at the races Ottawa Marathon race director responds to criticism over not refunding cancellation fees

Ottawa Marathon race director responds to criticism over not refunding cancellation fees

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The Scotiabank Ottawa Marathon announced yesterday that it’s plan for their cancelled 2020 race is to offer a free virtual race and 50% off 2021’s registration fee for all currently registered participants. The Ottawa Marathon is an advertiser in iRun and our founder, Mark Sutcliffe, sits on the race’s board. (The race also uses Sportstats for timing, and that’s our parent company). That said, we spoke to Ian Fraser, Scotiabank Ottawa Marathon’s race director, in his first year on the job, and asked him to respond to the online criticisms. I do think it’s worth mentioning that early online criticisms may not represent the opinions of runner’s at large, and may be the vocal minority. With all that said, we put some of the most stinging online complaints to Ian Fraser.

733 runners have signed a petition on Change.Org to get a refund on their race fees. What do you say to those runners?

They need to come on a journey with us. And understand that the survival of our community is hanging in the balance. If we don’t survive there will be no Ottawa Race Weekend.

Have the registration fees already been spent?

Yes, and it’s important for people to understand where their dollars ago and when. We’re a 12-month operation and start incurring costs from the second the previous year’s race ends. We have paid for 33,000 T shirts, 33,000 medals. We were tracking for 33,000 participants and stopped registration at 18,000—so we already in the hole.

How much?

We’ve probably laid out 75% of our costs, if not more, and we’ve recouped just over half of our revenue. We would like nothing better than to put on this event, we would also like to survive. And not only is this not just about us, but all the small and medium-sized businesses that do contractual work with us: Sportstats, our event design people, they’ve been partially paid for their work and they have families to feed and they go into the same grocery stores as our participants. We’re not sitting on a pile of cash that we’ve hoarded because we don’t want to give it back. We just can’t.

Why do you think people are having such an emotional response?

We do this because we love running and we love this event and we’re people-people and for us to go forward, we have to strike a balance and we’re as disappointed as any one of our vocal critics, but we’re living in a time when all kinds of family and businesses are having to make compromises and difficult decisions. Things are being cancelled and the ground is moving under us day after day so finding ways that we can connect and move forward I think as a societal goal is imperative; for our race organization and beyond that, for society at large.

Someone on social media wrote: “This is absolutely unacceptable. We are all living through this crisis and although the organizations are counting on these funds, a lot of families are now counting or getting their money back for events that are cancelled. A reimbursement should definitely be provided to all participants.”

We’re trying hard to strike a balance. Do you as a participant want us to be here in subsequent years? Would you like us to carry on the event? If the majority of people say we don’t care if this ever goes on again, just give us our money back, I would listen, but I can guarantee that’s not how the majority of our participants feel.

Are you hearing a bunch of other stuff as well, positive comments about the fluid situation?

For all the negative comments we’ve had, we’ve had a steady stream of comments from Run Ottawa, from the running community at large, the general world of running; all of them saying that they understand, that we all need a place to run and events like ours have to survive. If it was different, we would handle things differently, but right now, today, we can not survive under any other kind of circumstance.

This person said: “I will avoid this race in the future. And I hope many will think twice about signing up again. You could have postponed this event. Other options should have been considered. You definitely took along enough to decide! Not cool at all! But I am only one person…..here’s hoping more will boycott this event in the future.”

I hope I don’t sound too strident, because all of this is difficult for me, but let’s address this. On the timing of the decision, we weren’t late in making the decision. When we announced, we were roughly eight weeks out from the event. When you look at another races taking place in the spring, a whole bunch of them made their decision in the same window, races like Boston, London, Around the Bay, the Vancouver Marathon. I don’t want to cast stones at anybody, but did we take too long? Absolutely not. Did we take our time so we could look at every option? Absolutely.

What goes in to putting a race of 33,000 people over two days?

For two days, we shut down for two days a city of a million people; Ottawa is the fourth largest city in Canada and for the race, we have a medical volunteer team of 250 people; we have a mobile hospital on site and all those considerations weigh in on the decision.

What about putting on the race in the fall?

Is it responsible to try and put on an event in the fall when no one has any idea if the world will be in a better place? Is it fair to double disappoint people? We want to provide our participants with clarity. We owed them clarity and by postponing to the fall, it wasn’t a point of clarity.

Here someone wrote in with virtual run critique: “It’s becoming increasingly difficult to run safely while social distancing. This will likely become more challenging and frowned upon by public health in the weeks to come. It may even be restricted.”

First of all, we’re all living in a world of COVID-19 time. If you look back six weeks ago and think about what we we’re doing, you would never imagine we’d be in such times. By the time our virtual race begins, May 31 to the end of the summer, social distancing could be tighter, it also could become more relaxed. What’s essential is we want everyone to follow the health regulations. For now, that means running solo. Above all else, we want to take people’s health and safety into consideration. We’re mindful that no one knows where this is going — we are not encouraging people to use our actual routes; we will be encouraging people to choose safe routes near their house. It’s hugely incumbent upon people to be smart, and I think people are. Have you been out lately? There are so many runners out; people who clearly were not runners before this started. I think we need to talk about some good news.

Let’s talk about some.

Use running as a mental health tool; as a metaphor for how we deal with stress, so many important things and that makes Ottawa Marathon’s survival more important. I know this community because I live it and I know it’s a positive community built on great spirit and great vibes and we should focus on that and people should know where every cent of their dollar is actually going and how it’s working right now. I’d also like to say that our Scotiabank Charity Challenge will be extended throughout the summer and that gives so many people a greater opportunity to become donors throughout the summer.

We’ve been friends since you started and I’ve always admired you. How are you personally holding up?

I had a shitty day yesterday and this morning hasn’t been much better, but I love my community and I love this event and I apologize if we can’t provide a perfect solution to everybody, but we’re human beings and doing the best we can to keep this Canadian institution alive.

40 COMMENTS

  1. Total respect and support for Ian and his team. All I can ask for is the best decision on that day given the information available. Our family has 5 entries for the race and losing 50% of it seems like a small inconvenience in the big picture. Let’s focus on helping small businesses and not for profit organizations get back on their feet. Must go back to Zwift now!

  2. Hi, I live in C’da, Idaho & recently found out that Bloomsday Race in Spokane, Wash. has also been cancelled & postponed POSSIBLY to Sept.!!! I have run 37 in a row, always held the First Sunday in May with approx. 50,000 runners! I have also done 36 In a row of Our Marathons too, & it was also cancelled! Rest assured, that I am as disappointed as Anyone who planned to do the Ottawa Marathon!!! We all have to learn to Deal with it.!!! It’s all for our own safety! No One wants to get this Virus. So let’s all cry together, but don’t criticize the Race Directors! They don’t like this any more than we do!!! Stay healthy & keep training. I am 80 & now Walking instead of running! (At least MOST of the races-Especially the Marathon!) Richard Ochoa Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

  3. I ran the Ottawa Half for the first time last year with one of my best friends. Loved it – it is an incredible event in a great city. Was planning to run again this year but the planet has been turned upside down. I totally support this decision. I will be back next year, all the way from Halifax.

    Stay safe and be kind to one another!

  4. Contingency planning is part of good management…Run Ottawa needs to fully understand that. refusal to provide refunds or cost free entries into next year’s race reflect badly on Run Ottawa as does the race director’s use of `sh-tty’ to describe his day. Very sad!

  5. I support the decision to only give a 50% discount for next year. I will do the virtual race and hopefully get another t shirt. I love this event ever since my first marathon thirty years ago. To the moaners I say make this an investment in a great community event. It’s not really a huge amount of money; less than a pair of shoes. john Wilson

  6. I fully support this decision to cancel the Race Weekend. I am an avid runner and always participate in Tamarack Race Weekend as well as the Military Run in September. I signed up at the beginning for the 1\2 Marathon and I am ok with loosing my registration, I fully understand purchases need to be made well ahead of the Race Weekend events. I am also super happy about the 50% discount on next year run weekend. Thank you for organizing and fielding negative comments, these are very much unprecedented times and I am very disappointed in peoples reactions. Again…. Thank you all race organizers for your efforts and time! Take Care! Gordon, Ottawa.

  7. All canceled concerts, plays and cultural events are cancelled and give you a choice: refund the money or give it as a donation. I would like to have a refund, because we are all getting into difficult times.

  8. Hello, I just read the negative comments and I am quite disgusted. Really, you have nothing better to do with your lives and the situation we are presently in to complain about a refund? I totally agree with Ian Fraser that it is impossible for him to give a full refund. This would have been my third year to participate – I had just moved to Ottawa in the fall of 2017. The refund is not a huge amount of money – it has paid salaries as Ian said – it provides work for people and they have already had expenses, It would be more beneficial right now to make sure that this event will have a future and be supportive of this charity,

  9. How about this keep the registration fees then for 2020, use the 2020 medals and t-shirts, I hate waste personally, but make a public accounting of costs available. And as there are cost savings due to no security, police etc, perhaps there might be the possibility along with the 2020 half cost registration something else? I am not into this virtual race thing as it is of no interest to me.

  10. Ian, With 18,000 people registered, and only 733 of them signing the petition to get a refund, it clearly shows that the vast majority of runners understand your position, and stand behind you.

    Yes, it is extremely disappointing that Race Weekend will not be happening this year, but it is something we all knew was inevitable. If this minority really thinks about it, they’ll probably be up much more than their registration fee, with the races not taking place. The money normally spent in the weeks and days leading up to the event, on things like new footwear, clothing, food, hydration and energy products, just to name a few, will no longer be required this year. We all know how much those things can add up to!

    Society can’t lose sight of the fact that we are in the midst of a crisis like we’ve never seen before! People’s lives have been thrown into turmoil and we are facing so many unknowns We need to reach out and support each other. We need kindness & compassion to shine through. Our health, safety & sanity are the things that are important right now.

    The people who are screaming about the unfairness of not getting their money back, need to get their priorities straight….Covid-19 is what isn’t fair! People are sick! People are dying!
    Stay safe everyone, and let’s look forward to Race Weekend 2021!

  11. I volunteer the four days and I am deeply disappointed that this virus is unbelievably messing up our lives, when it’s all over and we are alive and well I would be happy to sit in the hot seat and take any questions you can throw at me until then let’s support each other any way we can!!

  12. I’m sorry to hear about all the negative comments. I would have thought people would be more understanding, especially given the business models that non-profits work with. The Race Weekend folks have done a wonderful job over the years with their small team and large family of volunteers.

  13. As a Race Director and past entrant I totally understand your position. Good for you for explaining the situation. You made the right (but tough) decision. Best of luck going forward.

  14. All the best Ian, stay strong and thank you for everything you are doing. Thanks to Mark and Ben as well. I believe, that overall, most people are incredibly upset, me as well, but at the same time completely understanding. You are our Ottawa Race Leader during this unprecedented and unpredictable time, we all must pull together so that 2021 will be awesome. This is a shitty time, but this will make 2021 all the sweeter my friends. Run your asses off and staff positive!

  15. I would like to add my voice to the comments thus far…I totally appreciate the difficult decision that was made in cancelling this years Ottawa Race Weekend. Would I have loved to receive my full refund back – of course I would have but I totally understand the rationale why this just isn’t possible. I will definitely participate in the “Virtual Run” and I will gladly sign up for next years event at 50% off. Thank you Ian for all the work and hours that you and your advisory committee have already logged in, not to mention I’m sure many a “sleepless” night.

  16. I support this decision to cancel it. I think we can all add this unforeseen consequence of this crazy time to the long list of other cancelled events and strange work-social-life circumstances we are all going through. The health of every single runner and the hundreds of people who come out to support and volunteer at this event, is more important than that one day. It would be a tragedy if the event folded for good because of this- the whole city comes out and supports this event. The run will be back in force in 2021 I am sure.

  17. Pease pass on to Ian that I for one fully support and understand the difficult decision that had to be made. Reading the unreasonable comments since the announcement has made my blood boil. Where do these people expect the refunds to come from!!! Out of the pockets of the few paid staff and the dozens and dozens of wonderful volunteers. Get real people!!!

  18. Will you be sending out tshirts and medals to runners who registered seeing you have already paid for them?

  19. I applaud Ottawa Race Weekend for cancelling the race. This is the responsible thing to do. To those that are so negative, there are few races that are offering a virtual option. Go out, do your race and you still get your shirt and medal. Thank you to the organizers for looking after the well being of all the runners, volunteers and healthcare workers in the community. For those naysayers, take a look around you. Be thankful that all efforts are being made to help stop the spread of COVID-19. There are more important things in the world than missing a race. I hope you come to the beautiful city of Ottawa next year.

  20. Good article. I have lost money on ATB and Ottawa marathon as well as Subaru triathlon series but nothing confirmed on that one yet. It’s the correct decision. People need to understand this is serious stuff going on in the world. I’m betting all races are a go for next year. While I’m disappointed I certainly don’t have the responsibility race promoters have. Chin up guys. People will always bitch and complain. But just as many or more will be appreciating the gutsy call and will look forward to the next race whenever it may be. I know I will be . My concern is virtual racing. I dont own a watch or Garmin or anything to log the distance or time. Hopefully something can be done for the non tech runners to get a shirt or bling bling .

    Ron McCaillancourt

  21. The people who complain about losing their registration fee haven’t thought everything through…the race director is at the sharp end, and has all the financial and logistical information in front of him that these people do not. And the person who criticized the concept of a virtual run is just idiotic: I have been out running nearly every day this past month, and I have had ABSOLUTELY no trouble staying physically apart from others! If you are worried about that, my advice is: go adopt a dog and run with it…that will provide you with more of a ‘barrier’, and it also might just get rid of your sour and whiny attitude!

  22. As a life time runner who has ran in more races and events than I care to count in my 40+ years of running I cannot remember any race ever being cancelled. I usually register as early as I can to take advantage of reduced entry fees and help the organizers determine how many potential runners might be attending the event. Most of the time I attend all the events I am registered for but sometimes life or an injury gets in the way and I have to miss the occasional one or two and I would never expect a refund it is just the gamble I take for early registration.

    As for the Ottawa Marathon Weekend it would have been foolish to think it would have gone ahead given the current Pandemic and I for one prefer to see it just cancelled rather than postponed.
    There are only so many weekends in our short outdoor season when these events can safely be held and not every race can be pushed into the Fall with the hope of it going ahead and or participants having the time or money to re-schedule their lives.

    I always enjoy the race events whether they are local or out of town and my wife and I have more fun when we attend events that require a weekend stay.

    So to all the Race Organizers keep up the good work, keep running and putting on these events.

    My wife and I are registered again this year for the Army Run late September and are really hoping the health crisis is over, because that is the only way we will make the weekend trip to Ottawa.

    Stay Safe and Healthy

  23. This is not a time to complain about such a petty issue as losing one’s registration fee. I’ve run Ottawa three times and every time it was worth three times (at least) what I paid for it. If people can’t withstand a small sunk cost for their registration, they’re in financial trouble in a lot more ways than just this. Let’s support the Ottawa marathon to live on, past the virus times, into a future when people who live through the virus can be truly thankful to have the good health and physical capability to participate in such a celebratory event and truly appreciative to the volunteers who make it one of Canada’s greatest marathons.

  24. What race directors fail to understand and recognize is that they have a legal obligation to return race fees if the race is cancelled for reasons beyond anyones control. Its covered under the “frustrated contracts act”, and cannot be waved with a disclaimer. Its too bad they did not take out proper force major insurance but if you drive without insurance who’s fault is it if you hit someone and loose your life savings and family home? So much pressure is put on athletes to be perfect and “race legal”, one mistake costing a career why is the same onus not put on race organizers. Seems like an unlevel playing field.

    Anyone who has lost race fees, I suggest you study the frustrated contracts act, and file in small claims, races that failed to properly insure do not deserve to continue, and should be used as an example to whatever replaces them in the future. Racing will go on even if they do not.

  25. All 4 in our family signed up for various race, 2 for myself! Sure, we are disappointed about the cancellation of the race and the no refund policy. But we definitely understand the reason behind the decision and support you! Thanks for making this tough decision during this hard time. But it is good for our community in the long run!! Thank you!

  26. We can be part of the running community, but how a race director can encourage people to run a virtual race to compensate a proper race? It is a lack of responsibility to push people to keep running a marathon by themselves without any support. Can you explain me how people can run safely outdoor for 42k even 21k alone? Some of running newbies will face the challenge with the high risk of getting a heart attack or some other troubles. I can understand many points about the investment of a race, but instead of taking a unilateral decision, some race directors could maybe ask to communities if they really care about tee-shirts/medals. For my part, I wouldn’t care about getting 2020 goodies in 2021 if it can avoid expenses for the organisation. This said, marathon of Paris and half-marathon have postponed their races…how the #1 race in Canada can’t postponed it? And let’s say, half-marathon of Paris had 15hrs to deal with 22k runners last minute cancellations. How many weeks Ottawa marathon organizers have?

    How many organizations have the opportunity to postpone one of their events and limit the cost of loss? Of course, we won’t have Eliud Kipchoge at the starting line and maybe some elites won’t be their but who cares, 2020 could be the first time ever with an amateur as winner of the marathon…by the way, you can drop the prize list as well! How many people pay their registration without any expectations of winning a race prize.

    Anyway, refunding or cancelling shouldn’t be the only options!

    All the best to most of runners in this situation!

  27. I really feel for the organizer. To be stopped mid event plan. Perhaps part of the money being sent to charities and non-profits due to COVID distress could be used to reimburse registrants for cancelled things. Not just this race but trainings planned, conferences etc. That way you can reimburse with federal $ and not alienate anybody. Gov’t gets this money back because charitable receipts will not be claimed next year by registrants.

  28. To Ian and the entire Run Ottawa team: You have made the right decisions about the race and about refunds. Your timing was well-considered, and your responses to criticism have shown the grace and restraint that we all need now to get through this thing. As a runner who has been part of this race since Day One in 1975, I know how much the event means to the city and to the community. We all value this event, which has grown beyond anyone’s wildest vision in 1975. We love this race. We want it to endure for another 45 years. When the critics get over their disappointment they will understand that bankrupting Ottawa Race Weekend would leave so many other losses in its wake. Stay strong and stay safe.

    Here’s a side note: ORW supports local charities and local businesses. These groups will suffer more than the runners complaining about their entry fee. Please post a note about where people can donate to help them. I want to contribute, and so will others. Thank you for all that you do.

  29. From a first time commenter.
    I am a 71 year old runner who began running at age 50. I have run 100’s of races which have included a dozen marathons, countless 1/2’s, 10K, tri’s & du’s. Wherever we travel I try to find a local 1/2. It is always nice to chat with runners from different areas.
    I really enjoy running! I have run in groups but prefer to run alone. I am proud to be a runner and enjoy organized races.
    I am VERY disappointed with the 100’s of runners who are lobbying for a refund. Perhaps they do not realize the enormity of cost and preparation. Also maybe they skip the ‘no refund’ print. 😁
    Offering 50% off next year’s race for currently registered participants is excellent.

    PS I wonder if race directors in other cities received less complaints.

  30. To all the complainers!! Get a life! I totally agree with the no refund decision! I would think this is the only way to keep the Ottawa Race Weekend going in the future. I’m sure the decision was not an easy one.
    Take it on a positive note: you will get a 50% discount next year!!!
    See you all next year at the start line 😁😁

  31. Thank you Ben Kaplan for your point of view. I totally understand that the organization had to take their time before taking their final decision and I personally don’t think that they took a long time. Even 3 weeks ago, nobody thought we were going to be in this situation and things are changing quickly on a daily basis. Also, I don’t want to point fingers at anybody but before we throw stones at anybody and anything, we have to consider their point of view and I don’t think that the organization is happier than us about cancelling this big event.

    I just want to applaud your team for all the effort you put in every year for more than 30 years and for taking this decision that they took to protect everybody. The main priority for the Tamarack race week-end is that we can run all together safely and obviously, it was not safe for us neither for them. So thank you very much for all your implication. Let’s continue to run (on our own :)) for our own mental and physical health and I personally will continue to support the Tamarack Race Week-End, which is one of my personal best race. Thank you Tamarack Race!

  32. What about federal help plan for non profit organisations? What about insurance? Don’t you have any insurance? My mental health is very fine thank you. Please think again. My crédit card will wait for your positive response. Runners cannot save all the races.

  33. Ian Don’t let any complainers get to you – as we learned in grade 9 Latin class “non illegitimus carborundum”. You know I’ve been running in the Ottawa community for lots of years and I am truly disappointed in reactions of some runners.
    Take care Jimmy

  34. Ian…I’m a co-race director on the east coast of a 2-day multi distances race weekend and read your article with interest and some of the questions asked of you by participants and some of your answers were exactly the same issues, costs, etc we also faced and really struggled with the tough decisions on what to do and what we we able to provide our participants so we did the best we could because, like Ottawa Race Weekend, we would like to be around for many more years to come so financially giving a full refund also wasn’t an option. All we can do is explain our actions, hope the bulk of participants understand our positions and move forward recognizing that some of the angry participants won’t be back for a few years or maybe never again but we must move forward and put this behind us and look to 2021 and beyond.

  35. This article is biased and kind of paid advertisement. The Ottawa Marathon is an advertiser in iRun and iRun’s founder, Mark Sutcliffe, sits on the race’s board. (The race also uses Sportstats for timing, and that’s iRun’s parent company). Sad to see they are acting like trolls to manipulate the public opinion against this unfair seizing of registration fees. If iRun was truly an objective magazine, they would have asked the organizing committee to be transparent and open their books to public. Since this was not done, nor even mentioned in the article, should we assume that there is too much corruption and it’s safer to hide it?

  36. I LOVE Ottawa Race weekend, and am glad that the decision was made to cancel the event in light of the virus. The decision to cancel will not prevent me from registering in the future. However, let’s not call what is being offered instead a “free” virtual race. As a registrant of the full marathon, it’s actually a $100+ virtual race that comes out of my pocket. Hoping that racers will still get everything they would have received if it was an in-person event, at minimum.

  37. Thanks to Ian and the Ottawa Race Weekend team for the transparency around your decision-making, and for making a tough call in really tough times. We all share in the disappointment; however, I think it is important to invest in the future of this wonderful event, which benefits our community – and me as an individual – in so many ways. Looking forward to being on the start line in May 2021!

  38. The decision to cancel the race is obviously the right one, no one argues about that. I also understand all the expenses already spent in preparation of the race. There are two things that bug me: first, I had a prep race 3 weeks before, obviously cancelled. No refunds, but all registrations moved to next year. I hear too that Boston is moved to September and offering full refunds.

    Second, this virtual race seems improvised and just a way to get rid of these tees and medals.

    I have other races booked this year that may be cancelled, I’m eager to see how they will be handled. If Ottawa is the only one that came up with that decision, I’ll conclude they picked the lazy way out when others worked their butts off and found a way.

  39. I’m going to give you an example of what Rideau lakes did for their registrants when they cancelled their Bike race. They gave options to their registrants and didn’t try to shove down a virtual option.

    Due to sound financial management in previous years, the Ottawa Bicycle Club is in a position to make an exception to its long-standing no-refund policy. Registrants for the 2020 RLCT will be offered three options:

    1 defer to the 2021 RLCT at no extra expense to themselves
    2 a refund of 90% of their 2020 RLCT payment, or
    3 the option to simply donate the 2020 RLCT payment to the OBC in support of the club, to help with our large COVID deficit

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