The email from the Harpers Ferry Half Marathon and 5k race director Mark Cucuzzella, MD, read like this:
Plan A: If all restrictions of a group gathering are removed and we deem the situation safe, race as usual with one start for each event.
Plan B: If there are still restrictions on social distancing and numbers of people that can be in the same place, we will have a rolling staggered start to allow everyone to get out on the course either by themselves or in groups of a few to start between 7:30 and 8:30. Our event is a small race and this would eliminate any groups greater than a few from ever being in close proximity. We will have spies on the course and police larger social running gatherings.
Plan C: If even stricter restrictions, we will host a virtual race that needs to be run on the actual course at some point around the race date or an area with at least 1,200-plus feet in elevation gain (to match the actual course).
Cucuzzella sent this email back on March 18 for a race scheduled on May 16, and things have rapidly changed since then as the spread of coronavirus shuts down major event after major event. But the various options he outlined to participants are representative of the dilemma most race directors of spring and summer events find themselves in—how to manage cancellations and still keep runners happy. It’s no easy task.
“This is a rapidly evolving public health emergency,” says Cucuzzella. “The overriding theme I keep telling people is that we’re in the business of community health and we must follow the directions of public health officials.”
While most runners understand the need for cancellations and postponements, social media and forums reveal some grumblings and misgivings. But there’s much that goes into planning a race, including great expense.
Like Cucuzzella, Greg Weber, race director of the Buffalo Marathon—which was slated for the final weekend in May—struggled with making a call on his race. This was to be the race’s 20th anniversary and canceling would leave many people disappointed.
Unlike the small Harper’s Ferry race, however, the Buffalo Marathon fields 10,000 runners. Weber chose to postpone the race until 2021 on March 16. “We get athletes from 45 different states and around a dozen countries,” says Weber. “I wanted to give everyone as much notice as possible so that they could make the necessary travel changes.”
Weber considered moving his race until later in the summer or into the fall, but decided against that option. “There are already a ton of races moving to fall, so I didn’t want to put runners into a position where they had to choose among too many options,” he says. “So 2021 seemed like the best option. All of the registered runners are in for next year with no additional charges, no need to re-register or do anything.”
In Florida, Steven Spitz, co-race director of the Badass Running Company series of themed events, is taking it one race at a time. “We are postponing our April event and researching dates in August for that,” he says. “We’re not sure yet how we will handle our May event.”
Thin margins, sunk costs
Most of the races Spitz manages are smaller—around 250 people—and 5 to 10k in distance. He also sponsors popular virtual races designed to benefit charities, which means pivoting to that format is a ready-made option for his company.
Still, Spitz says that behind the scenes there’s far more time and money invested than most runners realize. “The thing runners need to understand is that the margins are very thin in races,” he says. “When a race has to cancel or postpone, organizers have already sunk a lot of money into the event. There are medals ordered, bibs, shirts, and timing companies that have been contracted.” In these cases, returning money to runners is a path to increased debt for the racing directors.
Other than the largest events, which are often overseen by corporations, RDs organize their events for the love of the sport. “All RDs at the community level do it to get people out and engaged,” says Cucuzzella. “Many people need the motivation of a race in order to continue running, so we provide a way for them to do that.”
Ironically, in the midst of the pandemic, organized races have become health risks for the community. Thankfully, all three of the RDs say that for the most part, they’ve had positive feedback on their alternate plans. “I’ve had good reviews from everyone so far,” says Weber. “This is an opportunity for RDs to communicate effectively and educate their participants on the amount of work that goes into these events. When runners understand that, they’re appreciative.”
Update: Even given these harsh realities, the Boston Athletic Association announced that it will be refunding entry fees for the 2020 Boston Marathon, which was postponed until Sept. 14. The deadline to accept the refund is May 29.