at the races Empty Start lines

Empty Start lines


The global race director community is collaborating at absolutely epic proportions. Thousands of experts, the experts, in operations, health and safety, communications, emergency preparedness, crowd control and medical response — are working towards the safe return to racing. It’s impressive and if you’re a runner, you should be informed, hopeful, even optimistic.

Everything is different now. And pulling back the curtain feels like a necessary step to the safe return to racing. Race directors are trained, highly skilled and experienced event professionals who always put the safety of participants first. We just haven’t had to talk about it. It’s understood that when you register, you will have a safe route to run on and if you get a mid-race cramp or god-forbid something worse, trained medical personnel will be dispatched to help you. Our sponsors partner with us because they trust us to represent their brand and our municipal officials permit our events because they know we provide a service that benefits our community.

As we work towards the safe return to racing, these implied contracts are being tested. Organizers face many barriers, including but not limited to clear and consistent guidance from government and public health officials, stakeholder support and consumer confidence. Here’s five things readers of iRun can do—today—to ensure the return of their favourite races.

 1. Register for virtual races, aka #runnow2runlater

The number one thing you can do to ensure your favourite race is there to go back to is to support that organization now. Heck, if you have the means, build in a couple of virtual experiences a month into your routine. To those waiting on the sidelines for in-person races to return and perhaps even vehemently against paying for a virtual race, with love, we wish you would reconsider. Remember early in the pandemic when we all agreed to do takeout once a week to save the neighborhood restaurant? And committed to buying local rather than from the big box store? Signing up for a virtual race is the equivalent of ordering Yami rolls from Hana Sushi or buying another set of PJs you really don’t need from Steeling Home (my two support local purchases this week). Race organizations are mostly small businesses and not-for-profits, such as the all-female not-for-profit team at Manitoba Marathon and the small family-owned business that employs 17 people across the country, Canada Running Series. We are trying to keep our doors open and awesome staff employed so we are positioned to hit the ground running when we can host in-person events again. Decades of staff experience and organizational continuity are how we put on exceptional, safe events.

2. Advocate for the safe return to racing

Remember how I told you the best minds in the business have collaborated on the safe return to racing? People WAY smarter than me. Well, folks… it’s working. Small, medium and even some larger events have taken place putting COVID-secure protocols into practice. A study by the Japan Association of Athletics Federations found that between July 1 and October 4, 787 competitions with COVID-protocols in place saw a total of 571,401 athletes and 98,035 officers and referees, and only one person was reported infected within the period. ONE! Going to a controlled outdoor event is not the same as a social gathering. If there is an in-person race taking place in your Canadian city or town (I can’t speak to other parts of the world), it’s very likely public health officials have reviewed the plans, feel confident in the protocols and are allowing it. 

3. See an in-person race on the calendar? GO!

I apologize (as a good Canadian does) for being the bearer of bad news: mass participation events as you fondly remember them (the ones with 20,000+ people and all the fanfare deserving of finish line high-fives and hugs) are unlikely to be the same in 2021. In addition to being operational wizards, we are dedicated to innovation and building mega-experiences meant to thrill, entice and keep you coming back. The safe return to racing requires stripping the extras away and asking you to trust us and come anyways. It’s not realistic to go from NO events, right back to the events of 2019. We must crawl before we walk and walk before we run. Here are a few race terms you will be hearing next season: COVID-secure, flow-through, socially distanced, contactless event.

So 1) if you’re healthy; 2) you are confident in the COVID-secure plans you have reviewed, and 3) you don’t have a financial barrier, be an early adopter and sign up for your city’s ‘Welcome back 5K.’ Temper your expectation and give the organization constructive feedback, after all: we are all in this together.

4. Help grow the pie.

So many things have changed during the last eight months, many for the worse, and some for the better. The focus on mental health, longevity and wellbeing, less distractions and more time has led a lot of new folks to fitness. Your neighbour now walks 45 minutes a day, Uncle Joe bought a mountain bike, your wife started running again on the treadmill after the kids went to bed and your boss does Zumba in her living room between your morning team meeting and afternoon webinar.

There are a lot of new people enjoying the endless benefits of exercise. Encourage them, facilitate it by planning activity-based connections; heck, gift them a virtual experience this holiday season and take them to their first COVID-secure race in 2021.

Everyone benefits from a healthier planet of humans.

5. Share your #StartLineImpact through December 31.

Race withdrawal is real and with the 2020 season a write-off (with very few outliers), both runners and race directors are right to be concerned about 2021, especially given the current state of the pandemic, with increased cases and many parts of Canada in or about to go into another lockdown. Please note I am not advocating for events NOW, but when it’s safe again to manage.

One can argue that not delivering in-person races in 2020 was necessary because there was too much we didn’t understand. Not being able to erect start lines in 2021—despite COVID-secure plans—doesn’t make sense when people are meandering through grocery stores and kids are playing organized sport. Not having start lines in 2021 will have a significant impact on the long-term viability of many race organizations and there is research to support cases are not being linked back to controlled outdoor gathering with covid-secure measures in place.

According to the Canadian Endurance Sports Alliance (CESA is a race director driven association created as a result of the crisis to bring organizers together and have a unified voice in Ottawa), 65% of Canadian endurance events (triathlons, road races, cycling and ultra-events and experience events or fun runs) will disappear in 2021 should there be no additional funding or a path to the safe return to racing. The loss of start lines is having a very real impact on our small businesses and not-for-profits, not to mention the charities we support and the many amazing vendors, like timing, registration and swag companies that all work together in this endurance eco-system to help create the magic for you.As uncertain as that next chapter might be, the entire industry is working together to ensure, as Dave McGillivray of the Boston Marathon says, ‘The comeback is stronger than the setback.

We hope you will join us. Keep the faith and keep on running on. And don’t forget to share your #StartLineImpact to December 31.