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The Covid-19 Crisis: Helping Running Clubs Get Back on Track

Is the organized group run ever coming back? The head of Road Runners Club of America sees the way forward amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

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Editor’s note: This is part two of a six-part series about how the running industry is coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ll investigate several aspects of the sport through the experiences of the women who are navigating and leading the industry.

Part One: How Racing Will Rebound

The experts have studied it and it’s true: exercising together forms stronger bonds between people. No wonder we all miss our running buddies so much while the COVID-19 pandemic has put group workouts on a hiatus.

Running clubs of all sizes have grappled with an array of questions since March. When to stop group runs, when to resume them, and safety measures when operations are underway again. Will insurance cover a club coronavirus outbreak? Is it legal to ask members questions about their personal health? Should temperature checks be standard?

Nobody has a universal set of answers—after all, runners aren’t practicing in confined indoor spaces and local public health policies related to the pandemic are different everywhere. But the good news is that amid the COVID-19 crisis, running outside has been touted as one of the safer activities. It’s less clear how safe it is when groups of people are running unmasked in close proximity, however, because the virus is thought to spread most commonly from respiratory droplets.

Nonetheless, the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) is one organization that has sought to offer guidance, resources, and ideas for clubs that are grappling with a path forward. RRCA is based in Arlington, Virginia, and is the largest national association of runners and running organizations, promoting community-based clubs and events across the country. It often works quietly in the background, but chances are at some point all runners have joined a club, group, or event supported by RRCA.

Jean Knaack, the executive director of RRCA, senses that running organizations are, of course, eager to get back to business, but the comfort levels vary depending on how widespread the virus is in their communities.

“The reality is that people want to get back to group running,” she says. “Our perspective has been that it’s the first thing. I know race directors are champing at the bit to get back to business, but it’s going to be clubs and training programs that can first get 10 people together to see how that goes, then expand to 25, and so on.”

Knaack understands how important it is—especially for those that are nonprofit or small business organizations—to phase in safe protocols and get moving again in order to make it through to the other side of the pandemic.

Running USA, another association that promotes distance running and conducts industry research, released results of a survey of more than 300 endurance sports businesses, which revealed that 82 percent that received federal government COVID-19 assistance through the Paycheck Protection Program depleted those funds by mid-July. Of the respondents, 39 percent have furloughed employees, 37 percent have resorted to layoffs. And 67 percent say that their business may not survive 2020 without additional support.

No doubt the industry is suffering, with 92 percent of endurance events canceled this year. Knaack says it’s time to start figuring out how to harness the interest of people who have discovered running and walking while the gyms have been closed and fitness classes have been canceled. By the time races are back on, perhaps they’ll be ready to take a crack at a 5K or join a local running organization.

“You see the dramatic increase in the number of people who have been out running and walking during this whole thing,” she says. “It’s like somebody kicked an ant’s nest. Maybe the silver lining is that more people will come into this sport as we open back up. It remains to be seen, but it’s an opportunity for club leaders to find ways to capture the new interest.”

Jean Knaack congratulates 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials winner, Aliphine Tuliamuk.
Jean Knaack congratulates 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials winner, Aliphine Tuliamuk.

In the meantime, Knaack believes the best role RRCA can play is helping to map out in-person COVID-19 safety protocols, answer questions about liability, or share best practices from groups that are already back to regular programming. The RRCA believes that leaders of running clubs can also act as leaders in communities by making sure health and safety policies and procedures are publicly available and enforced.

“Communicating those plans and procedures regularly is an important part of minimizing claims of negligence,” Knaack says. “People aren’t always going to follow your policies and procedures, but as an organization it’s important to prove that you have them in place and are making a reasonable effort to enforce them. That’s the risk management side.”

The Chicago Area Runners Association has made its “return to group runs” protocols publicly available, which include ideas for physical distancing, planning routes that won’t disrupt the larger community, managing pre- and post-run gatherings, and a list of expectations that participants must agree to before attending. The template can be customized to adhere to local and state mandates anywhere.

For a while, the running club experience may just look and feel different. It may require masks or smaller cohorts, running at different times, in different places. It may stop and start, depending on local spikes in COVID-19 cases. Some groups will opt to remain on a hiatus longer than others. Knaack hopes that runners can adjust to new realities and keep showing up, as they say.

“We’ve become such an instantaneous society that I think it’s hard for people to take a longer view of this. The things we’ve loved and valued maybe aren’t going to be there in the restart, but if you participate in the beginning, we can get back to where things were—but it might take more than a year,” she says. “If you really want your favorite businesses or organizations to survive, you’ll participate, knowing that it’s a very different experience.”

Getting back to “normal,” won’t be easy. But running as a sport, means of community and connection, and a fitness activity, isn’t going anywhere. In many ways it’s more well-positioned to thrive than other athletic endeavors merely because it is best done outside with wide-ranging opportunities to keep safety measures in place.

“If people can be creative, committed, passionate about keeping their local clubs and events going, I do think things can come back in 2021,” Knaack says. “We will be here moving forward to help organizations as they come back online.”