By Leah Etling
The runners are clear: when there is no other option than to race alone, against a clock or an app or a dot on a map, they will do that.
But it is never going to be their first choice.
Virtual races were one of few silver linings for the running industry in 2020. They provided a way for events and event producers to stay visible and viable, and they gave runners an outlet. But they weren’t for everyone. “A money grab,” one race producer called them. “The best con job we’ve ever been involved in. But don’t print that.”
Most runners, according to the Running USA Global Runner Survey, would disagree. On average, dedicated runners participated in at least 4 virtual events during 2020, paying about $38 for an entry fee that usually included a t-shirt and a medal, but sometimes just a medal. Then the running was up to them. Whether they completed the race was completely on the honor system, even with a tracking app available. Not many events held runners to a completion standard in order to receive their swag.
But 63 percent of runners were grateful for something, anything, to validate their time spent training and exercise their competitive juices. The other 37 percent said they had simply no interest in virtual events. And 45 percent said they’re very unlikely to do virtual events again once live events are fully back in business. That means there’s a clear opening for virtual events to continue to be successful if they’re executed well.
To report this story, we talked to race directors and technology providers about the next generation of virtual events and what niche they’ll fill in the industry long term. It became clear that virtual racing is going to be with us for the foreseeable future. And if it’s done well, it may even stick around for good. Here are three examples of what that might look like.
In Kauai, No Other Option
The Hawaiian Islands have enforced the most stringent lockdowns of any U.S. state during the pandemic. And rather than enact a blanket statewide travel policy, Hawaii allowed the mayors of individual islands to make their own choices about visitor protocols. For Kauai, the island with the strictest quarantine policy in place, that meant minimal visitor arrivals. And therefore, absolutely no chance of holding The Kauai Marathon and Half Marathon as a live event in 2020.
“For us there were two options, either go dormant for a couple of years and then hope to gain momentum when we could be live again. Or do what we chose to do, which was to come up with creative ideas to launch and execute our first ever virtual event,” said Robin Jumper, Kauai Marathon race organizer. For The Kauai Marathon and Half Marathon, a virtual event was not a moneymaker, but a way to stay visible while participants were unable to travel to Kauai. Thanks to ongoing sponsor support, the virtual event moved forward with an intent to create sponsor visibility and generate economic returns for local businesses wherever possible.
In 2020, The Virtual Kauai Marathon and Half Marathon attracted about 1000 participants, far more than expected and with global reach. Runners from countries like Ghana, Israel and Scotland all participated, broadening the event’s reach from its usual Pacific Rim scope. Fifty-five percent of virtual participants were from the U.S. mainland or other countries. Just 51 percent had run the race in-person before, meaning that nearly half could be considered possible future participants, a strong marketing pool.
To encourage engagement, Jumper came up with pre-race virtual chats with celebrity runners like Bart Yasso, JT Service and Tyler McCandless, and a Virtual Finish Line Contest. Virtual runners submitted videos of their finish lines at home and voting determined the costume winner, creating great social media content. Winner Alanna Huber had friends in turtle and shark costumes join her in her Iowa driveway, where she took a virtual plunge into a garage-size photo rendering of Poipu Beach.
“Thank you so much for the opportunity to run the race in Iowa and participate in the contest! I’m so thankful,” Huber commented on Facebook after she was announced the winner. That type of positive vibe is exactly what The Kauai Marathon and Half Marathon hopes to keep generating in its second virtual event, which is underway now. Rather than a standalone event, runners will participate in a 100-mile challenge in which they virtually run from the sands of Polihale to the “end of the road” at Kee Beach.
Jumper said that the hope for the 2021 event was to keep the event top of mind for future participants, but not repeat the same experience they had in 2020. The 100-Mile Challenge will employ technology from the event’s registration provider, Race Entry, so that each runner has their own personal interactive map of Kauai where miles are logged. The maps will heighten the competition as participants check to see who has logged the most miles so far. As they gain distance “around” the island, they’ll receive updates about some of the places they’ve visited virtually, heightening education and excitement about a visit in person. There will also be a contest in March where runners can enter a short essay about their favorite island run, along with a five-song playlist, and submissions will be voted by a panel of judges. The winners will be featured on social media and the event website.
“We want to stay relevant and engaged with people just like we did last year. And hopefully by the time we open registration for 2022, The Kauai Marathon and Half Marathon will be at the forefront of people’s minds and they’ll be able to come run with us in person,” Jumper said. (Editor’s note: at the time this article went to press, it was unclear whether island regulations would make it possible for The Kauai Marathon and Half Marathon to host any live event in Fall 2021.)
No Shows? Now, No Problem
Millennium Running in New Hampshire doesn’t see virtual events as a stopgap for the length of the pandemic. Instead, owner John Mortimer sees them as a permanent solution to an age-old industry running event participant category: the no shows. Unlike many production companies, Millennium Running was able to continue putting on events throughout 2020 after establishing a strong relationship with government officials and helping to write statewide event safety protocols and procedures.
“One of the key takeaways for us is that we used to not care about the no show. That 10 to 14 percent of participants who didn’t show up on race day for any given reason? In years past, pre-COVID, that meant no swag, no medal, basically you wasted your money,” said Mortimer, who founded the hybrid retail store/running event/timing company in 1999. As soon as Millennium Running began offering virtual options for its events, participants who didn’t come to the live event were automatically moved to the virtual one. If they didn’t show on race day, instead they received an email informing them that their t-shirt and medal for the event were available to pick-up for 30 days at the company’s retail running store in Bedford.
“With the pivot to a virtual event, those people are far more likely to show up again for another event if you deliver on their participation. That 10-14 percent no show rate is now an opportunity for us to reengage with them,” Mortimer notes. Looking forward, he sees virtual options as a way for runners to guarantee their races even when life intervenes. Instead of a COVID-exposure, the reason might be a child’s soccer game, an unexpected work trip or bad weather on race day. In other words: normal life stuff.
“I think we will always have virtual going forward, because we can engage our consumer better by offering that as an option,” Mortimer said.
The ability to pick up race day items at a physical location takes care of one of the challenges race directors mention most when it comes to virtual events: shipping. Cost, logistics, staffing and even package weight can create hefty bills for an envelope with just a medal and a t-shirt. In some cities, outsourcing options are easy to come by. But many an event team spent at least several days of 2020 stuffing envelopes, slapping on labels and carting packages to local post offices, where they were greeted by less-than-overjoyed postal staff.
The shipping situation is one reason that some race directors are ready to jump away from virtual races as soon as they possibly can. Runners complained often about long delivery windows for 2020 event swag, not necessarily tied to submitting their finishing times or a target date for the event, but simply at the convenience of the race organizer and post office. Companies who keep virtual events as an option will need to set clear expectations for fulfillment and stick to them for long term success.
In Houston, a Colossal and Successful Pivot
One large race organization that pulled off a major effort in self-shipping for its January 2021 virtual event was the Chevron Houston Marathon and Aramco Houston Half Marathon, both produced by the Houston Marathon Committee (HMC). Extremely fortunate to be able to hold their race in January 2020 pre-pandemic, the HMC event team had nearly a full year to prepare scenarios for 2021 and ultimately produce an all-virtual event for 10,000 participants.
“It afforded us the opportunity to have time to evaluate options and collaborate with our colleagues worldwide. We are very fortunate to have those industry relationships,” said Wade Morehead, Executive Director of the HMC. The Houston team worked closely with its corporate sponsors and community partners to pivot runner engagement and sponsor visibility in unique ways and met regularly but virtually with sponsor representatives to make sure they were an active part of the planning process. Even with a virtual event, runners still raised $681,210 for 62 Houston charities.
“To us it is very important to show our runners that our sponsor partners are invested in them as well as the event,” said Muffy King, Director of Marketing, Media and Brand for the HMC. “Chevron provided us with five digital billboards around Houston, and runners could submit their photo online. If you were driving past, you might see yourself up on that billboard. That was just one creative way our partners came through and really innovated alongside us this year.”
Sponsors also facilitated content like celebrity runner videos from U.S. distance stars Des Linden and Sara Hall, who spoke directly to athletes with good vibes, virtual high fives and pro advice for race day. And on the day of the virtual event, a sponsor-supported live broadcast got runners excited, featuring 10 inspirational Houston runner stories as well as encouragement and congratulations, all from a safe distance.
To engage runners further, HMC planned not just one mailing to its virtual participants, but two. Runners received both a pre-race party box with finisher tape, fuel belts, a mask and energy gels, as well as a second package post-event that included their event medal and finisher shirt. Runners had to submit their race time to receive the second mailing. Cost for both mailings was factored into the registration price, with an exception for international participants.
Combined, those two sends made for 17,000 packages, including 7,000 requiring shirt size matching with a recipient label. The HMC team sought professional advice on labeling and shipping from UPS, but did all the packing and legwork themselves in their event warehouse. It was no small feat.
“It definitely came with challenges, but it was a great opportunity for our team to connect and have a sense of camaraderie during a difficult time,” said King, who found her own box-packing skills wanting. A team of 10 employees was divided into two teams of five and exercised COVID-19 safety protocols throughout the process, which they completed over five eight-hour days for each round of packages.
“The pivot we had to make to work out of the warehouse, ship out those 17,000 packages over six weeks, was impressive,” said Morehead. Houston is now gearing up for its January 2022 event, which will be the 50th race anniversary and will hopefully be the first HMC live event post-pandemic. But Morehead still anticipates a virtual option being offered long into the future, no matter what’s going on in the world.
“A live event is still more difficult (than virtual). You have to have everything in place and ready to go for that 48 to 72-hour window, and there’s really no time to react, correct or fix it if you mess up,” said Morehead. “To me, that is more difficult. But over the last year, our team met the unprecedented challenges we faced. I’m so proud of our team.”
Many companies in the running industry would surely say the same.