Canadian Running

On the Brink

- By Anne Fran­cis Sports · Running · Infectious Diseases · Athletics · Health Conditions · San Diego · Calgary · Scotiabank · Marathon Oil · Toronto · Ottawa · United States of America · Zoom Video Communications · Aurora · Ontario · Australia · Alberta · Montreal · Crowsnest Pass · Under Armour Inc.

Cana­dian race or­ga­ni­za­tions have suf­fered huge losses as a re­sult of the pan­demic, and some will not sur­vive. Still, their ef­forts to be­come a uni­fied body so they can ac­cess fi­nan­cial sup­port and share best prac­tices has been a good thing for the in­dus­try. Will they be able to con­vince Cana­di­ans we can race safely in per­son?

The fi­nan­cial chal­lenges posed by the pan­demic have brought Canada’s race in­dus­try to its knees. But the re­sult is that race di­rec­tors are now pool­ing re­sources, shar­ing best prac­tices and ad­vo­cat­ing for each other in a way they never had be­fore COVID. En­durance races will be stronger for it – if they sur­vive

Kirsten Flem­ing was in San Diego, try­ing to find a f light home to Cal­gary af­ter a trip with her girl­friends from high school, when the re­al­ity of the pan­demic sank in. “My hus­band told me I shouldn’t go,” says the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Run Cal­gary and the Sco­tia­bank Cal­gary Marathon, “but I went any­way. I was a dummy, in ret­ro­spect. Our big­gest con­cern was, am I go­ing to have to iso­late for two weeks when I get back? “Then on Mar. 12 – the day af­ter the nba an­nounced it was sus­pend­ing games – we sus­pended reg­is­tra­tion. Sud­denly I was on the phone with all our ma­jor brand part­ners, my board of di­rec­tors and our spon­sors. We were craft­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions for all the plat­forms and our news­let­ter while I was try­ing to re­book f lights from San Diego. It was a su­per stress­ful day, and it hit home that this was not go­ing to be a small prob­lem.”

At that point, Flem­ing didn’t know there would be no race in 2020 – she and her team were try­ing to find a date in the sum­mer or fall when the city would give them a per­mit for a post­poned event. All she knew was, there wouldn’t be a race on May 31. She says the big emo­tions didn’t kick in un­til a cou­ple of weeks later, when it be­came clear that the marathon that she and her team had been plan­ning for a year al­ready would not hap­pen in 2020.

“To see all the cre­ative ideas and plans – we were launch­ing a 50k re­lay, and there were so many things we were ex­cited about, and we were on a tra­jec­tory for sub­stan­tial growth. That all came crash­ing down. I was dis­ap­pointed for my team and for my­self, and I was wor­ried – no­body wants to be the per­son in charge when an or­ga­ni­za­tion goes un­der. There was a lot of un­cer­tainty about how the year was go­ing to pan out and what that would mean for us as a not-for-profit.”

As ev­ery­one knows, the pan­demic has dec­i­mated

Cana­dian busi­nesses. Restau­rants have been par­tic­u­larly hard hit. But while they don’t get nearly the amount of press that restau­rants do, the sit­u­a­tion fac­ing Cana­dian race or­ga­ni­za­tions is sim­i­lar, and just as dire. Run­ners, like restau­ra­teurs and servers, are pin­ning their hopes on the vac­cine putting an end to the mis­ery, but with case counts and hos­pi­tal­iza­tions con­tin­u­ing to mount at an alarm­ing rate 11 months in, few peo­ple be­lieve the rac­ing world will be re­turn­ing to nor­mal be­fore 2022.

Races, like restau­rants, had to be cre­ative to stay alive. Many switched to vir­tual ver­sions of their reg­u­lar races and nifty vir­tual events, like Canada Run­ning Se­ries’ Camp KM, the Toronto Women’s Run’s 416 Chal­lenge and, more re­cently, Run Cal­gary’s Win­ter Moves. And as the pan­demic dragged on into fall 2020, th­ese, along with govern­ment hand­outs, were keep­ing the lights on – but only just.

The chal­lenge fac­ing race di­rec­tors was not only to fig­ure out how to ac­cess the var­i­ous govern­ment pro­grams cre­ated to help busi­nesses weather the storm, but also to per­suade run­ners to sup­port vir­tual in the same way that they be­gan sup­port­ing their neigh­bour­hood restau­rants with take­out or­ders. For those who scoff at the idea of pay­ing to run on your own with no start line, no tim­ing chip and no fin­ish-line good­ies, the very real al­ter­na­tive is a race cal­en­dar de­void of races.

The sud­den mass can­cel­la­tions and lack of re­funds in the spring led to an an­gry back­lash from some run­ners that re­vealed an un­for­tu­nate lack of aware­ness of how race or­ga­ni­za­tions op­er­ate – some­thing for which Flem­ing ad­mits RDs have no one to blame but them­selves. “Race or­ga­ni­za­tions typ­i­cally op­er­ate be­hind a cur­tain,” says Flem­ing. “It’s like black magic. Most peo­ple who race have very lit­tle idea of the thou­sands of hours in­vested in mak­ing their day spe­cial.”

Most races are smaller than the Cal­gary or Toronto

marathons, but even the big ones are mostly run by small fam­ily busi­nesses or not-for-prof­its, like Canada Run­ning Se­ries (op­er­a­tor of the Sco­tia­bank Toronto Wa­ter­front Marathon), Run Ot­tawa (op­er­a­tor of the Sco­tia­bank Ot­tawa Marathon) and Run Cal­gary (op­er­a­tor of the Sco­tia­bank Cal­gary Marathon). With few ex­cep­tions, they run on a par­tic­i­pant-pay model. Those with the names of fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions at­tached are not owned by those in­sti­tu­tions – cash spon­sor­ships typ­i­cally amount to be­tween 20 and 25 per cent of op­er­at­ing bud­gets, with the rest com­ing from reg­is­tra­tions.

It’s hard to be­lieve, but at the time, there was no pro­fes­sional as­so­ci­a­tion for race events in Canada on a par with Run­ning usa, the not-for-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion serv­ing the U.S. race in­dus­try. And the lack of aware­ness of how races op­er­ate ex­tended also to the var­i­ous lev­els of govern­ment dis­pens­ing covid re­lief. Cana­dian RDs are a close-knit group, but to get the at­ten­tion of those who hold the purse strings, they needed to for­mally or­ga­nize.

En­ter the Cana­dian En­durance Sport Al­liance ( cesa), cre­ated by Flem­ing and oth­ers as a di­rect re­sult of covid. Cesa now has 160 mem­bers, with a seven-per­son in­terim board that has been meet­ing for t wo-hour weekly Zoom calls for the past 10 months to dis­cuss strate­gies and share best prac­tices and emo­tional sup­port as the pan­demic rages on. Be­yond run­ning events, cesa also en­com­passes t riat hlon, cycling, ob­sta­cle course and ad­ven­ture rac­ing and their as­so­ci­ated ven­dors.

Shortly af­ter its cre­ation, cesa mem­bers pooled their re­sources to hire the Ot­tawa govern­ment re­la­tions firm Bluesky Strat­egy Group to help for­mu­late its mes­sage and con­vey it to the right bu­reau­crats in the fed­eral govern­ment. (It was im­por­tant to the f ledgling group that the com­pany they se­lected from those that ten­dered be con­ver­sant with their busi­ness, and it’s no co­in­ci­dence that Bluesky co-founder Tim Bar­ber is a mutli-time Iron­man fin­isher.)

Of course, a host of other in­dus­tries had been bang­ing on doors in Ot­tawa for weeks be­fore cesa joined them. “Th­ese peo­ple’s phones are ring­ing off the hook with peo­ple ask­ing for sup­port for their sec­tor,” says cesa board mem­ber and race an­nouncer Steve Fleck of Aurora, Ont.

Here’s what’s at stake: ac­cord­ing to cesa, rev­enue from en­durance race reg­is­tra­tions is down at least 70 per cent across the board, and up to 65 per cent of races may fold over the next three years – a fig­ure that’s con­sis­tent with find­ings in the U.S. and Aus­tralia.

The in­dus­try serves more than 2,000,000 par­tic­i­pants per year and cre­ates hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in eco­nomic im­pact through tourism. A great ex­am­ple: the Sin­is­ter 7 ul­tra in Crowsnest Pass, Alta. (pop­u­la­tion 5,589), the race gen­er­ates $3,000,000 a year for the lo­cal econ­omy. And there are many sim­i­lar ex­am­ples across Canada. Fleck says that when­ever cesa mem­bers share th­ese facts with govern­ment of­fi­cials, the re­ac­tion is “Gee whiz, I had no idea” – even among those who en­thu­si­as­ti­cally iden­tify as ath­letes. (There are a sur­pris­ing num­ber of those among high-level bu­reau­crats in Ot­tawa. “They’re all ei­ther run­ners, or some­one in their fam­ily is a run­ner, cy­clist or triath­lete,” says Fleck.)

Cesa has had some suc­cess in se­cur­ing meet­ings with key bu­reau­crats and politi­cians at both the fed­eral and pro­vin­cial lev­els, but as gov­ern­ments un­veil new pro­grams, mem­bers scram­ble to fig­ure out whether they’re el­i­gi­ble, and how to ap­ply. The Oct. 2 throne

Rev­enue from en­durance race reg­is­tra­tions is down at least 70 per cent across the board, and ac­cord­ing to a mem­ber sur­vey con­ducted by CESA, up to 65 per cent of races may be fac­ing ex­tinc­tion over the next three years

speech in­di­cated sweep­ing new mea­sures de­signed to help, but just be­fore Christ­mas, cesa learned that its mem­bers would not qual­ify for fund­ing un­der a pro­gram an­nounced on Nov. 30 promis­ing $181.5 mil­lion for her­itage, cul­tural and live events. “Races are live events,” says Fleck, “but this money is specif­i­cally al­lo­cated for her­itage, arts and cul­tural events, not races.”

The fi­nan­cial im­pact if th­ese races don’t sur­vive will also be felt by the char­i­ties they sup­port: the Sco­tia­bank Toronto Wa­ter­front Marathon alone typ­i­cally raises around $3.6 mil­lion a year, ben­e­fit­ting 200 char­i­ties. (One piece of good news in 2020: run­ners participat­ing in this year’s vir­tual stwm man­aged to raise $2.96 mil­lion for 163 or­ga­ni­za­tions.)

As Flem­ing points out, the cost goes be­yond the fi­nan­cial pain to race own­ers, em­ploy­ees and char­i­ta­ble or­ga­ni­za­tions. True, you don’t nec­es­sar­ily have to race to en­joy run­ning, but it’s also true that races get a lot of peo­ple ex­cited about get­ting out­side and get­ting healthy, ex­er­cis­ing and en­joy­ing nature. And they are sig­nif­i­cant com­mu­nity builders. “Events are a point of pride for peo­ple across the coun­try,” says Flem­ing. “They create bonds be­tween res­i­dents, they create vol­un­teer op­por­tu­ni­ties, and they con­trib­ute to the iden­tity of com­mu­ni­ties.”

Charlotte Brookes, na­tional event di­rec­tor for Canada Run­ning Se­ries (which op­er­ates the Un­der Ar­mour Spring Run-Off in Toronto and Banque Sco­tia 21k de Mon­tréal, in ad­di­tion to stwm and oth­ers), re­ports that while crs was el­i­gi­ble for wage sub­si­dies for its 16 full­time em­ploy­ees, the sub­si­dies did not cover con­trac­tors, so three quar­ters of their con­tracts cov­er­ing such roles as vol­un­teer co-or­di­na­tion and op­er­a­tions man­age­ment could not be re­newed for 2021. As of this writ­ing, stwm was ten­ta­tively sched­uled for Oct. 17 (em­pha­sis on ten­ta­tively). All of the Ab­bott World Marathon Ma­jors are sched­uled for fall 2021, but Brookes says crs is plan­ning a hy­brid of in-per­son and vir­tual for their fall events. “I wish I had a crys­tal ball,” she says, “but to close 42 kilo­me­tres worth of real es­tate and bring mul­ti­ple agen­cies to­gether 20 months into a pan­demic will be chal­leng­ing, and will re­quire a lot of co-or­di­na­tion be­tween all the dif­fer­ent agen­cies and ven­dors.” She adds that, what­ever the event ends up look­ing like, reg­is­tra­tion will not open for any in-per­son events un­til they have a clearer pic­ture of what those events could re­al­is­ti­cally look like.

By De­cem­ber, big races like stwm would nor­mally have opened reg­is­tra­tions for the com­ing year, but not in 2020. At press time, most races re­mained in a hold­ing pat­tern, pend­ing the out­come of de­ci­sions around fund­ing and con­di­tions for re­open­ing. Hope­fully, that will have changed by the time this is­sue reaches news­stands.

Though safety is a huge part of what pro­fes­sional RDs do, and they quickly be­came con­ver­sant with covid- 19 pro­to­cols, races could not get per­mits dur­ing the sum­mer of 2020, when restau­rants were al­lowed to ex­tend their

Fleck says that when­ever CESA mem­bers share th­ese facts with govern­ment of­fi­cials, the re­ac­tion is “Gee whiz, I had no idea”

pa­tios into the street and even wel­come din­ers in­doors at phys­i­cally-dis­tanced ta­bles. There has been the odd covid- safe, in-per­son race, but most are so small that they’re lucky to break even. Still, for some it has been worth it just to ex­pe­ri­ence in-per­son rac­ing. Re­fer­ring to the Dash of Doom race that Run Cal­gary put on on Hal­loween night, Flem­ing says, “We didn’t make a dime.” Still, she was touched by how far peo­ple would go to at­tend an in-per­son race. “We had fam­i­lies come from Strath­more and Ed­mon­ton to our tiny race in Cal­gary,” she says. “Peo­ple were com­ing up to me to say ‘thank you,

I didn’t re­al­ize how much I missed be­ing out with our com­mu­nity.’ It was very emo­tional for me.”

Most races are man­ag­ing to scrape by through a com­bi­na­tion of fed­eral wage and rent sub­si­dies and vir­tual events. A few have gone dark, hop­ing they can be re­vived when the sit­u­a­tion im­proves. Part-time race di­rec­tor Peter Donato of Toronto’s Good Times Run­ning (which op­er­ates the Mon­ster Dash, Toronto Cor­po­rate Run and nye Mid­nite Run & Party) re­ports that in a year when 3,500 peo­ple would nor­mally par­tic­i­pate in his events, that num­ber dwin­dled to 500 in 2020, when all events were vir­tual. Con­tract em­ploy­ees were let go, and he could no longer even af­ford of­fice space.

Donato points out that vir­tual rac­ing was in­vented years ago as a way to sup­port the grow­ing trend to­ward greener events, as well as to give peo­ple in re­mote ar­eas a chance to feel like part of the scene. “Vir­tual was once a suc­cess­ful niche in­dus­try, but now ev­ery­body has to do it be­cause of covid,” he says. He wor­ries that even those run­ners who ini­tially em­braced vir­tual rac­ing are los­ing their en­thu­si­asm for it. “Vir­tual is just not the same,” he says. “There’s no mu­sic, no crowd en­ergy. That makes a big dif­fer­ence to per­for­mance. There’s def­i­nitely fa­tigue in the vir­tual busi­ness. There is no way this in­dus­try will sur­vive based on vir­tual.”

What the in­dus­try des­per­ately needs, RDs say, is a safe re­turn to rac­ing, and the sooner the bet­ter. There’s lit­tle ev­i­dence that strictly con­trolled out­door events con­trib­ute to the spread of covid: one ma­jor study pub­lished by the Ja­pan As­so­ci­a­tion of Ath­let­ics Fed­er­a­tions ( jaaf) found that, among 787 races and track meets held in Ja­pan be­tween July (when rac­ing re­sumed) and Oc­to­ber, in­volv­ing more than 500,000 ath­letes and al­most 100,000 of­fi­cials and staff, only a sin­gle pos­i­tive test was recorded in the two weeks fol­low­ing a race. Still, per­suad­ing the pub­lic that rac­ing is safe may be tougher than a set of hill re­peats.

Be­yond ask­ing gov­ern­ments for fi­nan­cial sup­port, one of cesa’s tasks is to work closely with health au­thor­i­ties at the lo­cal level in ed­u­cat­ing the pub­lic on what con­sti­tutes a safe re­turn to rac­ing. Ac­cord­ing to Flem­ing, “the in­dus­try has been work­ing to put to­gether prin­ci­ples that, when you ap­ply them to your event, will make it safer than go­ing to the gro­cery store.” Pro­to­cols in­clude stag­gered, phys­i­cally dis­tanced start­lines and fin­ish lines, manda­tory mask­ing and hand san­i­tizer. Wa­ter sta­tions are out. The prospect of a widely-avail­able vac­cine presents a whole new set of vari­ables. Will races be re­quired to man­date that reg­is­trants must be vac­ci­nated? At this point, no one knows.

By the time The Marathon Project, or­ga­nized by naz Elite coach Ben Rosario and sports agent Josh Cox, took place in Chan­dler, Ariz., on Dec. 20, the run­ning world was rav­en­ous for a good marathon. The event was small and open to pro run­ners only: 48 men and 40 women raced, with another 14 men on pac­ing du­ties, for a to­tal of 102 ath­letes on a 4.3-mile closed, looped cri­terium course. Strict covid pro­to­cols were ob­served. (Ac­cord­ing to Rosario, three ath­letes could not travel to the race af­ter test­ing pos­i­tive ear­lier in the week.) Ten Amer­i­can men went sub-2:10, Sara Hall ran the sec­ond­fastest marathon ever by an Amer­i­can woman, and two Cana­di­ans ran the Olympic stan­dard (Natasha Wo­dak, in her first marathon since 2013, and Ben Preis­ner, in his de­but). Ev­ery­one in­volved gushed about what a great event it was. Race di­rec­tors across North Amer­ica are hop­ing it marked the re­turn of in-per­son rac­ing, even though Let­ re­ported that one ath­lete who went to hos­pi­tal with a non- covid- re­lated is­sue af­ter the race tested pos­i­tive for covid. (It’s be­lieved that since they

tested pos­i­tive on the evening of race day, they likely picked up the virus some­time be­tween their last neg­a­tive test in the days pre­ced­ing the race and race week­end.)

At the end of the day, Fleck ob­serves, the cre­ation of cesa and the work it has done to ad­vo­cate for Cana­dian race or­ga­ni­za­tions has been noth­ing but pos­i­tive. “I’m quite proud of what we’ve ac­com­plished,” he says. “We’ve put this whole in­dus­try on the map.” Flem­ing con­curs, ex­plain­ing that even com­pa­nies that nor­mally are in com­pe­ti­tion with one another have be­come al­lies, shar­ing in­for­ma­tion openly and sup­port­ing each other through what has been the tough­est year any of them can re­mem­ber: “Most of us have never met in per­son, yet we’ve met over Zoom every week for two hours for al­most a year. We hope this or­ga­ni­za­tion ex­ists long af­ter covid. The land­scape will prob­a­bly be for­ever changed, but we’re stronger to­gether.”

We had fam­i­lies come from Strath­more and Ed­mon­ton to our tiny race in Cal­gary,” Flem­ing says. “Peo­ple were com­ing up to me to say ‘thank you, I didn’t re­al­ize how much I missed be­ing out with our com­mu­nity’”

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