Tens of thousands of runners herded into corrals, packed shoulder-to-shoulder. Nervous energy and excitement filling the air. And then the “pop” of the gun, signaling that the race has begun, and wave after wave of runners breaking across the starting line.
This is the scene at the start of the world’s largest marathons, which in some cases have upwards of 40,000 participants. These races are big-ticket events that attract runners from around the globe along with their families and fans, while generating hundreds of millions of dollars for their host cities. But in the face of the coronavirus, the fate of road racing — like so many other sports — remains uncertain.
As running has grown in popularity, local clubs have popped up around the country, and there are now roughly 35,000 races each year in the U.S. alone, data from industry trade group Running USA shows. More than 44 million people in the U.S. identify as a runner, and 17.6 million people crossed the finish line in U.S. races in 2019.
With all races cancelled for the time being, billions of dollars are at stake. The biggest marathons – from Boston to Chicago to London to Tokyo – inject hundreds of millions of dollars into local economies. The most recent analysis of the TCS New York City Marathon, for example, found that the race’s economic impact topped $400 million.
These marathons are the largest in the world and attract international runners, but most race organizers in the U.S. are small businesses that depend on registration fees for as much as 95% of their revenue. And with no clear timeframe for when road racing will again be permitted, thousands of jobs are on the line. The effects will be compounded throughout the race ecosystem — timers, t-shirt makers, medal engravers, and, of course, the hotels and restaurants that the athletes and their fans patronize.
With runners sidelined, organizations like Ironman and New York Road Runners are offering virtual races as the industry grapples with what events could look like as the pandemic rages on. Some are hopeful that precautionary measures, such as fewer participants and staggered start times, might make races — especially shorter 5Ks — possible, while others say large-scale races are unlikely until there’s a vaccine.
“I don’t know the overall impact … but it’s pretty devastating to our sport for sure,” said Bart Yasso, former chief running officer for Runner’s World, and one of the few people to have run a marathon on all seven continents. “A lot of these event companies are going to really be hurt by this, and some of these smaller races just aren’t going to survive.”
Races of the future
Looking towards the future, it’s not only the sheer size of these races, of course, that poses a health risk, but the physical activity itself. Among other things, heavy and fast breathing out of one’s mouth means that virus-transmitting droplets can travel further than just six feet according to Dr. Cordelia Carter, an orthopedic surgeon and director of the Center for Women’s Sports Health at NYU Langone.
A lot depends, of course, on the trajectory of the virus over the next few months. While cities have the final say over whether or not events can take place, racing companies are already mapping out what the future might look like.
Ironman Group CEO Andrew Messick said the company is focusing on five broad elements:
- Density reduction, such as fewer race participants
- Minimizing touch points with athletes throughout the race
- Education and training to make sure people understand best practices
- Promoting self-reliance, such as having athletes carry their own nutrition
- Increasing pre-race screening
“What we’re going to continue to do, is to work very closely with our communities … when they’re ready for us to come back, our goal is to be able to deliver an event that’s going to fit within whatever parameters they decide is appropriate for their community,” Messick said. Ironman Group is the largest organizer of mass sporting events in the world, with more than 235 races — including the popular Rock ‘n’ Roll series — across 55 countries.
Dr. Brett Toresdahl, a primary sports medicine physician at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, said that other precautions could include taking participants’ temperatures when they enter corrals — where runners are grouped at the starting line — and limiting the size of the corrals from hundreds or thousands of people to just dozens. Toresdahl, who is a team physician for US Biathlon and Rugby United New York, added that the nature of the virus itself makes it especially challenging due to the number of asymptomatic cases.
On Thursday, New York Road Runners said that it had cancelled all races through August 15, but that the TCS New York City Marathon – the largest in the world – is still scheduled for November 1. NYRR president and CEO Michael Capiraso said that the organization is modelling ways to minimize contact throughout the race — such as at water stations — and that a lot will be learned in the coming months as smaller races take place.
“Between now and the marathon there’s a lot of time to explore with smaller races and smaller events and see what else is happening out there,” he said. “Lots of people are sharing things across the industry because everyone is very eager to get back.”
Road racing has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry, and the world’s largest marathons have a significant economic impact on cities across the globe.
The 2018 Bank of America Chicago Marathon brought in $378 million for the city, while the most recent analysis of the NYC marathon in 2014 showed that it generated $415 million for New York. The 2019 Boston Marathon injected in excess of $200 million into the local economy, and the most recent study of the Virgin Money London Marathon in 2015 showed an economic benefit of £128 million, or about $155.8 million.
These highly popular events will continue to attract participants for years to come, but smaller races might not fare as well. Running USA CEO Rich Harshbarger noted that the majority of race organizers in the country are small businesses that employ an average of eight people, with between 40% and 95% of annual revenue coming in from race fees. In addition to full-time employees, companies typically partner with contractors for each event.
“Everybody that’s in the race business relies on dozens, if not hundreds, of small companies that are largely owner-operated,” Ironman’s Messick said.
As race cancellations build, Harshbarger said the industry is “suffering tremendously” and that, since it has no league or players association, it’s sometimes overlooked. For this reason over 500 endurance event operators across the country — including Ironman and Running USA — banded together in April to launch the Endurance Sports Coalition, which is seeking longer-term funding for event operators. Virtually every business is feeling the impacts of the virus, but unlike restaurants, for instance, that can pivot to take-out and delivery options, race providers only have one revenue stream.
“Without specifically targeted help from the federal government, endurance sports may not survive the COVID-19 pandemic,” the organization’s website says. “Many events with long and proud histories do not have the resources to weather this storm and will not be able to ramp up again next year.”
What happens next?
With races cancelled, organizations are seeking to stay connected with athletes by taking the course virtual. Athletes run the race distance on their own during a set time period, and then simply upload their results.
New York Road Runner’s virtual Brooklyn half marathon in May had more than 10,000 participants. Nearly 40,000 people have registered to compete in the first three Rock ‘n’ Roll virtual races, while 125,000 athletes have signed up for the first six Ironman virtual races.
The number of people registering for races in the last few years has declined slightly as alternative forms of exercise like Pilates and CrossFit have grown in popularity. But some are hopeful that, with fitness studios closed, there’ll be a boom in running.
Yasso, who’s been running for more than four decades and has over 1,000 races under his belt, said he’s noticed lots of new runners around his home in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. They’re easy to spot, he said, due to their attire and shoes.
“What I see is more runners coming into the sport. Probably could be the biggest influx of runners we’ve ever had because during this quarantine people had so much free time,” he said. He thinks there could be a return to shorter and smaller racing, but that the fate of larger-scale events is uncertain.
“I don’t think anyone knows, but my gut feel is you’re not going to have 50,000 people on Staten Island [the start of the New York City marathon] until there’s a vaccine,” he said.