Thousands of runners coast to coast signed up and were training charity fun runs, marathons and half-marathons this spring, in an April 6, 2020 story. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

COVID-19 forces weekend warrior racers off the road, devastates race organizers

Donna Moore enters a road race almost every weekend. One after the other, they’re cancelled or postponed.

“My first cancellation was the St. Patrick’s Day road race,” said the 57-year-old from Airdrie, Alta.

“It’s kind of disheartening.”

With large gatherings of people discouraged, if not banned, the COVID-19 pandemic is wiping out community races every weekend across Canada.

Thousands of runners coast to coast signed up and were training for everything from five-kilometre charity fun runs to sanctioned marathons and half-marathons this spring.

The virus has its foot on the neck of the road racing industry and the charities and businesses those races support.

The Vancouver and Ottawa marathon weekends in May have been cancelled. Run Calgary is trying to reschedule that city’s May 31 marathon for later this year without knowing if the race can go ahead even then.

In the eight-event Canada Running Series — which would have opened last Saturday with a half-marathon, 8k, 5k and children’s run in Toronto’s High Park — the first five have been cancelled or postponed.

A pair of 10k races in Toronto and Edmonton this spring were called off. The Vancouver Half-Marathon and 5k in June was cancelled last week.

“The magnitude of this, both within our industry and within our sport and within the broader community, everyone is a little overwhelmed,” Canada Running Series race director Alan Brookes said.

In his first year as Run Ottawa’s executive director, Ian Fraser not only had to scrub the organization’s signature marathon weekend, but also had to tell those already registered for the May 23-24 races they would not get their money back.

“The first couple of days, the really vocal angry minority was all over social media,” Fraser said. “If there was a town square, I would have been hung from the spire in the town square.

“When we were doing the analysis, refunding everybody their money would have bankrupted us. We’re a small not-for-profit. We pre-pay for so many things. We have deposits that are not refundable on facilities we’ve rented, T-shirts and medals. We have ongoing office staffing costs per month.”

When the sports world began shutting down in March, Run Ottawa halted registration at 18,000 out of an expected 33,000.

“We’ve paid for 92 per cent of what the event would have cost us at this point from 55 per cent of our revenue,” Fraser said.

Run Ottawa has cancellation insurance, but “it doesn’t include a pandemic,” he said. “It includes acts of terrorism. It includes bad weather.”

A retired 9-1-1 operator and self-described “running junkie,” Moore hasn’t asked for any of her registration fees back.

“Postponing is kind of like waiting to find out if you’re pregnant I guess,” she said. “Do I keep training really hard? Or do I just go out and enjoy my runs?”

Run Calgary executive director Kirsten Fleming estimates the number of races impacted worldwide to be in the hundreds.

“No race director wants to get an email from a runner who has been part of their community saying ‘I lost my job and I could really use that hundred dollars back’ or demanding a refund,” she said.

“We’re all looking at the state of our organizations to understand how we can be as generous as possible in whatever we’re offering, and still be here to put on a race when we’re on the other side of this thing.

“It’s not just races that are going to suffer from mass cancellations. It’s all of the supporting vendors, contractors and companies that are in the background.”

Last year’s Canada Running Series, which culminates with October’s Toronto Waterfront Marathon, involved 70,000 runners and raised $6 million for 300 charities, according to Brookes.

“Charities are so vulnerable now,” he said.

The Blue Nose Marathon in Halifax originally slotted for the May holiday weekend has been pushed to Nov. 6-8.

Organizers are under pressure to deliver the 2020 races they’ve already paid for, or partly paid for, so they can begin anew in 2021 collecting entry fees for next year’s races. Allowing runners to defer their entire entry fees to 2021 races means less money to operate next year.

“If we took all those 18,000 people and moved them ahead into 2021, now we’ve said goodbye to 55 per cent of our revenue for next year right?” Fraser explained.

Canada Running Series staff was able to reschedule the High Park races and a Montreal half-marathon, 10k and 5k in May to autumn because the routes are in parks.

A race on city streets is an extra layer of bureaucracy and logistics to navigate.

Ottawa, for example, requires the green light from the cities of Ottawa and Gatineau, Que., the National Capital Commission and, because of two bridges on the race route, federal Public Works, Fraser said.

Rescheduling to later in 2020 without certainty the races could go ahead then made cancellation the only call Fraser felt he could make.

“We felt we would potentially be double-disappointing people,” he said.

The Canada Running Series employs 16 people in Toronto and Vancouver. Brookes estimates the operation’s monthly costs at $200,000.

“I guess we could lay them all off tomorrow … but then we’d have no one left to organize our autumn races,” Brookes said.

“If we lay everybody off, we have no tomorrow. If we keep them all, we probably have no tomorrow.”

Run Ottawa is among organizers substituting ”virtual races” for cancelled ones as a way of delivering a meaningful experience for a runner’s money.

Runners go out on their own and time themselves over the race distance.

They’re encouraged to input their times into the race database, as well as share photos of themselves on the event’s social media accounts

They receive their T-shirts, finishers’ medals and certificates in the mail.

“Virtual races can still be fun,” Moore said. “You’ve just got to go out there and look for them and spread the word.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 6, 2020.

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