May 2020 Issue 430

The Latest in Road Running for Race Directors and Industry Professionals

The Virtues of Virtual Runs

By Jim Gerweck

When Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar was warned to “beware the ides of March” it might have harkened forward several centuries to the year 2020. That was the point in time when the entire sports world – professional, collegiate, and recreational – came to a screeching halt with the beginning of social distancing and a nationwide shutdown of all but essential businesses.

Road racing was particularly hard hit – after the L.A. Marathon snuck under the wire on March 8, there were almost no significant running events held anywhere in the country, and like a rapidly rising tide, events in April, then May, then June, began to announce postponements or outright cancellations.

Figures released by online registration platform RunSignUp reveal that up until the week of March 7, registrations were up by 29%, presaging a healthy growth for an industry that had been flat or even shrinking for the preceding several years. Then, COVID-19 went from being a rumor to a hard reality, and the bottom fell out – registrations were down 20% the following week, then bottomed out, down nearly 80% for the next three. April has shown a slight recovery with a climb back to 44% down at the end of the month, but there is still a long way to go before 2019’s figures are anything more than a wistful memory.

Although some parts of the country have begun a cautious return to “open for business,” road races aren’t included in that – “we’re not a high priority,” said Dave McGillivray, race director of the Boston Marathon, which was postponed for the first time in its history to mid-September. “What we do – cram a lot of people into a confined space – kind of flies in the face of this pandemic.”

As race organizers and the ancillary businesses of the running industry, particularly timers, struggle to stay afloat in this challenging and somewhat scary landscape, one life preserver that many have grasped is virtual racing.

Many races, especially larger, more famous events, have had a virtual component in the past, often geared towards servicemen and women stationed overseas, allowing them to run a version of a favorite hometown race remotely. (Astronaut Suni Williams even ran the Boston Marathon virtually while on the International Space Station in 2007). But now, with public gatherings of any size essentially banned across the country, for runners it has become virtual or not at all.

 While many spring races opted to postpone to the fall, creating a potential logjam on the running schedule, and others chose to cancel completely, some made the decision to transition to virtual editions of their event.

As with most things in life, timing was everything in determining how successful this pivot was. For most March races, there wasn’t sufficient time to make the switch, effectively killing off hundreds of Spring Sprints and Shamrock Shuffles across the country.

Summer races faced a different problem. Many of them held out hope that the virus situation would subside by their scheduled dates in June or July and so held fast, but the uncertainty and escalating severity of the pandemic brought registrations to a standstill, and by April if they decided to go virtual much of their promotional momentum had dissipated.

April events seemed to be in a “sweet spot” of having enough time to change to virtual and explain and promote the new style to runners, as well as being far enough into a period of no physical races that runners were starving for any sort of competitive outlet.

 “During the spring season there are normally anywhere from a million to a million and a half people racing each weekend,” said Bryan Jenkins of RunSignUp, one of the leading online registration platforms. “Now all of a sudden the supply of physical races went to zero, so even if the demand dropped in half, there was still a potential gold mine for races, even if they were virtual.”

Indeed, some early examples might indicate that virtual events could be even more profitable than traditional physical races. Part of this is because many of the fixed costs of a traditional race, what one race director called the “Four P’s – Permits, Police, PortaJohns, and Prizes,” are essentially eliminated, along with the cost of an outside timing service. The only other real costs are shirts and/or medals, and those are scalable based on the number of registrants. With suppliers of those items in tough financial straits as well, they are more likely to work with a race to get any work, even if it means tailoring the order quantities to the customer’s specifications.

Some virtual races have even gone so far as to eliminate those traditional race amenities entirely, seemingly without any adverse effect. The Flippin’ 5K charged $25 in 2019 and drew 310 registrants ,with 250 actually running the race. This year the race went virtual, eliminated shirts and medals and asked for donations instead of charging an entry fee. The result: 6,498 sign ups, more than 1,600 virtual results, and more money raised than in 2019.

Jenkins notes that many of the runners he sees signing up for these virtual races are new registrants. “Some of the older, more traditional runners might be looking down on virtual races as not ‘real,’ but the longer the shutdown has continued and more refinements have been made to virtual events they’re starting to come around,” said Jenkins. “Couple that with all these new runners who have taken to the sport when their gyms, sports leagues and fitness camps have been closed, and there’s a huge base out there.”

Although the pricing of virtual races is still evolving, the entry fees generally provide some relief from the high entry fees for many physical races. Many virtual runs offer t-shirts and medals and are priced in the $15-$35 range, and most have only a single price, no tiered pricing. Some physical races that have cancelled have offered virtual runs and mailing out t-shirts and medals from the "real" race as an alternative to providing full entry fee refunds. The Ironman-owned Rock 'n' Roll Marathon Series has set up a series of virtual runs to replace many of its cancelled events. Signing up is free (with registrants supplying valuable demographic information including name, email, age, and sex) with swag offered at prices ranging from $19.95 for a medal, to a "premium finisher bundle" (medal and a visor) for $34.90, various styles of t-shirts for $24.95, and a fleece hoodie at $49.95.

The organizers of virtual runs strive to create a social media community by encouraging runners to post photos and videos of their virtual runs, track their participation on their Garmins and post their accomplishments on Strava. Most organizers post results of some sort online, knowing full well that the listings would never pass muster with the course measurement community. That seems to matter little—virtual runs are mostly about the shared experience rather than the finishing times.

Another type of virtual event that really has no antecedent among physical races are "challenges," where runners log their training miles over a set time period or distance. The most wildly successful of these is the 1,000 km Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee. Organized by Lazarus Lake, director of the (in)famous Barkley Marathons, the four-month long challenge is approaching 12,000 entrants who will complete a virtual trek across the width of the Volunteer State over the course of the summer by logging their mileage each day.

The question is where does this all wind up later this summer or fall, or next year if the virus attenuation measures aren’t effective enough for a return to physical races. How quickly will the novelty wear off, even for runners who feel the need for a weekly dose of competition? And should the economy remain mostly shuttered, will anyone be willing to spend shrinking finances on a race, no matter how noble the cause it’s supporting? 

“All it takes is a couple poorly executed virtual races for runners to sour on this pretty quickly,” said Jenkins. That said, he sees improvements in the technology of virtual events, such as automatic syncing of GPS data and more attention to improving the runners’ overall experience, as keeping this segment viable for a while. “Creativity is being rewarded exponentially,” he said. He noted that companies focused on the few physical aspects of a virtual race, such as fulfilling shirt and medal orders, are already springing up. And with one in six people still nervous about going out even after the virus subsides according to one survey, a virtual division may become a fixture in physical races once they do return. And until then, virtual races, like professional sports in front of empty stands, may be the best runners, and race directors, can hope for.

Jim Gerweck has been involved in the running industry for more than four decades as a race organizer, timer, course measurer and writer, He has been busy directing virtual events and planning actual races in his native Connecticut for the past several months.

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