In this time of coronavirus when so much of normal life has been disrupted and locked down, running has once again been touted as a healthy habit to engage in, not just physically, but emotionally and psychologically, as well. And yet the great irony is that coming together by the hundreds and thousands to run in road races is considered a dangerous catalyst to the spread of the virus. And so as race cancellations increase and the calendar ahead is denuded of our annual mass gatherings, Running USA CEO Rich Harshbarger acknowledged the industry is “suffering tremendously” and that, since it has no league or players association, it is sometimes overlooked.
While there has always been something of a prideful outsider’s mentality to the sport of running, being overlooked as an industry is an altogether different matter. So in April 2020, over 500 endurance event operators across the country — including Ironman and Running USA — banded together to launch the Endurance Sports Coalition, which sought longer-term funding for event operators.
“Without specifically targeted help from the federal government,” said the Endurance Sports Coalition, “the endurance sports may not survive the COVID-19 pandemic. 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.”
That’s the sound of strident individuality falling in the face of the existential threat brought about by the Coronavirus.
Long the backbone of the running industry, the individual event summoning thousands of individual runners is now finding that flinty independence has a cutting edge. It has been the sports’ resolute refusal to aggregate its numbers to form anything beyond the individual race, that now threatens the viability of many long-standing events.
This lack of a wider view was first made apparent when Nike pulled out sponsorship of the Cascade Run-Off in Portland, Oregon, a classic 15K event that hosted the first open prize money road race on the fledgling Association of Road Race Athletes (ARRA) tour in 1981. When Nike pulled out a few years later and local organizers couldn’t find an immediate sponsor replacement, rather than seeing financial support coming from the broader road race community to bridge the gap until a new sponsor could be found, the event just died, taking with it a seminal milestone in the history of the sport. There was no sense that ‘we are all in this together”; it was every event for itself.
True, there have been some examples of multiple-race series over the years, most notably the 154-event Diet Pepsi 10K Series in the late Seventies, early Eighties. And Dr. Scholl’s staged their Pro Comfort 10K series for a few years in the mid-`80s. Elite Racing, Inc. founded the Rock ‘n’ Roll-themed series of marathons and half-marathons in 1998 and literally changed the game. Competitor Group and now Ironman continued to develop the participation aspect of the RnR Series while largely eliminating the pro racing division. On that front, the Abbott World Marathon Majors branded six of the world’s preeminent marathons. But in recent cycles, there has been a shift in public recognition from tour champions to Six-Star Finishers – due in part to the negative publicity of drug cheaters taking the series titles before having to give them up upon being caught.
But throughout its first four-plus decades, the running industry has primarily developed via an individual event, individual runner orientation. And that orientation was sufficient to grow the events even if it didn’t do the same for the sport at the leading edge of the events. Yes, the elite sporting element has maintained a presence, but largely it has been managed more than promoted.
44 million runners? 35,000 races? 17.6 million racers? These are striking numbers reflecting a robust industry (though the number of racers has slowly been eroding for the last half-decade). But when every one of those numbers is constituted as a universe of one, they don’t add up to anything more than an academic data point. And now in the face of Coronavirus, road running’s mass gatherings are seen as Petri dishes of viral concern. But because the industry never successfully formed a league or developed a players association to create a larger force, it finds itself particularly vulnerable, exposing the weakness of the sport’s atomic event sensibility to help bridge a time of crisis.
Runners were once ridiculed (“It’s spring and the saps are running” was a Boston favorite). Then the sport found broad acceptance through the original Running Boom. Still, I am reminded of those early years when you would go to meetings at City Halls looking for street closing permits and the like. And often race directors would tell city officials, “we will start very early and stay off main roads. Nobody will know we are there.” And I always wondered, is “nobody knows we’re there” a proper goal? Former Houston Marathon director David Hannah had a famous line about that mentality, “A long time ago running made an unconscious decision to be a closely held secret.”
It makes you wonder whether events, athletes, and agents are paying close attention to the current crisis. Have they figured it out yet? Fish have. Birds have. Wildebeests have. Ants have. And finally, an endurance events coalition has, too. There are safety and power and insurance in numbers. If this Coronavirus crisis doesn’t set this sport up for some sort of unified effort going forward, you just wonder whatever will?