By Leah Etling

As the running industry recovers from nearly two years of disruption, this issue we caught up with two relatively new event production firms that shut their doors for parts of 2020 and 2021 – but are now back in business and racing again.

It’s no surprise that both companies, Mascot Sports and San Diego Running Company, are based in California, which had some of the most stringent statewide event restrictions in place from March of 2020 to April of 2021.

Each took a different approach to their shutdown and reopening, with lessons learned along the way that will resonate for any race director. Here are their stories.

Fast reaction, furious comeback at Mascot Sports

When events of all kinds began to be cancelled in California in March of 2020, Ryan Dawkins, CEO of Oakland-based Mascot Sports, didn’t waste any time before making a difficult business decision.

Just days after the 2020 Livermore Marathon was cancelled on March 12, he called his team to let them know he planned to effectively shutter the business.

Just six weeks earlier, in January 2020, the Oakland-based endurance and event production firm had recorded its best month ever in four years of operation. But after California Gov. Newsom effectively halted all events of any kind in the state, the dominos began to fall fast.

After the Livermore cancellation, Dawkins heard from Warner Brothers that they would transition the Wonder Woman race series events to virtual. (Mascot worked on the California-based Wonder Woman live events.)

And he had a sinking feeling about Mascot’s flagship race, the Bay Bridge Half Marathon, which was held for the first time in spring 2019 and quickly earned accolades as a must-run race.

“That Tuesday, I called every single employee and I said, you know, we can either keep this going for two months, and then Mascot isn’t going to be around at all. Or I could lay you off, and you can get in the queue for unemployment. And then we can figure out where we’re going to be each month,” Dawkins recalled.

He was prescient. It would be more than 16 months before the team returned to the office and Mascot Sports officially came back to life.

In the interim, Dawkins threw out his own lifelines. He singlehandedly innovated an ongoing 5K and 10K series branded around the East Bay area code, which is 510. Runners trained all week to race a 5K on the weekend, where they competed with friends. Every fourth week included a 10K. The price for each week was $5.10. Over the course of a year, 15,000 runners participated. And nearly half purchased branded merchandise like shirts, hats, masks, gaiters and water bottles from the Oakland Run Co. online store.

In early summer 2021, Dawkins began mapping out Mascot’s comeback. He took a big risk and purchased a legacy event to add to the Mascot portfolio, the Marin County Half Marathon, 10K and 5K. Now rebranded as the Marin Endurance Festival, the October 30-31 event will also incorporate a triathlon.

“It was the biggest gamble, but it paid off,” Dawkins said of the acquisition. Registrations from the Marin Festival have paid team salaries while Mascot works toward a full scale return to business as usual this fall.

Dawkins also worked with a business coach to map out the return of the company’s event portfolio as soon as California’s gathering restrictions were lifted. And he added new national partnerships as well.

They include a nationwide 5K and 10K series hosted at MLB stadiums that Mascot is working on alongside Stack Sports (early races include the Big Tex Run and Denver Rocks Run). All in all, it’s going to be an absolutely jam-packed fall for the Mascot team.

Even though his schedule right now barely allows him to come up for air, Dawkins and his staff are relishing being back in the hectic world of weekend events.

“I feel really good because we’re still here, and our employees are back except for one (Tim Cole, who moved on to another industry) and every single one of our weekend warrior folks are back. So we have our family back,” he said, stressing the importance of work life balance to his business.

And would he handle the situation the same way again? Absolutely.

“What I would do differently since Covid dropped a bomb on our industry and Mascot? Nothing. While it hurt deeply, I feel like I made the best decision for the company’s health and my employees by moving so quickly,” Dawkins reflected.

“It is business as usual at Mascot, focused on culture, people and creating amazing experiences.”

Scaling back strategically at San Diego Running Company

All the way down I-5 at the San Diego Running Company (SDRC), the shutdown was shorter. After producing two national holiday-themed virtual events in late 2020 in partnership with Mike Coleman of TimingHQ, SDRC co-founders Pete Hess and Eric Marenburg looked at their budgets, ongoing expenses and the calendar of empty race weekends that loomed.

After seven years of following their professional passions and pursuing the sport they loved, it was time to pivot to traditional employment. They also needed to find a new renter for the office space they’d just leased in January 2020 and move their supplies and equipment into storage units.

It felt inevitable, but still not easy, said Marenburg.

“We believed we’d be back at some point. But the emotional toll was in the fact that we didn’t know at what capacity,” he recalled. COVID was surging nationwide, vaccines were newly available, and 2021 was a murky abyss of unknowns.

For four months, both SDRC co-founders took jobs at a tech startup focused on freight shipping tracking and optimization. They were grateful to be employed, but it made them even more passionate about getting back to their own shop. Former SDRC employee Heather Pearl had taken a new job at J&A Racing in Virginia Beach, so they were back to where they’d started in 2013. Two friends, passionate about running, elated at the opportunity to produce great events and make a living at it.

The winter hiatus prompted much reflection on how much they loved producing events, but also the innate pressures that come with choosing a non-traditional career. Maybe things like having a physical office space weren’t so important. But producing the best events possible absolutely was.

“When you tell someone you manage races for a living, they don’t believe you that that’s a real job,” Marenburg said. “Personally, I saw that my work ethic and performance was higher when I’m doing something I love then in a job that I wasn’t passionate about.”

As they waited for Gov. Newsom to make his eventual reopening announcement, there was time to reflect on what would come next for SDRC. The answer was lean, but not mean. They’ll still have one of the most generous deferral policies around, now bolstered by virtual options for every single event.

“We determined that we want to focus on the events that we love that we know we do exceptionally well. And let’s be as lean as possible,” Marenburg said. “Then we can be selective about where we want to grow from there.”

SDRC held its first events in July and August of 2021. Things went well, but both felt rusty and short-handed with a smaller team. Runners, though, were forgiving. “I feel like we could have forgotten the shirts, the medals and the start line trussing and they would have still said: ‘Thanks for being here!’” (Anyone who worked at a race this fall likely experienced that effusive goodwill from participants, who were largely elated to be back at events again.)

This fall, SDRC will host the Thanksgiving Day Thank You Run and San Diego Santa Run in November and December. Though registrations are trending down about 15 percent for both events, they consider the “getting back to normal” activities most Californians are engaged in right now as major competition.

“I expect it will take a full calendar year to get event schedules and registrations back to what you would expect,” Marenburg said. “But now, we can actually plan our entire 2022 calendar and start to line them up, submit permits, plan our marketing efforts. Because of that planning process, we feel pretty good.”

That noise you just heard was the running industry breathing a collective sigh of relief.