Organizers Run To Virtual Races
By Craig Manning | July 26, 2020
From the Bayshore Marathon to the Festival of Races at the National Cherry Festival, most races that have become annual northern Michigan traditions have been forced to call off their in-person competitions this year -- and the cancelations have led to a mass experiment in “virtual” races, with mixed results.
The Festival Foundation, the nonprofit organization that puts on the Cherry Festival each year, was one of the first local race organizers forced to cancel because of coronavirus. Each March, the foundation hosts the Leapin’ Leprechaun 5K, a St. Patrick’s Day themed running race that incorporates an afterparty at the Workshop Brewing Company. This year’s race, which raised money for the Munson Healthcare Foundation in support of the new Birth & Children’s Center, was scheduled for Saturday, March 14. As the pandemic picked up steam in the week leading up to the event, though, Cherry Festival Executive Director Kat Paye says she and her team had to make a snap decision.
“We made the call 48 hours out,” Paye says. “On Thursday, school shut down for the state of Michigan, and Saturday was our race. So we said, ‘Well, I guess we need to do something different.’ We had over 900 runners that were registered, and we had t-shirts, and we had bibs, and we had all this stuff. So we made it virtual.”
Of the 900 runners signed up for the Leapin’ Leprechaun, Paye says 380 switched to the virtual race. Despite the smaller number of participants, Paye says the Festival Foundation got positive feedback on the virtual race. That feedback ultimately inspired the creation of an all-new series of four virtual races that will run through this summer and fall. The new “Harvest Series” has so far attracted more than 360 registrants.
Virtual races give participants a window of several days or weeks to complete specific distances or courses. Racers then self-report times via exercise tracking platforms like Garmin, Strava, or Fitbit for rankings or prizes.
Many other local races have pivoted to the virtual format and experienced their own dips in participation. The Traverse City Trail Running Festival, which was set to take place April 24-25 in the Pere Marquette State Forest, transitioned all four of its events – including a two-person 10K relay and individual 10K, 25K, and 50K races – to the virtual format. Participants had the option to defer their registrations to 2021 or switch to virtual. In total, 36 runners opted to go ahead with the virtual race, compared to 121 entrants in 2019. The Glen Arbor Solstice Run, which would have occurred on June 20, also saw modest results, drawing a total of 33 racers compared to 162 registrants in 2019. The Traverse City Triathlon, which would have taken place today, and the Elk Rapids Harborrun, part of the village’s annual Harbor Days celebration, are also among the local races that have gone virtual.
Lisa Taylor, executive director for the Traverse City Track Club (TCTC), says she has spent a lot of time trying to learn about race cancelations and runner mindsets. Her aim is to understand what local runners are looking for from virtual events – particularly given that a return to in-person races is unlikely for the foreseeable future. TCTC hosts several races each year, including the Bayshore Marathon.
“We have about 1,000 members in our club, and when we look at Bayshore numbers, we are about 20 percent local [runners] on that,” Taylor tells The Ticker. “So we figure that, in terms of signing up for events, there are probably about 1,500 people just in our area who like to race and who enter races regularly. What I've observed about those people who are going with the virtual option is that they like to get their bib, they like to get their medal, they like to get their shirt.”
Taylor adds that, in making the decision to cancel Bayshore this year – and to skip offering a virtual option – TCTC took these tangible items into account. “We were able to cancel the race early enough to mitigate a lot of those expenses. And so we felt like [going virtual] wouldn’t really be that option because there would be no shirt to give, since we had only printed the marathon shirts; and there would be no medal to give, because we had stopped that process shortly after the die had been cast for it.” By stopping these processes early, TCTC saved tens of thousands of dollars – including $10,000 on medals alone.
Keeping overhead low – especially given the uncertainty of virtual race participation – was a priority for Taylor given that TCTC uses revenues from Bayshore to fund its charitable efforts in the community. Of the 7,000 runners who were registered for Bayshore 2020 at the time of cancelation, Taylor says 75 percent deferred to 2021, meaning TCTC needs to hold on to that money for the presumptive 2021 event. Still, despite that financial tie-up – and despite the fact that Bayshore 2020 had already accumulated several nonrefundable costs before making the call to cancel – Taylor notes that TCTC has been able to create a revised 2020 budget that will support 50 percent of its planned charitable giving for the year (the club has announced its latest round of grants to Generations Ahead, Grand Traverse Conversation District, SEEDs, and The Civic Center).
Another major fundraiser event, the mid-April Big Little Hero Race hosted by Northwestern Michigan College (NMC), also had to cancel this year. Each year, the superhero-themed race raises money for Big Brothers Big Sisters, not just through race registrations, but also from community sponsorships, a race-day auction, and more. According to Kristy McDonald – who teaches the NMC business communications class that organizes the event – Big Little Hero was able to raise $18,000 this year even without an in-person (or virtual) race.Comment