In Support of the Race Director During Crisis

AJW's Taproom[Editor’s Note: Difficult times call for special measures. We’re running an extra edition of AJW’s Taproom this month, and on a Thursday.]

As the world continues to struggle to limit the spread of COVID-19, more and more trail races and ultramarathons are being canceled or postponed, some as far out now as June. In the midst of all of these abrupt changes, runners are understandably reacting with a mix of sadness, frustration, anger, and disbelief. Caught in the crosshairs of these highly emotional reactions are the race directors of these canceled or postponed events who, I have to believe, have agonized over these decisions each and every time. As a long-time participant in the sport with literally dozens of RDs I call friends, I ask that disappointed runners consider the following:

The porta-potty company, banquet-tent company, rental-truck company, and ice company will not provide refunds, the t-shirt maker won’t take their shirts back, the forest-service and parks people won’t give permit money back, and the Boy Scouts camp where the start/finish line takes place will most certainly keep their money whether the place is used or not. To put it bluntly, if your race is canceled, whatever you do, don’t ask for a refund! The truth is, your entry fee has likely been spent already.

Next, please understand that many trail races and ultramarathons are non-profit ventures. In fact, a large number of them are ‘negative profit.’ Sure, there are a few events with larger staffs and large budgets, but even those operate on a shoestring and are the race equivalent of a family that lives paycheck to paycheck. The people I know who are trail-ultra race directors do it because they love the sport, the community, and the environment. They are not doing it to make a truck load of money and, if we want the sport to continue to thrive, we need these selfless leaders to keep fighting the good fight, even just to break even.

Furthermore, what many athletes may not realize, particularly those who are new to the sport, is that just as small businesses are facing existential crises under the current circumstances, ultrarunning events are as well. Cancellations and their accompanying financial burdens of such actions will likely spell the end of many events, forever. I think we can all agree that such circumstances would have a detrimental impact on the sport we love so much.

Finally, in the current COVID-19 pandemic circumstances in particular, remember that race directors are regular people like you and me. They likely have ‘real’ jobs, some of which may not be paying right now. They probably have loved ones who are part of the vulnerable population and they are caring for them. In fact, they may even be in the vulnerable population themselves. They may be managing kids home from school. They also, very likely, have worked huge days over the last couple weeks to try to find a way to make their events happen. In short, these folks are like the rest of us ultra types, gritty, persistent, disciplined, and focused. As a result, nobody is more upset than them that their race is canceled.

And so, my friends, before you fire off that angry email or social-media post, consider the context, the circumstances, and the purpose. And maybe, just maybe, send or post a thank-you note, maybe even handwritten, and maybe with a modest check inside to let them know they are appreciated. After all, we really are all in this together.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer Beverage of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week is not actually a beer at all. Rather, it’s orange juice–with the pulp. I don’t know about the rest of you but, with the possible exception of ginger ale and maybe chicken soup, nothing says comfort and recovery like orange juice.  As many of us shelter in place and hunker down, let’s do so with a nice cold glass of liquid sunshine. Orange juice!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you have a race director you’d like to thank or commend for their effort amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanied race cancellations? Leave a comment!
  • Are you a race director working through cancellations? Can you share what the process has been like for you?

Rainshadow Running RD James Varner (left) and Extreme Ultrarunning RD David Horton. Photo courtesy of David Horton.

Algonquin Ultras RD Trent Swanson (left). Photo courtesy of Taylor Maltz.

Trans Atlas Marathon and Ultra Trail Morocco Eco Sahara RD Mohamad Ahansal. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

Western States 100 RD Craig Thornley. Photo: Derrick Lytle

Run It Fast RD Joshua Holmes (left). Photo courtesy of Marylou Corino.

Golden Gate Dirty 30 and Silverton Ultra Dirty RD Megan Finnesy (left). Photo: Kelly Bailey Newlon

The Aravaipa Running family. Photo courtesy of Jamil Coury.

The Mad Moose Events family. Photo courtesy of Mad Moose Events.

Centurion Running RD James Elson (right). Photo courtesy of Marissa Harris.

Madeira Island Ultra-Trail RD Sidónio Freitas (right). Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

Run the Red and Sinks Canyon Rough and Tumble RD Gabe Joyes (right). Photo: Greg Mionske

Hardrock 100 RD Dale Garland. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

High Lonesome 100 Mile RD Caleb Efta (left). Photo: Kristin Zosel

Buffalo Run Adventures RD Jim Skaggs (center). Photo courtesy of Jim Skaggs.

Miwok 100k RD Tia Bodington. Photo courtesy of Tia Bodington.

There are 23 comments

  1. STage

    Man our sport lacks diversity. I applaud the last race I ran before the shutdown, the RD basically ignored the state emergency of groups larger than 250 people and ran it anyway, anticipating everything would soon be shut down so he gave us all the opportunity to race one last time, although, now in retrospect, it was quite irresponsible and foolish, but heck runners were able to get their distances in!

  2. DJ

    Totally agree AJW. Thank you for this.

    Just a quick thought: those T-shirts that have been printed already. There should be no reason not to just use them for the next race, regardless of date / year printed on them. It’s a ridiculous waste otherwise.

    In this time of climate emergency race T-shirts should be a thing of the past anyway. See the various ‘plant a tree’ schemes instead (see Centurion running twitter etc.)

  3. Mike

    Adding locals BJ Haeck, Angela Shartel, Brian Gonzalez, Jennifer Henderson, Scott Crellin, Beto Kampos, Dan Cicchelli, and John Martinez here in SoCal. (And of course, Scott Mills.) I’m forgetting some, I know–please add their names here. They and their families & teams are amazing, wonderful human beings that work tirelessly to provide challenges to us all and I know this is incredibly difficult for them.
    I know we work hard to get ready for these events, and we emotionally commit a large part of who we are to doing them. But getting upset when circumstances out of our control change the plan is not what makes us ultrarunners. Heck, I got a wide open calendar and lots of trails for social distancing. We’re going to be ok.

  4. Lee Smith

    Thanks for this. Great write-up and photos. I think you nailed it with “contact, circumstance, and purpose”. These are people doing they best they can in a storm of variables they cannot control. A reminder to everyone about the need for compassion, empathy, and kindness is so important.
    I also think that it is all about perspective…changing thinking from “all of this is an imposition” to “all of this is an opportunity to [grow, change, introspect, reflect, focus, unfocused, whatever] is crucial.

  5. Norb Lyle

    What a great article! Thank you for posting this very important message to all runners. You are to be highly commended for thinking and writing this. I thank you again, and thank you for all you do for the ultra running community!

  6. Brian

    It’s interesting the wide range of responses from RD’s regarding how they are treating the situation. This ranges from partial refunds, entry (or discount) to a future event, virtual event where you can “earn” the gear that you paid for, and the standard no refund policy.

    I think how the RD responds and treats its clients (us runners) says a lot about their organization and if runners should continue to participate in their future events. At the minimum, RD’s should provide a way to distribute the gear that participants have paid for (even if participants have to pay for shipping). I give a lot of credit to those RD’s that are being creative to provide value to those that chose to sign up for their events.

    Personally, I’m reconsidering the need to register and pay to run events in the future, when the option is always there to just go out and run. Any distance is doable with just a bit of planning around support (aid) and transportation. Reminds me of the direction taken by Leor Pantilat, an elite runner (look at his ultra signup) who decided he didn’t need to sign up for races when he could just go out and create his own adventures. Curious if others are having the same thoughts?

    1. Peter

      Brian, I have certainly been having some of the same thoughts about whether we really need so many events, even before this unique pandemic situation.
      Somehow, it feels a bit weird with medals, t-shirts, sponsors etc when all I really want to do is run and have a big adventure, possibly with a few other people. It does help me to find motivation in training to have a race on the horizon, but maybe this is a mindset that can be changed to be just as motivated by fulfilling my own adventure, or organizing a small event with none of the fanfare of a typical race.

      This is not meant to be negative towards any RDs out there, as I love being part of this community and races undeniably help bring us together – but, it is worth considering why and if we do need so many races and how the future can look for us as individuals and a community.

    2. Meghan Hicks

      Brian and all,

      I don’t think the degree to which an RD gives refunds/provides alternate virtual runs/sends swag/goes beyond delivering according to their refund policy represents an RD’s level of respect for/desire to be generous to their entrants, in general and and in a time of crisis. Each race has a unique budget, and each RD has a totally unique situation.

      Just a couple examples:
      -Some race permits are very expensive, others are cheap.
      -Some race start/finish lines are free to rent/use, others have significant cost.
      -Some races have many aid stations which means a significant aid expense, while others have fewer and thus less.
      -Among this crisis and in general, some RDs are in a fiscal position where they can take a ding while others can’t (such as when they are employing staff and trying to take care of them as well).
      -Among this crisis, some RDs have more free time to devote to creating alternate experiences, while others may be experiencing significant personal-life changes/needs that are occupying their time (such as with lost wages in their real job or kids needing to be homeschooled/home cared).

      We all acknowledge each race’s refund policy when we sign up for a race. None of us can possibly imagine the unique behind-the-scenes situation of any RD. As long as an RD fulfills their refund policy, it seems like our community should support them.

  7. Elliot Runs

    Wholeheartedly agree, AJW, great points. In the grand scheme of things, if I can afford to pay the registration for a race, I feel that I can afford not to receive that money back if the race doesn’t happen due to factors beyond the race director’s control.

  8. nik h

    Megan & AJW,

    Classy comments and article.

    I’m one of the very many that constitute the silent (and unknown to you) majority that follow and applaud the continued quality of journalistic output, judgement and humanity that you show – while entertaining at the same time!

    Please keep true to these values.

  9. Brian

    Meghan – I don’t disagree with your points. We do each acknowledge the refund policy and I agree that we shouldn’t go around asking for refunds. However, if part of the costs are for gear (shirts, jackets, etc), shouldn’t those be offered to the participants (if they want them)? These are sunk costs and should be made available to participants, in my opinion.

    Given these uncertain times, everyone is dealing with issues. An RD is not an exception or unusual in this respect. And just like we participants accept the refund policy when we sign up for races (and the possibility they may be cancelled), any additional time or effort required by RD’s in these circumstances is part of what they sign up for when taking on the responsibility of hosting events.

    I do disagree a bit with the perspective on how each RD chooses to treat their participants. While each situation is unique, we are all in the same position regarding having events cancelled. The point is that all RD’s and race organizations are not equal (and thus have the ability to weather the storm) and this is evaluated all the time in people’s opinion of events and that doesn’t change, and perhaps gets magnified, in times like these.

    P.S. – This isn’t meant to be a negative, just part of conversation during interesting times

  10. speedgoat

    here’s a thought. Wouldn’t it be cool if some of the money spent could be rolled over for the following year. Porta-potties, FS fees, permits, shirts, awards, tent rentals….If that could all get rolled over, a refund, or at least a partial refund would be more possible. When the companies that provide these services give back too, it’s a more even keel. Whatever the hell that means. Just a random Speedgoat thought.

  11. Chasing 10K

    Awesome article. I’ve had 2 races cancelled over the past couple years and was refunded 80-90% both times. These races are acts of love by the RDs and they’re doing the best they can in very difficult situations.

  12. John Vanderpot

    Mr. AJW to the rescue, and on a Thursday, no less!

    As a general statement, generally speaking, I’d say RD’s as a group are among some of the most decent, caring, committed, concerned, big-hearted and giving people I can think of?

    And just the other day I was talking to a friend who happens to RD some of the larger events (for their distance, 100M/K) in the country, and I couldn’t believe what was coming her way!

    To vent your frustration at an RD over this strikes me as about as misguided as yelling at your kid’s teacher ’cause the school’s been closed?

    Hands are tied here, there’s finite choices, for my nickle I’m gonna stand back and try to stay quiet, hope for the best and look forward to a time when we sit around a campfire and tell the newbies about the year we all went running alone…

  13. Ben

    “And so, my friends, before you fire off that angry email or social-media post, consider the context, the circumstances, and the purpose.”

    Wise words. It would be great if everyone followed this advice, right AJW?

  14. John

    Wise, well-written words…thank you. Be kind in these challenging times. And strive to make that kindness your new normal.

  15. Joe in UT

    I disagree with a lot of what you have written.

    For example, the RD of the Antelope Island Buffalo Run in UT canceled his race and gave runners a number of options. One of them was a 30% refund? Really, 30%? Run a virtual race (without any support, etc) just so I can get a shirt and my results on ultrasignup? Again, really?

    Then he goes on in the cancellation email to tell people ‘not to feel sorry for him’ because the race is canceled – he has a real job etc, etc. I might be wrong, but I doubt he has spent 70% of all the runners fees. Just for example – The shirts and finishers mugs have no date- they can be reused next year. Aid stations are pretty minimal at this race and I’m sure no perishable items were purchased 2+ weeks out from the race.

    Sure, some people put on races because they like the community, etc, but the bottom line is that they are still BUSINESSES. When you start a business, you must assume a certain amount of risk.

    I might be a bit more sympathetic if RD’s actually posted real losses/gains due to a cancellation. I would have no problem receiving a less than full refund if I knew that the RD’s share was zero. I don’t want people to lose money, but I’m also not making a charitable donation.

    I have run many of the races that the Buffalo Run RD puts on over the past 10 years and I will no longer support him and will no longer run any of his races.

  16. Leah

    Classy article and stance from irunfar as always. I couldn’t agree more – what has been bugging me most about all the race cancellations is the effect it will have on those smaller race companies which make trail running the fun, inclusive, friendly place it is. Let’s be real here – the regulars at certain events (or RD race series) are an extended family, and I do worry that some of our quirky oddball races will be gone forever if we don’t support the RDs now.

    Something I would like to call out as a truly excellent demonstration of not just RDing but humanity, is the step taken by White Star Running (run by Andy Palmer) down in Dorset, UK. Pretty much all their spring races have been postponed or cancelled, much to the sadness of the White Star community – they have an extensive race list, the Love Station is legendary, and I defy you to meet anyone in a WS shirt at a race and not end up clutching your ribs laughing over stories from Giant’s Head, Larmer, or one of the Frolics. However, in response to the situation, they have made the full race series virtual, with medals, buffs etc up for grabs – and with the virtual race entry fees being used to support Bournemouth Food Bank, which helps struggling families in the local area. They didn’t want the medals and other stash going to waste, and their races always, ALWAYS help support a charitable cause locally, so in these trying times where people are losing their income through social distancing laws (freelancers, low paid workers on zero hours contracts), making that difference in the community at large is super important.

    From what I’ve heard, a few of the UK races are following suit, but massive kudos need to go to the WS team for leading the charge.

    Sending solidarity to the community over in the US,

  17. Jeff

    If my two “big” races are a no-go this season I have already planned out some local routes with similar mileage/elevation and I will just do those for myself. Yes, I will be disappointed and the logistics will be more difficult but I’ll get over it. :)

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