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The COVID-19 Crisis: How Racing Will Rebound

One running event planner shares her small-business struggles in 2020 and her vision for bringing road racing back.

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Editor’s note: This is part one 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.

After the Chicago Marathon was officially called off on Monday, Michelle La Sala finally put an end to her 2020 events calendar, too. While all the race cancellations have been disappointing for runners, for people like La Sala, they’re more than lost opportunities to set PRs—every missed event is another dent in a business and livelihood.

La Sala, 39, is the founder and president of Blistering Pace Race Management (BPRM), a company she runs out of her Napa, California, home. Her husband, Kevin Pool, serves as the director of operations. Most weekends involve near all-nighters at race venues across the country, where BPRM is contracted for duties like finish line signage or start line logistics or medical coordination.

Weekdays are just as jam-packed throughout the year, securing permits, budgets, and insurance, developing race course designs and certifications, coordinating vendors and volunteers, proposing hospitality plans, securing sponsorships, recruiting elite athletes, and more for clients that include the Big Sur Marathon and Chicago’s Shamrock Shuffle. Chances are, if you’ve run a big event in the U.S. in the last several years, La Sala and her team have had a hand in your experience. And if you intend to run a race in the post-pandemic era, they intend to have a hand in those, too.

“I think that at some point in 2016, Kevin and I pretty much committed ourselves to the running industry and to be here through the good and bad,” said La Sala (who, in full disclosure, became a close friend of the author’s 15 years ago when they were both affiliated with the New York Road Runners’ Team for Kids charity organization). “Certainly the way our business works, with client-based contracts, we have ebbs and flows every year. We’re committed to weathering this storm.”

Many jobs and small businesses hang in the balance. The U.S. alone hosts 35,000 different races with 17.6 million finishers each year, according to the industry trade group Running USA. More than 44 million Americans call themselves runners. Will they keep racing when this is all over?

Before COVID-19 dominated the country, BPRM was able to execute two races this year—the Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Half Marathon and the Napa Valley Marathon and Half Marathon. The first was in early February and La Sala remembers barely a whisper about the coronavirus, but for one entrant who asked whether it was a concern. But by the time the Napa Valley Marathon on March 1 came around, it was clear that the anxiety was growing.

“As every day of Napa Valley race week went by, we started having more calls with our sponsor, Kaiser Permanente,” La Sala said. “They are the title sponsor, but they’re also in the healthcare industry so we had to listen to their concerns. At the time, the advice was still just, ‘wash your hands’ and ‘don’t touch your face.’ The ease of spread was not quite known yet. It was never suggested to us to cancel the race.”

The Napa Valley Marathon and Half Marathon was held the same weekend as the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta and they were among the final events before large swaths of the country put stay-at-home orders in place—except for the Los Angeles Marathon a week later, held amid controversy and heightened fears about COVID-19, which spreads mostly through respiratory droplets transmitted when people are in close proximity to each other.

Since then, all of the major U.S. marathons, including Chicago, New York City, and Boston have been canceled. Some events have gone on, mostly small trail races that provide better opportunities for runners to remain physically distant. A Spartan obstacle course race went off in June in Jacksonville, Florida, which attracted more than 1,000 people, with increased health and safety protocols like smaller waves of competitors and hand sanitizer on the course. It’s unknown whether any disease spread was caused by the Spartan event, but Florida has been one of the hardest hit states with 337,569 people infected as of Saturday and 5,002 deaths.

La Sala and many others who are in the profession are watching carefully to figure out how to safely execute events when public health officials say it’s OK—and when local governments begin issuing permits again.

RunSignUp, a popular online platform for race registrations and running club memberships, published a report recently estimating that “normal running of races will not happen again until 2022,” based on the current data regarding the spread of the disease, the timing of the upcoming flu season, and other variables such as the likelihood of improved treatments and a vaccine. The caveat? A lot could change during that period.

“Will we have to wait for a vaccine to be available? What will the industry look like at that point?” La Sala said. “A friend of mine who works for a race organization said she isn’t going to wait for her job after a furlough—she’ll go do marketing somewhere else. There are so many people in running who have skill sets that translate somewhere else. Running is going to lose really good people and businesses, like race timers, that won’t make it either.”

Michelle La Sala
Michelle La Sala is often found at the start and finish lines of big races across the country, which she helps manage through her company, Blistering Pace Race Management. Photo: Courtesy of Michelle La Sala

For the moment, some are just trying to get creative. On the elite level, training groups like the Bowerman Track Club, Northern Arizona Elite, and others are organizing small track competitions that include athlete COVID-19 testing requirements, face masks, and physical distancing among attendees. And the races haven’t disappointed on the livestreams, either—Shelby Houlihan set a new American 5,000-meter record, for example (14:23.92) with teammate Karissa Schweizer also running faster than the previous mark (finishing in 14:26.34).

Many runners have also gotten into virtual racing of all distances, with a large number of these events tied to raising money for COVID-19 relief funds or other local charities in need. When live events start ramping up again, perhaps some races will continue to offer virtual options for those who aren’t yet comfortable traveling or running in large groups—it’s proven to appeal to participants and it’s a way to maintain some revenue and consistency in the meantime.

While the event calendar remains quiet for BPRM, La Sala has been using the time to speak on podcasts, participate on industry webinar panels, and write about her observations. Her regular gig doesn’t allow much time to share her 15 years of expertise in any wide-ranging manner and as one of few women in the race directing and management sector, her voice is a needed one.

After all, La Sala and Pool got into this game because they love running, too—and participants can always tell when a race is organized by fellow runners. Pool has a 2:18:59 marathon PR and La Sala a 2:59 best. The couple ran collegiately and prior to launching her own business, La Sala was the director of the California International Marathon. They have firsthand knowledge of what runners want out of their racing experiences and La Sala is formulating her vision of how that will change in a post-pandemic world.

“Runners are very resilient and we are going to see that, but we need to figure out what we need to do to make people feel comfortable,” she said. “If we go back to business as usual and we don’t have gloves or hand sanitizer or masks for volunteers, well I’m not going to say that these things are going to save us, but if you don’t have them going forward people are going to scratch their heads a bit.”

Other parts of the race experience will probably look different, too, she imagines—and some changes might be permanent while others will evolve as public health changes or a vaccine drastically reduces the risk. Maybe big city marathons will take cues from the trail and ultra races that are coming back already?

Vacation Races, a company based in Utah, has held two ultra races since the pandemic hit—Bryce Canyon Ultras and Zion at Night—and shared the precautions taken and the results of a participant survey with RunSignUp. The organization found that despite such widespread unemployment in the U.S., its audience is still willing to spend money on races, but are most concerned about group size and any requirements to use shuttle buses. So, loop courses are appealing and rolling starts with smaller groups of runners are good solutions.

Runners can also be lured back with shorter registration periods and the ability to back out of a race easily (and with minimal financial impact) if they aren’t feeling well or are uncomfortable. La Sala instituted a new “Whine Stopper” option for the 2021 Napa Valley Marathon and Half Marathon—if COVID-19 prevents the race from happening on March 7, runners can defer entry to 2022 or 2023.

Other ideas include keeping courses open longer to facilitate less corralling and crowding at the start and finish lines, if it’s not cost-prohibitive and permitting allows for it. Perhaps we’ll see cup-less water stations and medals will be placed on tables for pickup rather than placed around finishers’ necks. Will expos and finish-line festivals go away? That depends on how races can get sponsors on board in other ways, perhaps.

“I feel good about people’s desire and need to come back to mass-participation events,” La Sala said. “We are going to return. And maybe when we get through this, runners will be amenable to doing what’s asked of them in order to get back to it. For us as race producers, that’d be a welcomed change.”

It’s no secret that the uptick in racing options has forced many organizations to provide services to runners that maybe they don’t necessarily need—the swag, the VIP porta-potties, the bag checks, the water stops at every mile with volunteers handing out individual cups of sport drink, for example. And the outcry can be significant when circumstances go haywire.

“There’s always been a disconnect—and we saw it when all these cancellations started happening in March—that runners were outraged. I’ve said it before and I’ll always say it: There’s nothing that a race director wants to do more than put on the race,” La Sala said. “When we don’t get to do that, it’s not a happy situation for us. Having runners understand a bit more about what it takes to hold a race safely would strengthen the industry.”

When races start happening again, runners are likely going to have to adjust to new realities. Perhaps filling out the medical information is required or maybe proof of vaccination will need to be uploaded to registration platforms. La Sala sees some positives that can come from runners taking on these responsibilities.

“Maybe they’ll be the leaders in getting the vaccine or doing more to get tested. That can help the industry get back on track,” she said. “They’ll buy into and promote what healthy looks like. Runners are those people who want to get back out there. Runners are a loud group, usually in a good way.”

Despite the push to find safe ways to move forward, of course La Sala and other race officials have deep concerns about how the running industry will weather the storm. Racing as we once knew it will look and feel different, whenever the time is right to bring it back. Keeping perspective and the larger picture in mind is critical, however, as the COVID-19 crisis rages on—and that’s what La Sala keeps in the forefront of her mind as the months pass by.

“The situation is stressful across the board, whether you’re a race director, an athlete, or a vendor. It’s a very difficult thing to navigate,” La Sala said. “The majority of us are in this business because we’re healthy people. It gets even more difficult when you know runners or people you’ve worked with on events who have passed away from this virus. It becomes very real. It’s hard to stay positive, but you want to get back out there to do this in their memory.”