Rethinking Running Events – Part 2

Katherine Switzer, the first women finisher of Boston Marathon, once said,

“If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.”

These are strange times when we are not only losing faith in human nature but also, marathons. Among the major events, it started with the cancellation of mass start in Tokyo Marathon, thus limiting the field only for few elite runners. Rest of the world major marathons – Boston, London (organised elite-only event), Berlin, Chicago, and New York have been cancelled for this year. Two Oceans marathon was cancelled and Comrades marathon was postponed first, before getting cancelled leading to plenty of outrage from runners. Closer home, Hyderabad Marathon, which would celebrated its 10th edition (and my own 9th edition!), opened up for registration and was then cancelled.

Apart from these major ones, there are plenty of small running events and even the niche ones like UTMB, that have been cancelled this year. Other major sporting events like Tokyo Olympics, football leagues, Wimbledon, F1 Races, Euro 2020 and others that were either cancelled or postponed,  found their way back and were organised with the help of ‘Bio-Secure Bubbles’. While these events, largely relying on TV audiences, can be organised with no or fewer audiences, Running events cannot be organised in similar fashion as it is the crowd that makes the event. Events like Nike Breaking-2 or INEOS 1:59 or even the elite-only London Marathon are unlikely to be a regular event.

I spoke to Ajay, Founder of Go Heritage Runs, about what holds for running events in the future. Ajay, also a runner, started Go Heritage Runs in 2014 to promote running in exotic places and bring a new dimension to running events. His other initiative is ‘Runcation’ where he takes people to destinations filled with scenic beauty and historical importance and organises fun runs in such locations. One example is that of Ankor Wat in Cambodia.  Although his events are non-competitive and not even timed, they are very popular with the runners. I have run Go Heritage Run at Ooty in 2018 and can vouch for its speciality.

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Ajay in action during Go Heritage Run at Lovedale Campus in 2018

In good times, we start by asking how did it all start. Unfortunately, I have to start by asking how did it all end, for now?

In February, we organised the Go Heritage Runs at  Khajuraho and Pachmarchi. When we returned back from khajuraho, the scare was already there and we knew that sooner or later, we have to pull the plug. We had already announced the registrations for Pench National Park Run and placed orders for medals and T-shirts. We initially postponed the event; but realised that we have no choice but to cancel the event. The registrations for other events were immediately put on hold and we decided not to organise any event till the end of this year. Also, given the uncertainty, we cannot give any promises on resuming events.

What were the alternatives did you contemplate in the absence of running events

Like many other events, we too joined the ‘Virtual Runs’ bandwagon. But, getting paid registrations for Virtual events looked difficult. Although our USP has always been travel to heritage locations, wanted to use virtual events to promote heritage of these destinations. We had already started working on the app Goals.fit and we thought it will be the best time to launch the app. Registration was through the app and the initial events were offered for free.

Tell us about Goals.fit – How did you start and the response?

(Disclosure – I am an user of Goals.Fit and hosted few challenges for Coimbatore Cycling)

I started work on Goals.fit quite sometime back. It so happened that the current crisis presented an opportunity to launch the app formally. We are seeing adoption by people who wish to take part as well as those organising virtual challenges. It is still a work in progress and we hope to provide more exciting features for the users and organisers. 
The app is certainly one way to reach to a wider audience and we believe that we can reach out to users globally.

As the Government has started opening up various activities, do you foresee resumption of Running events anytime sooner? If so, when?

Firstly, we have to admit that it is not a priority for anyone other than runners. Even among those professionally engaged in Running events, running makes up a small part of their services and they are more interested in resumption of other events. I feel that most people will get adjusted with the absence of running events. We are seeing people who run even full marathons without any formal events.
Also, I don’t see Government pro-actively giving permissions for running events. We have to wait for a longer time to see things settle down.

Given that some of your events are organised with smaller groups in less crowded spaces, do you foresee resuming those events?

In the current circumstances, when most of the information about the COVID-19 looks hazy, it is difficult for us to take any call. It is certainly a risk-return trade-off for runners in attending running events. There is certainly a risk of contraction of virus through running events, even if one can argue that it is less riskier than visiting a super market or attending a marriage. But the perceived returns in other activities is much higher than attending running events.
Moreover, it is difficult to establish and enforce protocols and procedures for participants in such events. While many of them are no-brainer initiatives like wearing a mask during gathering or reducing interaction time with others, we will not be able to enforce them.
Of course, the stigma of the event being called a ‘super spreader’ will dissuade even the most passionate organiser to stay from organising events. 

I am sure your revenue streams have taken a huge hit. Given that Goals.fit is in early stage, it will be a while for it to start earning for you. How do you plan to sustain this initiative during this pandemic and beyond?

Presently, it is tough for us like many other businesses and activities. Moving forward, we do have an agreement with Madhya Pradesh Tourism, where we organise seven of our events, for a longer period. Whenever we can resume events, we will be able to organise them in Madhya Pradesh with their support. 
We have plans for resuming Runcation soon. Because the group is small, it is easy to enforce protocols and bring in discipline. Since, some of the locations are outside India, we are confident that our partners will also adhere to the protocols. 

Finally, can you see light at the end of the tunnel?

We have to stay optimistic. The one good outcome of this crisis is that people have started paying attention to their health. You can see that there are many people taking up to cycling and running these days. Hopefully, people will see meeting outdoors as the way forward and running is certainly one way to do it.
In terms of Running events, traditional events need to certainly undergo changes to keep with time. It is good to see major events like New York or London going virtual to attract a bigger audience. They have enough resources to come up with innovative ideas to promote running beyond events. 

In short, the road back to normalcy certainly looks bleak for running events more than any other economic or social activity. It depends on multiple factors and people – from runners to various other stakeholders. More than event organisers or runners, it is the community that should feel the need for such events. May El-Khalil, the founder of Beirut Marathon, in her TED talk, said,

We spoke one common language to each other, and that was from one human to another. Once that trust was built, everybody wanted to be part of the marathon to show the world the true colours of Lebanon and the Lebanese and their desire to live in peace and harmony. 

The importance of organising marathons is definitely lot more than before. As people isolate themselves due the pandemic, they also risk becoming secluded  which furthers social divisions and increases fragmentations. Running is certainly one way to bring the community together and with right measures in place, it can be a win-win for everyone involved.

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