Run to Daylight | Sports Destination Management

Run to Daylight

As Sports Return, Road and Trail Races are Setting the Pace
Jun 25, 2021 | By: Michael Popke
Photo courtesy of Visit Tallahassee

In April, Running USA issued guidelines  developed to help race organizers reduce the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission among event participants, volunteers, staff members and communities at large. The 15-page Return to Racing: Guidance on SARS-CoV-2 transmission risk mitigation during running events document was written by Dr. Brooke Nichols, an assistant professor in the Department of Global Health at Boston University’s School of Public Health, who noted that “it is possible to continue racing while minimizing transmission risk.” 

Runners are certainly ready to race. According to internal data from online race manager RunSignUp, the number of year-over-year race signup transactions recently returned to 2019 levels for the first time in a year — an indication that, as the company proclaims, “events are back.” 

That’s great news for running destinations hoping to speed up their timeline for returning to some semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy. 

“There’s a whole section of the population that needs to feel comfortable participating in events again,” says Jack Murray, chair of the Austin (Texas) Sports Commission’s board of directors and owner of High Five Events, with a roster that includes the Ascension Seton Austin Marathon and the 3M Half Marathon.

 Murray is doing his part to keep running events as safe as possible. The 3M Half Marathon was postponed to 2022, but the half marathon, 5K and one-mile run options of the 2021 Austin Marathon took place April 25 — the first event held on public property in Austin in more than a year — with a detailed “COVID-19 Mitigation Plan.” 

“It was hard for us, because we weren’t able to deliver on a lot of the extras that make our events successful,” Murray admits. “But we also understood the importance of bringing running back to Austin.” 

The money that marathon organizers saved by not offering a finish festival and downsizing other elements of the event went into beefing up participants’ swag bags, and Murray says the extended starting times worked so well that he might keep them in place going forward. 

Running USA’s guidelines cite several events that safely took place over the past several months — some with more than 5,000 participants — without any documented cases of COVID-19 transmission. They included Spartan Jacksonville (Florida) in February, Spartan San Antonio (Texas) in March and Tough Mudder Atlanta in April, and their effectiveness suggest that road racing can pave the way for how sports tourism will look in a post-COVID world. 

“I think there is going to be a huge running boom,” Murray predicts. “COVID has made people think about their health a little bit more. And with running, all you need is a pair of shoes and a heartbeat.”

He may be right. A recent survey from RunRepeat shows nearly 30 percent of runners said they took up the sport during the pandemic – and once hooked, will likely want to challenge themselves in local races and fun runs.

The following destinations are ready for that boom and eager to host events again. 

Austin, Texas

In addition to the Austin Marathon, Austin boasts a huge community of endurance running enthusiasts, according to Drew Hays, director of the Austin Sports Commission. As proof, he cites a series of triathlons, including the Rookie Tri and the CapTex Tri.

Meanwhile, the Town Lake/Lady Bird Trail is Austin’s most recognized and popular recreation trail. While the 10-mile loop isn’t open to competition, it is indicative of the city’s deep running roots. 

“We have a very robust infrastructure of training groups, running stores and events, and the City of Austin has embraced this idea that Austin is the fittest city in the country,” Murray says. “The whole ecosystem works together to constantly elevate the running scene here.” 

Ann Arbor, Michigan

Another destination with a strong running community is Ann Arbor. Adjacent to the Huron River, the city offers a long list of 5K and 10K races and marathons, as well as charity events and trail runs. And while such high-profile events as the Probility Ann Arbor Marathon (a Boston Marathon qualifying event), the Dexter-Ann Arbor Run and the Big House 5K were either canceled or run virtually in 2020, all of them have returned to the 2021 schedule, according to Mike Malach, executive director of the Ann Arbor Sports Commission. 

“The Big House 5K in in April was run virtually, but we are hoping our mid-summer events can be run in person,” he says. “The virtual part has allowed race companies to reach a much wider audience.”

As of May, the Ann Arbor Marathon was slated for Oct. 24 and not only included a half marathon, a 10K and a 5K but also three virtual options. 

Fayetteville, Arkansas 

Fayetteville’s extensive trails system — 48.5 paved miles and 56 miles of natural surface — has helped this city nestled in the Ozark Mountains become the repeat home of the 2021 US Trail Running Conference in October. Held in partnership with the American Trail Running Association, the conference is intended to share best practices with the trail running community of runners and race directors. The event will be capped by the 2021 Spartan Trail US Championship, which includes two 10K options, a 50K and a half marathon. 

“Hosting the conference will further cement Fayetteville as a premier running destination,’ says Tina Archer-Cope, vice president of sales for Experience Fayetteville. “Fayetteville has always been a trail running destination for those in the know, thanks to the abundance of trails in the nearby Ozarks National Forest and Devil’s Den State Park. But the city has attracted more attention in recent years, thanks to its growing trail system.” 

The city plans to host several running events in 2021, including the Ozark Valley Triathlon, the Razorback Run, the Chile Pepper Cross Country Festival and the Fayetteville Half Marathon. 

“Some people are probably eager to attend running events in places with cultural attractions not found where they live,” Archer-Cope says. “Others, at least for a while, might prefer to visit locations that are less crowded with more open-air spaces. What’s great about Fayetteville is that it offers both.”

Canton, Ohio

The 2021 USA Track & Field 6K Championships, slated for July in Canton, is expected to leave a lasting impact on the city beyond the typical economic impact that running events bring to a community. 

“We expect the community to gain a deeper appreciation of the sport,” says Jim Chaney, race director of Run to You Racing, a local event promoter. “We are also expecting a new wave of beginning runners to participate in the event, which will put them on the road to fitness.”

Once on that road, they’ll find Canton and Stark County have plenty to offer them. The area boasts miles of state park system trails, scenic city routes and annual events such as the Pro Football Hall of Fame Marathon and the NFL Centennial 5K. New on the 2021 running schedule is the Haunted Forest Marathon, a themed event scheduled for Halloween that will include tombstone mile markers, zombie water stations and props along a course on the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath in St. Helena Heritage Park.

“As residents and visitors have a renewed interest in outdoor activities, mental health, and physical fitness, we believe running events will continue to grow in popularity,” says Tonja Marshall, executive vice president of marketing and communications for Visit Canton.


Maine remains a top destination for running events because of the diversity of the state’s natural landscape, according to Sheila Brennan Nee, director of the Maine Sports Commission.

“Given our hundreds of miles of rocky coastline and beautiful mountains, lakes and rivers, each corner of the state has something to offer in every season — from Cape Elizabeth’s TD Beach to Beacon 10K in the summer to the Millinocket Marathon in the shadow of Mt. Katahdin in the winter,” she says, adding that Maine’s reputation as a destination for year-round signature running events is growing. 

Despite the cancellation of about two dozen high-profile running events throughout the state in 2020, including the IRONMAN 70.3 Maine, many already have returned or will later this year. 

In April, Maine eliminated its face mask mandate in outdoor settings, and a few weeks later, Maine Governor Janet Mills lifted all capacity limits and requirements to physically distance in public outdoor settings. As a result, larger running events tentatively on hold for 2021 announced registration dates, Brennan Nee says. She adds that while Maine has the oldest median age population in the country, the state (when adjusted for population) ranks fourth lowest among all states in both the total number of COVID-19 cases and number of deaths from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Santa Rosa, California

Even though states are relaxing their COVID-19 restrictions regarding outdoor gatherings and events, Charlene Lennon, director of sales for Visit Santa Rosa, emphasizes that destinations and event organizers will have more on their to-do lists.

“The races that do take place this year will set the stage for all other events to follow,” she says. “Health and safety plans will continue to be developed and modified. There will be more required in submitting risk mitigation and health and safety plans to local agencies, as well as a longer planning timeline for review and issuance of required permits.”

Santa Rosa’s high-profile running events were canceled or postponed in 2020, but the 2021 Santa Rosa Marathon and Windsor Green Half Marathon are both slated for September. The Santa Rosa Marathon even takes runners through the barrel room of DeLoach Vineyards — which makes sense, considering Sonoma is located in the heart of Sonoma Wine Country.

Virginia Beach, Virginia

A pair of major annual marathons — the Rock ‘n’ Roll Running Series Virginia Beach and the highly popular Yuengling Shamrock Marathon — returned to Virginia Beach in 2021 after being canceled in 2020.

The destination, which boasts not only the oceanfront but a full complement of restaurants, hotels, shops and attractions suitable for all ages, is primed and ready to host.

 “My expectation and hope is that our schedule will be full of running events,” says Dani Timm, sports marketing national sales manager for the Virginia Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It’s important that people get back together, have fun and cheer each other on. Outdoor running events have an economic and social impact that transcends the sport.” 

Tallahassee, Florida

Cross-country running events returned to Tallahassee before other sports activities, albeit under strict COVID-19 protocols. Face masks were required except when running, and only one spectator per athlete was allowed, according to Amanda Heidecker, former director of sales and sports for Visit Tallahassee and now the city’s director of parks and recreation, including Apalachee Regional Park.

Designed specifically to host cross- country meets, the park’s numerous courses and distance options, along with rolling hills, lowlands and pine forests, have propelled Tallahassee to the forefront of the sport. The park hosts six to 10 major college and high school events per year, plus several local races.

The 120-acre facility recently underwent $3 million worth of improvements, including the addition of a permanent finish line structure and an awards stage, and it will host the NCAA National Cross Country Championships in November. 

“We have our eye on the World Athletics Cross Country Championships. And if the Olympics add cross country, we’ve had conversations with USA Track & Field to have Apalachee Regional Park host the U.S. trials for cross country,” Heidecker says, adding that the park also is an ideal venue for easing back into post-pandemic running competition. “We can bring in thousands of people in a very short period of time, yet you don’t have to stand next them. You don’t get that in many other sports facilities.” SDM

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