Marathons

The Challenges Marathon Organizers Are Facing with Coronavirus – Decisions Could Impact Their Future with Runners

Written by Charlie

The coronavirus has introduced challenges for marathon organizers like never before. How they handle it will determine runner loyalty for years to come.

While many conferences, trade shows, meetings, sporting events and more have been disrupted due to the Coronavirus, marathons are probably one of the most unusual events of the bunch. How marathon organizers handle these disruptions will likely have a long term affect on how runners will feel about specific marathon events.

The Challenges Marathon Organizers Are Facing

Let’s address the first point I made – that the marathons are one of the most unusual events to handle for changes or cancellations. The reasons they are like that is due to things like this:

  • Participants are attending from all over the world
  • The event covers 26.2 miles of a city
  • Thousands of volunteers are touching cups and food that will end up touching the runner’s mouth
  • Porta-potties are placed throughout the city and being used by runners who are breathing heavily in a close/confined space

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Those are just the logistical angles. But, how about the running angle? Unlike pretty much every other event that has been cancelled, a marathon is an event that most runners have been training for for at least 12 weeks and some up to 18 or 20 weeks. This means that a massive amount of time, energy, and training effort has gone into a single even that will last anywhere from 2 hours to 7 hours.

Along with that, does a marathon cancel or postpone? Postponing is tough because the race covers so much ground that needs to be closed in the city. It is also tough because it may conflict with other major marathons and no one wants to move it to the summer! Plus, they will still frustrate many out-of-towners who won’t make it for a postponement.

Taper Time and Running Schedules

For that reason, many marathoners that are registered for these events are showing some frustration with events like the Rome Marathon that had not issued an update in over a week (they finally issued one this morning to announce the cancellation).

For marathoners, the 2-3 weeks before the race means taper time. This is when they will step down the miles they are running per week in an effort to continue honing their performance while allowing muscles time to repair. It is a very important time and one that is part of the runner’s strategy to go into the marathon in peak condition.

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The longer a marathon holds off announcing a cancellation means the greater chance that the runners are going to have to go into taper mode for an event that may not happen. If they know before that taper time, they can keep the schedule going on longer as they search for a different race.

Travel Logistics

In addition to the running aspect, these major marathons also have people traveling from all over the world to their events. It is important for those traveling to know if they are actually going to have an event to travel to – before it does not become possible to cancel or change their trip, if needed.

I have been hearing from many runners that just want a marathon to announce something one way or another because they need to know whether they will travel or not. Some hotels allow for cancellations up to 48 hours before and there is no way a major marathon should be waiting until that close to cancel a race.

Refunds

All marathons have the language that says that marathon fees are non-refundable. In the past, we mostly look at that as if we do not show up but now people are finding out that this means even if the event cancels.

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We are not used to major marathon events cancelling and this is a double-whammy since it is these events that charge the most for the race. Spending over $100 or even $200 for such entry fees is the norm. And when the marathons cancel, that amount is not refunded.

Probably the event that handled this the absolute best so far was the Seoul Marathon. Not only did they let people apply for refunds before the cancellation of the event, but they even said that the refunds would happen automatically after they cancelled. Judging by the amount of comments I have seen, that bought a lot of runners’ loyalty to this event for future marathons.

Others have just tersely cited the non-refundable part of the application instead of trying to explain why they won’t be able to offer refunds now or when/if the marathon cancels.

What Marathon Organizers Should Do to Keep Loyal Runners

While most marathons are being organized as labors of love by avid runners, the big marathons are operated by companies or the marathon organization itself has paid staff. For these types of marathons, they may be trying to make business decisions but totally forgetting what they are doing to their “customers” – the runners.

Be More Communicative

I understand that many of these events are controlled by/waiting for the municipal governments for the green light – or the red light. However, that does not stop the organizers from being more communicative with the tens of thousands of runners who have decided to run that event.

Jerusalem promptly put this on their homepage following the decision by Israel regarding events.

Organizers need to take to social media and/or send mass e-mails to the registered runners to let them know that they are doing something – even if it is waiting on the municipal leaders. Just say something.

I think the Rome marathon had been the most negligent in this department (I cannot say for sure about the e-mail part since I have not registered for it) as they have not only not been saying anything on social media about all of this but they were even still encouraging people to register for an event that the organizers know full well could be cancelled.

Let your customers know that you are there and are aware of our concerns.

Be Prepared to Offer Something

We know that this is out of your hands – this is totally not something that any of us even thought about 6 months ago. But, you have taken our registration fee and if you cancel, you are not legally bound to give that back to us. We know that but it is still a hard pill to swallow.

However, this should not stop marathon organizers from doing something for registered runners if the race is cancelled. Maybe it is an e-mail that a special code will be sent out to give some discount on next year’s race. Or, maybe it is an offer for buy-one-get-one registration for the next year to encourage those registered runners to bring a friend. The Rome Marathon made the kind gesture of allowing the registration fee to carry over until 2021.

It could also be something like sending the swag bag to the runners. I mean, we already paid for whatever we would get on marathon day and at the expo so that belongs to us. Even if you ask for postage, just make the offer to send our package to us.

I know this is somewhat controversial but let’s go with it! Marathons that take place this month have already ordered marathon finisher medals. They are designed for this year and really are of no use after this year. Yes, it is a “finisher” medal but maybe organizers should offer to send this to registrants as well? This isn’t like people are getting the medal for staying home while others finished – no one will be getting that medal as an actual finisher this year.

That means that it could be like a nice little thing to have to at least acknowledge the training that went into the event that never was. Again, no one will be running it so it is not like we are getting something to “trick” people that we finished!

Make a plan of what you can do to offer something to your customers to demonstrate goodwill.

Bottom Line

This year’s coronavirus has impacted marathons like nothing ever before this. It has already cancelled a multitude of marathons on different continents and will likely cause more to be cancelled.

How the marathon organizers handle these challenges will mean a lot about whether runners choose those marathon events in 2021 and beyond. So far, I am seeing many marathons that are failing their customers, the runners. This is very sad to see as we sign-up for these marathons because we want to experience the city and the marathon. We will likely still experience the city but a bad experience with the marathon now may mean we never choose to experience the marathon itself.

I can tell you this – I have seen nothing but absolutely love and positivity for the Seoul Marathon after their cancellation (and even leading up to it). Maybe organizers should read through what the Seoul Marathon organizers did?

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About the author

Charlie

Charlie has been an avid traveler and runner for many years. He has run in marathons around the world for less than it would cost to travel to the next town - all as a result of collecting and using miles and points. Over the years, he has flown hundreds of thousands of miles and collected millions of miles and points.
Now he uses this experience and knowledge to help others through Running with Miles.

4 Comments

  • For Boston specifically, we have to consider what they do about qualification too – if they cancel the race, will they require new qualifiers for next year’s race? I qualified for the 2020 race way back in October 2018. If it is canceled, it would be tough to find another spring race to run another qualifier

    • Excellent point. My guess is that Boston would opt to postpone before they would cancel, based simply on the fact that the organizers absolutely do not want to have to cancel Boston! Postponing would also help to avoid dealing with the nightmare of qualifications for a cancelled race.

  • Back in 2012, NYC marathon was canceled two days before the race (due to Hurricane Sandy aftermath.) So many people, including me, were disappointed but the race organizers offered a refund which was nice. I always thought all these big marathons had insurance in case they have to cancel the event but I’m guessing coronavirus/pandemic may not count?

    • Right, from what I am understanding, it is the way that the WHO and others have designated this virus which has allowed insurance companies to not have to cover. I think that is why these marathons (Jerusalem, Paris, and likely others) are postponing rather than cancelling so they don’t have to deal with refund requests.
      I saw that Milan had originally offered a €10 add-on that was insurance if the runner would not compete. I think that would be something good for all races to offer.

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