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On the brink: can Canada’s race industry survive the pandemic?

The financial challenges posed by the pandemic have brought Canada’s race industry to its knees, but as a result, 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

Photo by: Matt Stetson

This story originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Canadian Running

Kirsten Fleming was in San Diego, trying to find a flight 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 March 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 flights from San Diego. It was a super stressful day, and it hit home that this was not going to be a small problem.”

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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.

Tamarak Ottawa Race Weekend. Photo: Matt Stetson

“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 – come 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.

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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.”

Scotiabank Calgary Marathon. Photo: Neil Zeller

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.

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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 two-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 triathlon, 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 fledgling 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.

Scotiabank Calgary Marathon. Photo: Dave Holland

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), which 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 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.”

Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. Photo Matt Stetson

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 full-time 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 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 2020 (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.

Photo: courtesy of Calgary Marathon

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 second-fastest 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 LetsRun.com 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.”

What can runners do to help?

1. Continue (or, if you’ve never done it, start) signing up for virtual races and challenges, and post about them on social media, using the hashtag #RunNow2RunLater. Why pay for a virtual race, you may ask? Simple: to keep your favourite races alive.

2. Educate yourself about safe, in-person races happening around the country and register for the ones in your area. “We need people to be early adopters,” says Fleming. “If you see an in-person race on the calendar, and you’re healthy, and you can afford to go and you feel confident in the COVID protocols, please go.”

3. Help “grow the pie” and raise awareness by talking up any and all events with the runners in your life. To raise awareness of the situation, post reminiscences about your favourite start-line experiences, using the hashtag #StartLineImpact.