Open Letter to the Running Community: 5 things runners can do to help your favourite races

A bittersweet sequel from the sanitized desk of a Canadian race director

(with permission from race directors (RDs) and organizations in this op-ed. Thank you friends)

Written on Saturday November 21, 2020 at 9:00 a.m.

By reading this, I hope you, the participant, feels empowered to help the endurance industry recover as we work together towards the safe return to racing.

Thank you for reading, keep running and be well.

The global race director community is collaborating at absolutely epic proportions. Thousands of experts, the experts, in operations, health and safety, communications, emergency preparedness, crowd control and medical response — are working towards the safe return to racing. It’s impressive and if you’re a runner you should be informed, hopeful, even optimistic.

What we do, in a typical year, is a little black magic. And I think we kind of like it that way.

We strive to make the big show feel flawless for our participants. I always take a bit of sick pleasure when a runner asks “is that a full-time job?” or another RD favourite “will you be running on race day?” It tells me we have succeeded in creating a magical platform for you to achieve a goal. And we do it so well, it doesn’t occur that we invested thousands of hours to shape your special experience.

Everything is different now. And pulling back the curtain feels like a necessary step to the safe return to racing.

Race directors are trained, highly skilled and experienced event professionals who always put the safety of participants first. We just haven’t had to talk about it. It’s understood that when you register, you will have a safe route to run on and if you get a mid-race cramp or god-forbid something worse, trained medical personnel will be dispatched to help you. Our sponsors partner with us because they trust us to represent their brand and our municipal officials permit our events because they know we provide a service that benefits our community.

As we work towards the safe return to racing, these implied contracts are being tested. Organizers face many barriers, including but not limited to clear and consistent guidance from government and public health officials, stakeholder support and consumer confidence.

This is a complex, evolving storyline and participants have a significant role in this next chapter.

Here are 5 things you can do to help your local races and influence the global movement for the safe return to racing.

1. Register for virtual races aka #runnow2runlater

The number one thing you can do to ensure your favourite race is there to go back to — support that organization now. Heck if you have the means, build in a couple of virtual experiences a month into your routine. Eli Asch co-host of the Early Call Time podcast and race director at Twin Cities in Motion coined #runnow2runlater. This should be the race director’s rallying cry to participants, and we invite you to use it when you’re posting your virtual races. To those waiting on the sidelines for in-person races to return and perhaps even vehemently against paying for a virtual race, this next bit is for you with love.

Remember early in the pandemic when we all agreed to do takeout once a week to save the neighborhood restaurant? And committed to buying local rather than from the big box store? Signing up for a virtual race is the equivalent of ordering Yami rolls from Hana Sushi or buying another set of PJs you really don’t need from Steeling Home (my two support local purchases this week). Race organizations are mostly small businesses and not-for-profits such as the all-female not-for-profit team at Manitoba Marathon and the small family-owned business that employs 17 people across the country, Canada Running Series.

We are trying to keep our doors open and awesome staff employed so we are positioned to hit the ground running when we can host in-person events again.

Decades of staff experience and organizational continuity are how we put on exceptional, safe events.

One piece of our collective viability strategy is offering virtual races and challenges to keep you engaged until we can go back to in-person races. We are now professional fulfillers, and we have A LOT of opinions about Canada Post, UPS and the best way to package swag. I spent 94.5 hours this summer packing virtual envelopes. This week I will spend 19 hours executing curb-side pickup from our warehouse for our last virtual event of 2020. Trust me when I tell you, I would rather be getting up at 3 a.m. in the cold to stage start lines for you, but this is what we have, so let’s all make the most of it. If you’re keeping your fingers crossed the Maritime Race Weekend will be around when this is over because you didn’t get around to doing it yet, go to the website, buy some merch and register for a virtual race. Participating virtually might not be as silly as you think and could even be fun if you are willing to engage in the digital community we have created around these events.

If I have convinced you to at least consider virtual racing, there’s one last thing. Please don’t try just ANY virtual race. Do your homework and avoid the pandemic pop-up companies that saw an opportunity and now sell avocado or poop emoji medals. If their Instagram feed popped up in April and they don’t have a tab on their website for in-person races, please understand your registration won’t help you #runnow2runlater.

2. Advocate for the safe return to racing

Remember how I told you the best minds in the business have collaborated on the safe return to racing? People WAY smarter than me!

Well folks… it’s working. Small, medium and even some larger events have taken place putting Covid-secure protocols into practice.

A study by the Japan Association of Athletics Federations found that between July 1 and October 4, 787 competitions with Covid-protocols in place saw a total of 571,401 athletes and 98,035 officers and referees, and only one person was reported infected within the period. ONE!

Going to a controlled outdoor event is not the same as a social gathering. If there is an in-person race taking place in your Canadian city or town (I can’t speak to other parts of the world), it’s very likely public health officials have reviewed the plans, feel confident in the protocols and are allowing it.

In an email exchange with 40 race directors musing how to mobilize our communities, Dave McGillivray of the Boston Marathon wrote in part,

“I think our greatest asset is our customers…the runners, the participants. They, too, have been shut down from participating in what they love to do and work hard to prepare for and are equally as anxious to get back.”

— Dave McGillivray

Become an informed participant and share what you learn so we can all eventually get back to what we love and yearn for, in-person races.

One remarkable resource with industry content where co-hosts Asch and industry insider Tony Yamanaka ‘discuss issues and news in the road race industry and get to know some of the people who keep it running’ is the Early Call Time podcast. (Sidenote: Tony is the only person I know to write a dissertation on a runner’s experience: Long-Distance Running Races: The Use of Experiences as Self-Concept Constructs).

Another, more visual medium where you can watch race director interviews is The Aid Station, hosted by Chris Robb on Mass Participation World YouTube Channel which already has 80+ episodes to choose from.

Hear directly from race directors about what to expect when races return and then share that knowledge with your crew to build confidence amongst our running communities and move us all closer to the safe return to racing.

3. See an in-person race on the calendar? GO!

I apologize (as a good Canadian does) for being the bearer of bad news: mass participation events as you fondly remember them (the ones with 20,000+ people and all the fanfare deserving of finish line high-fives and hugs) are unlikely to be the same in 2021. In addition to being operational wizards, we are dedicated to innovation and building mega experiences meant to thrill, entice and keep you coming back. The safe return to racing requires stripping the extras away and asking you to trust us and come anyways.

It’s not realistic to go from NO events, right back to the events of 2019. We must crawl before we walk and walk before we run. Here are a few race terms you will be hearing next season: Covid-secure, flow-through, socially distanced, contactless event.

And these Covid-secure events, they are not going to cost less than the big bedazzled running party we were throwing yesteryear. Endurance events have been facing increased costs for years and as Chris Robb from Mass Participation World spoke about in a recent panel, the model is broken with event organizers at the very back of the queue hoping enough people register that there is a profit after all the bills are paid. Another challenge the industry must tackle, but not a today problem.

So 1) if you’re healthy 2) you are confident in the Covid-secure plans you have reviewed and 3) you don’t have a financial barrier, be an early adopter and sign up for your city’s ‘welcome back 5K.’ Temper your expectation and give the organization constructive feedback, after all we are in this together.

4. Help grow the pie

So many things have changed during the last 8 months, many for the worse, and some for the better. The focus on mental health, longevity and wellbeing, less distractions and more time has led a lot of new folks to fitness. Your neighbour now walks 45 minutes a day, Uncle Joe bought a mountain bike, your wife started running again on the treadmill after the kids went to bed and your boss does Zumba in her living room between your morning team meeting and afternoon webinar.

We, the running community, are all here thinking,

‘ummmm ya welcome to the good endorphin party!’

But remember what it was like when you got your first runner’s high and those endorphins were coursing through your amazing new body that was capable of more than you ever thought? We wanted to surround ourselves with other runners, go to races, get and wear alllllllll the gear all of the time and scream post-long run from the coffeeshop rooftop,

‘I JUST DID MY LONGEST RUN EVERRRRRRRR! I AM INVINCIBBBBBBBLE’

(Just me? OK then!)

The point is, there are a lot of new people enjoying the endless benefits of exercise. Encourage them, facilitate it by planning activity-based connections, heck gift them a virtual experience this holiday season and take them to their first covid-secure race in 2021.

Everyone benefits from a healthier planet of humans.

5. Share your #StartLineImpact from December 1st to December 31st

Race withdrawal is real and with the 2020 season a write-off (with very few outliers), both runners and race directors are right to be concerned about 2021, especially given the current state of the pandemic, with increased cases and many parts of Canada in or about to go into another lockdown. Please note I am not advocating for events NOW, but when it’s safe again to manage.

One can argue that not delivering in-person races in 2020 was necessary because there was too much we didn’t understand. Not being able to erect start lines in 2021 despite covid-secure plans doesn’t make sense when people are meandering through grocery stores and kids are playing organized sport. Not having start lines in 2021 will have a significant impact on the long-term viability of many race organizations and there is research to support cases are not being linked back to controlled outdoor gathering with covid-secure measures in place.

According to the Canadian Endurance Sports Alliance (CESA is a race director driven association created as a result of the crisis to bring organizers together and have a unified voice in Ottawa), 65% of Canadian endurance events (triathlons, road races, cycling and ultra-events and experience events or fun runs) will disappear in 2021 should there be no additional funding or a path to the safe return to racing. The loss of start lines is having a very real impact on our small businesses and not-for-profits, not to mention the charities we support and the many amazing vendors, like timing, registration and swag companies that all work together in this endurance eco-system to help create the magic for you.

A global grassroots race-director led initiative kicks off December 1 and you’re invited to join this movement. It’s simple, all month-long share memories and anecdotes, musings and more using #StartLineImpact. We want to hear how your life has been positively impacted by whatever gets you moving and start a conversation about the safe return to running.

The endurance community, meaning participants as well as the folks working in the industry should come together because the safe return to racing goes beyond just start lines. Races are well positioned to aid in domestic tourism and economic recovery and controlled outdoor events can help communities come together safely and begin to heal as we enter the next chapter.

As uncertain as that next chapter might be, the entire industry is working together to ensure (as McGillivray closed his email),

‘the comeback is stronger than the setback.’

and we hope you will join us.

Keep the faith and keep on running on. And don’t forget to share your #StartLineImpact from December 1 to December 31.

Runner. Connector. Race director. Passionate about getting people moving.