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A Running Resurgence is on but Large Events May Be on Hold for Now

4 Jun, 2020

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

With gyms closed, it’s no surprise that more people are lacing up their running shoes, pumping air into their bicycle tires and hitting the roads and trails. But will that translate into more participation in local 5Ks and gran fondos when sports events are able to resume? At least one survey shows there may be some hesitation.

Road Runners Club of America questioned runners to find out how comfortable they are with returning to commercial races (or even starting to participate in them if they didn’t before) as states continue to reopen.

As of right now, it looks like people aren’t ready. Running Insight, which carried a synopsis of the findings, noted that only 20 percent of respondents were comfortable participating in events with 20 or more other runners.

And that means the big 5Ks, not to mentions large races of longer distances, like marathons and half marathons, may have to wait.

“Smaller groups seem to be more acceptable – with 60 percent saying they are comfortable running with five or fewer people once a return to larger group running is permitted,” the article noted. “That drops to slightly over half – 51 percent to be exact – that say they are comfortable with 10 or fewer runners.”

Additionally, approximately 53 percent of respondents noted they would participate in events for the remainder of 2020 – if public health officials allowed them to take place. While that leaves 47 percent of runners unsure (23 percent) or not willing to run in events for the remainder 2020, 90 percent noted that they planned to participate in events in 2021 and beyond. Less than one percent of respondents said they had completely ruled out taking part in running events in 2021 and beyond.

And the definition of a large event seemed to be universal for runners. A total of 53 percent of respondents say they would be comfortable registering for an event with a total attendance of 500 or below. Events over 1,000 participants have a smaller acceptance race, with just 34 people saying they’d be comfortable attending.

When events do start up again, their operations will be just as important as their numbers, according to runners. The survey showed that for most runners, event sanitation policies, were paramount. Policies including management of water stops and aid stations were the primary concern. (The presence of an expo, an add-on that traditionally helps event directors boost the bottom line of an event, was seen as a low priority among runners).

“It is clear,” noted RRCA, “that resources devoted to providing a clean and safe event will be more important to runner participation than pre-and post-race food or music.”

Another aspect of the survey was the ability for respondents to make comments, and nearly 1,500 separate comments were given. RRCA notes:

  • While these types of commentary can be a bit of a challenge to synthesize within a survey, we found, overwhelmingly, the comments focused on masks, with a significant consensus that people are not willing to register for a race if a mask is required. This sentiment is reflected in several of the open comment options throughout the survey. In turn, a mask would do little to ease the concerns of the smaller percentage that is wary of running in an event before a vaccine. Based on comments (using word tagging for estimation purposes) we estimate less than 1% of the 1500 commenters don’t feel comfortable running in a group until there is a vaccine.
  • Consistently, those who said they would not participate if a mask was required indicated a willingness to sacrifice other amenities. Through the comments, we see that things like an expo/packet pick-up, finisher medals on-site, and finish-line festivals are not what runners are most concerned about with the return of events. While sponsors may not love this, investment in hand sanitizer may present a sponsor opportunity.
  • As event organizers and local permitting agencies weigh issues, crafting guidelines/race rules about responsible use of masks at an event will be important. Clearly the medical community will need to weigh in as local organizers plan new policies. If allowed by the permitting agencies/health departments, allowing participants to make their own choice about mask wearing may be the most sensible course of action. However, voluntary mask wearing by participants may not sit well with everyone, especially those that will not be comfortable running in an event if someone next to them isn’t wearing a mask. Just like headphones, it will be an ongoing issue for event directors to manage.

RRCA made a number of recommendations, some of which might be harder to implement than others. For example, runners were cautioned, “Avoid group selfies on social media for the next month if your reduced restrictions allow for gatherings of 10 or more. It will help maintain/improve the nationwide example of runners being responsible community leaders if we continue to promote physical distancing.”

Event owners can find other resources, such as “Looking Forward: Guidelines for Races,” which details adaptive strategies for putting on events, starting with event marketing and running all the way through event execution and follow-up.

RRCA’s most interesting insight: This is not a like a fire drill where everyone will get an "all-clear," "return to normal" directive. Take your time to work with local officials to understand when you will be allowed to host group runs and produce your race(s). 

The full results of the RRCA survey are available here.

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