is what I have learned. I have to be hands on, and I have to see people’s smiles and their eyes,” she said.
Read on for more important lessons our industry gained over the last year.
Lesson 1: We need to tell our industry’s story
2020 will certainly be remembered as the year it became painfully apparent that the job of a race director is often misunderstood.
Many of the race directors we spoke with while interviewing for this issue expressed concern that when races shut down and their businesses were imperiled, the perception of their work as a “hobby job” or “weekend gig” worked against them, especially in conversations with government officials.
“As an industry, we’ve done a poor job of educating people about our industry because we’ve never had to before. It’s important we be clear that we are professionals doing this,” said Mike Bone, President/CEO of Spectrum Sports in California. Along with other endurance companies in the state, Bone spearheaded the California Coalition of Endurance Sports, an advocacy effort that worked to raise awareness about the business realities of producing a mass participation event.
“We’re not a restaurant that can reopen with 72 hours’ notice. We have six to nine-month lead times. That was something that had to be explained to anybody in government,” Bone said. “Once you explain that to them, they kind of start getting what we’re up against.” The Coalition is engaged in an active education campaign to reach city officials and resume events wherever possible, but as this article goes to press, no major events have been granted permits in the state of California since March of 2020.
Across the country, the Cleveland Marathon staff is also feeling a lack of understanding as they work to figure out their plans for 2021.
“I think we’ve learned that we don’t have the respect in the community that we should have,” said Ralph Staph, race director for the Union Home Mortgage Cleveland Marathon. “The NFL Draft will be having events here in Cleveland on the first weekend in May. That’s permitted. So why can’t we have a running event?”
Despite its estimated $15 million economic impact to the city on race weekend, and calling the city permitting office weekly for updates, the Cleveland team struggled to get the answers and information needed. As of this writing, they were still waiting for the city to approve or deny their permit request for a May event.
“I hope we can get back to normal. I don’t think the ‘new normal’ is going to be beneficial to events at all,” Staph said.
Lesson 2: Always be innovating
Leaving the Running USA Industry Conference held in Puerto Rico in February 2019, Air Force Marathon (AFM) race director Brandon Hough had virtual events on the brain. His Dayton, Ohio race had never offered a virtual component before. But an eye-opening Idea Lab at the conference with industry disruptor JT Service had jumpstarted his thinking.
“After talking with JT, I knew that this was definitely where the industry was going to go. But there were a lot of people fighting it, and I had to convince a few on our team. Despite that, we decided to start offering a virtual event that year, which just ended up being so fortuitous,” Hough recalled. When the AFM had to cancel its September 2020 event, moving participants to virtual participation was already an option in their registration system and not a big deal.
What was a big deal was the runner reaction. AFM had 11,700 participants run virtually in its marathon or half in 2020, a phenomenal 93 percent of the registration total they’d recorded in 2019.
“Now we realize that virtual is here to stay, and I view it as a big positive for our industry. It’s a safe way for people to try the competitive side of the sport with a low barrier to entry,” Hough said. “It certainly worked for us, and we will offer it long into the future.”
Virtual races also played a role in Hough’s desire to expand AFM beyond a “one weekend a year” event. For 2021, AFM is offering a virtual race series that features a historic Air Force plane celebrated at each event and featured on each race medal. “It’s gotten an overwhelming response,” Hough shared. “We set a goal of 2,000 registrations for the year. It’s now February, and we’re already at 2,200. But what’s even better is that over 40 percent of our virtual runners are brand new participants to us. They’ve never done AFM before.”
That creates a natural future marketing pool of potential in-person AFM runners willing to journey to Dayton, perhaps as soon as this fall for the race’s 25th anniversary celebration on Sept. 18. The event is expected to be held in person, and registrations are currently just slightly below 2019 numbers. Innovation for AFM turned into a win-win, both for surviving the pandemic and beyond.
Lesson 3: “We’ve always done it this way” will no longer cut it
In Louisville, Ky., Shanna Ward oversees a lineup of 70 Kentucky Derby Festival (KDF) events traditionally held in late April. One of the largest is the KDF Marathon and Mini Marathon, which typically attract about 15,000 runners and will mark their 48th year running later this month. KDF had to cancel its 2020 event, but will hold a four-day, socially distanced marathon and half from April 22-25, run on a set course with timing, self-serve water stations and no post-run event. Runners will start in groups of 25 at a time from 6:30-11:30 a.m. each day.
When we chatted with Ward in late February, the marathon (offered only on April 24) was already sold out, but half marathon spots were still available. A total of around 6,500 runners were expected to participate.
“One of the things we’ve realized is that there’s not only one way of doing something, even though we may have gotten used to doing it that way,” Ward said. “We have to be open to those wild hair ideas. From now on, I think we’ll always be willing to look at things through different lenses.”
Though the adapted KDF race will take place at roughly the same time on the calendar as events in the past, Ward doesn’t see that as something that must be set in stone. “For years we lived and died by our traditional calendar. And now we realize that the event can be held at any time. It doesn’t always have to be done that one same way. And we will never look at what we provide on the course for runners the same way again.”
One thing that she knows will never be the same is post-event food distribution. “How much contact do you want between the people handing out drinks and food and the runners? Those were things we just took for granted before.”
Anyone who has ever sliced bananas for finishers or grabbed a post-race donut can relate. Most events taking place in 2020 and 2021, where possible, are opting for pre-packaged food options or no food at all. KDF will offer participants sponsored prewrapped items picked up with their bibs and timing chips, which they are welcome to bring along on race day.
Lesson 4: There is a running industry kryptonite
Boston Marathon race director Dave McGillivray is one of the running industry’s Supermen. But in 2020, along with the rest of the industry, he and the DMSE Sports team discovered that road races did in fact have a superpower antidote.
“I thought that we were bulletproof and there was no kryptonite in this industry of ours,” McGillivray told attendees of a January 2021 Running USA webinar. “And that held true, for 40 plus years, until 2020. Then the pandemic comes along, and it proved me wrong. There was something so devastating that it could effectively wipe out our entire business.”
McGillivray described the process that he and his nephew, DMSE Sports CEO Matt West, went through as comparable to the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief. First denial, then anger, followed by bargaining, depression and ultimately acceptance.
“We’ve all had to accept what’s going on. But as we accepted it, Matt and I looked at each other and said: ‘What are our skill sets? We are not giving up,’” he recalled. That spirit of determination carried them through multiple pivot attempts, including working drive-in movies and outdoor graduations, renting out race day equipment to restaurants for outdoor dining, a virtual cross country run and more. Despite everything, DMSE still had to lay off half of its team in 2020.
Things began looking up in late December when DMSE got a call from CIC Health in Boston. They needed logistical experts to help them open mass vaccination sites at Gillette Stadium and Fenway Park. Who better to ask than a company that had already produced multiple events there and knew the venues, as well as the best way to move people quickly through a set course? They were also nimble and fast, and had conveniently open calendars.
“The thing that brought us to our knees is the very thing that is allowing us to get back. A lot of people have heard me say that the comeback is stronger than the setback, and that is very true here,” said McGillivray. The DMSE Sports team worked on an extremely condensed time frame of just weeks to get both vaccine sites open and running as cleanly as a Boston Marathon start. As of Feb. 15, just one of the sites had already administered over 50,000 vaccines.
“Not only are we helping to keep people healthy and alive, but we’re effectively helping our own industry get back to business,” McGillivray said. “We’re going to be working for the next six to eight months vaccinating people. And the day that ends is the day everybody’s vaccinated. And I would like to think that the very next day we can get back to what we love to do, which is putting on live events.”
Everyone in the running industry is definitely looking forward to that.