Inside Events: Rock ‘n’ Roll Running Series | Sports Destination Management

Inside Events: Rock ‘n’ Roll Running Series

An Interview with Elizabeth O’Brien, Managing Director, North America for the IRONMAN Group
Apr 21, 2021 | By: Mary Helen Sprecher

Just as the spring race season got underway, the world’s largest road running series announced its name change to the Rock ‘n’ Roll® Running Series after over 20 years as the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series. To find out how things were going, SDM had a one-on-one interview with Elizabeth O’Brien, Managing Director, North America for The IRONMAN Group. Here’s what we learned.

Sports Destination Management: How long has the rebrand been in the works?

Elizabeth O’Brien: Internal discussions around the brand name and switch to Rock ‘n’ Roll Running Series have been ongoing for a few years. With the pause in events over the last year, we felt like it was the perfect time to regroup and invest the time and resources to come out of the pandemic showcasing that we are more than marathons and have distances for everyone.

Facilitated completely by the Rock ‘n’ Roll Running Series staff, the rebrand, not only includes a new name but a whole new visual identity that integrates throughout the entire participant ecosystem, including series logo, event logos, video content, and onsite event signage. An important piece of the rebrand is the brand-new website that improves the overall participant experience through updated navigation and content making it easier to select race locations, distances, and course features that fit what participants are looking for in an event.

SDM: What made you decide to pursue a rebrand after all these years?

Photo © Gerry Boughan |
O’Brien: The Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series has evolved over the years to include distances for everyone – people looking to go from the couch to a 5K to participants challenging themselves to a marathon. We all have different goals and reasons for why we sign up for events and the distances we choose. Someone doing their first 5K can be just as meaningful to that person as someone doing their first marathon and we want to celebrate everyone who finds their way to a start line.

Since the early days of Rock ‘n’ Roll we have been about Bringing the Fun to the run, and we have recognized that our name might have been a barrier to those thinking that was the only distance offered. Our most popular distance is the half marathon, and we also have a Remix Challenge – which is any combination of distances, one on each day of the event. For example, this usually means a 5K Saturday and then a longer run on Sunday. We felt it was important to convey the diversity of our offerings in our brand and make sure that walkers and runners alike, know our events are a welcoming and celebratory environment for them.

SDM: Did the pandemic play into it at all? I was very happy to learn about the Virtual Running Club – was there good participation in that?

O’Brien: While the COVID-19 pandemic has created numerous challenges for The IRONMAN Group, there were also important silver linings as the organization used the time for self-reflection and advancement. We had put work towards the rebrand prior to the pandemic, but it did allow for a refocus and ability to reflect further on who we are as a brand and a series of events.

As the pandemic brought the endurance sports industry to a halt, we also took what had been long-term digital and connected fitness strategy plans and pivoted quickly and intensively towards making virtual club platforms and events available to participants for free. The organization knew the need to provide a physical and mental outlet for its participants to stay motivated, train with purpose, and remain connected with the endurance community.

With constraints comes creativity and the company pulled a considerable internal team together alongside partner SportHeroes and were able to successfully launch the Humana Virtual Running Club™ in April of 2020. Since the launch tens of thousands of runners and walkers from around the world have registered for the virtual start line. This has been a great way to help show we are more than a marathon prior to the rebrand launch.

To date, over 65,000 people from over 145 nations have joined the platform; and 45% of those are new to our brand. Additionally, over 1,200 Rock ‘n’ Roll VRC participants have signed up for their first live Rock ‘n’ Roll Running Series event in 2021. We glad to be able to welcome all of these new people into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Running community!

SDM: A lot of people discovered (or rediscovered) running during quarantine. Do you think those people are among those you’ll be targeting with your events? (It could be that me some might be first-time racers and looking for a fun experience).

O’Brien: Absolutely. Rock ‘n’ Roll since its inception has been about Bringing Fun to the Run, and providing participants an approachable, unique and fun experience. We have always welcomed a large number of first-time runners or walkers alike to our events and expect to continue to do so, even more with the number of folks who picked up running during quarantine!

New and existing participants will find that with each Rock ‘n’ Roll Running Series event is built upon three foundational pillars—running, music and community. These pillars help to bring all runners and walkers, particularly first timers, into events in a fun and unintimidating way. At our events, participants will experience what makes our series unique, including fabulous courses, world-class operations, music and entertainment throughout the experience, and a connected community on and off the course spurring each other towards their respective finish lines. 

The Humana Rock ‘n’ Roll VRC has been a great way for new participants to engage with our brand, learn what the brand and our events are all about in a virtual setting. It’s also a free platform for those new to the sport to dip their toe in the water before jumping in.

SDM: Have destinations been receptive to the new brand? Do you have any events going to new destinations as a result?

O’Brien: We are very fortunate to work with some fantastic destinations, and all of them have been receptive to our new brand. We all have a common goal of sharing and showcasing the benefits of walking and running, no matter the distance, which the new brand helps to further reflect. We are continuously talking to new locations and determining when and where to take the series next. In 2022, we will host our Inaugural Rock ‘n’ Roll Running Series Clearwater event in October.

SDM: Have you had to worry about individual health guidance for events? It looks like most will be starting in the fall (when, we hope, lots more people will be vaccinated and feel safer).

O’Brien: Last fall, we announced the Ready to Rock: Safe Return to Running Guidelines, a series of comprehensive operating principles prepared in accordance with industry standards for open air mass participation sporting events. Based on standards from the World Health Organization (WHO) and developed with guidance from the IRONMAN Global Medical Advisory Board (IGMAB), the best practices are designed to allow for Rock ‘n’ Roll Running Series events to be organized in a manner consistent with each local community’s objectives and within the expectations set by public health entities around the world as they relate to the impacts of COVID-19.

With the support of our host communities, we are as focused as ever in delivering the excellent and safe event experiences our participants deserve. Our teams are continuing their hard work developing and refining operational plans with local authorities and agencies that follow guidelines and recommendations in a manner consistent with local community objectives, and within the expectations set by public health entities.

SDM: What is it you look for in cities when evaluating potential hosts?

O’Brien: First and foremost, we are looking for a great destination that our runners want to travel to! Our races can see on average just over 50% of our participants travel from out of the area, driving between $15M - $50M in economic impact to the local economy depending on race distances and size of race. We are looking for a venue that can house 10,000-20,000 visitors to the host community, provides access to roads and has appropriate locations for a start, finish and expo venue.

SDM: Who should destinations reach out to if they are interested in hosting?

O’Brien: Interested host cities should reach out to Keats McGonigal, Vice President Operations, North America for The IRONMAN Group at

About the Author