Why race directors shouldn’t feel bad when canceling their events for COVID-19

The recent coronavirus outbreak, COVID-19, has disrupted life as we know it, and at the moment it often feels confusing and frustrating about how to react. One of the things that has happened over the past week are many running events being cancelled, alongside other major sporting events. This can be a very frustrating and stressful thing for people who have been looking forward to their event, and can result in some backlash. However, as a race director myself, I wanted to share my perspective on why RD’s shouldn’t feel bad if they need to cancel their event.

Let’s start off with the squishy stuff. Being a race director is stressful and hard work. You’re pouring yourself into an event that you hope brings people joy and happiness. Nothing makes an RD happier than when they see people smiling as they cross the finish line. You can see the everyday stress of life melt away as you send people off into the woods to run free. It’s a truly wonderful thing.

The last thing that any race director wants to do is put people at risk. No race director wants to send out an email after an event to let people know that something might have happened at the event that would put them in danger. There’s not a single RD that I know who would want to send out an email informing folks that they may have been exposed to a sickness. That worry taints everything about the event, and it’s the opposite of why RD’s do what they do.

But apart from “feelings” and “worry”, let’s look at a couple of practical issues. Many people don’t realize just how difficult it is to maintain any type of cleanliness and sanitization in a race environment. First off, the aid station tables are havens for germs and bacteria. Many races have gone to single-serving cups of food items which helps a lot, but it’s not foolproof. I’ve been to more than one aid station where runners will grab a small cup of food, bring it to their mouth and dump it in, and then put the cup back down on the table to be re-used. The volunteers might not even notice this and think it’s an empty cup waiting to be filled.

Volunteers should also be wearing gloves when dealing with food as much as possible, but this doesn’t prevent spreading through coughs and sneezing. Plus, volunteers are often called upon to help runners with their equipment, packs, and physical needs, and can end up touching all manner of bodily fluids.

Then there’s the actual runners themselves, who are fond of blowing snot rockets, end up with runny noses and coughs from exertion, and generally spread their bacteria all over their vicinity. It’s simply the nature of being active and exerting oneself. The exposure is less on a longer race course where people are spread out, but in shorter, more compact races, many runners are always in a crowd of people.

Even despite precautions, it’s very common for RD’s to get sick a few days after an event with some type of virus. They’ve depleted their immune system through stress, and just exposed themselves to a lot of things. But it’s simply a part of the experience for many, and we understand the nature of how this works.

Now that I’ve said a lot of gross stuff, let me say one very important thing.

For the most part this is all fine.

I’m not a doctor, but I believe and have been taught that human beings are amazing creatures with a developed immune system that takes care of the majority of what we encounter. For the majority of people, it’s not the end of the world when we encounter common germs and other bacteria. We have the capability to fight them off. That’s because our immune systems have learned over our lifetimes how to fight off the majority of things that we’ve encountered. COVID-19 is new. There’s a reason it’s called a “novel” virus, because we’ve never seen it before.

Until we can catch up and figure out how to vaccinate and better treat COVID-19, we’re in a very vulnerable spot as a species. We’re at an inflection point where we need to allow our bodies, and science, to develop the defenses that we need to combat this new threat. But that takes time. The only way to stop our medical system from getting overrun is to limit the spread of the virus as much as possible, so that we can catch up. Practicing social distancing, staying away from large gatherings, and limiting where we go, for a couple of weeks is HUGE to stopping the mass spread of the illness.

That’s why it’s OK that races have to be postponed, and race directors shouldn’t feel bad about that. None of this running and racing stuff is SO important that it’s worth risking someone’s health over. We’re all doing this because we have a passion for it (trust me RD’s don’t make much of money, if any). So, let’s cut race directors some slack and let them make the right choices for the time in which we’re living. In a few weeks things will start going back to normal and life will continue on. There’s lots more races to run, so let’s make sure we all get to the start line together.

St Croix 40 Winter Ultra – RD quick recap

This weekend, my wife and I put on our first race. We didn’t just decide to put on something simple like a 5K or 50K foot race. No, we opted for one of the most complex things that we could come up with, a winter ultramarathon with foot, bike, and ski divisions. To make it even more complex we did the entire event overnight, meaning that just like the participants, we got almost no sleep for the entire event.

PC: Cole Peyton

Overall, the event went off amazingly. Almost every single participant came up to us and told us how much fun they had, despite the challenges. We managed not to lose anyone, and there were no serious injuries. The weather was amazing with temps in the mid-20s. Our only complaint was that it wasn’t clear skies overnight for a view of the stars. It cleared up for about an hour around sunrise, but other than that, it was overcast.

The trail conditions weren’t as ideal as we would have liked them to be, with freezing rain in the weeks leading up to the event. About 70% of the course was good, but then another 10% was really bad with glare ice that the participants had to navigate. Despite all of this, many people came in to the finish like saying that, based on our descriptions, they were expecting a lot worse, and actually found the conditions to be pretty darn good.

We have a whole list of Trello cards that we’ve started to keep track of around tweaks we want to make next year. Lots of little things that we know we can improve on to make everything work easier. However, one of the biggest compliments we got all weekend was from someone who said that they couldn’t believe this was a first year event. They felt that everything was going so smoothly that it must have been going on for a while. That’s a huge testament to the mentoring and examples that we’ve followed from the race directors we admire in our life. Without their help and support, this wouldn’t have gone as well as it did.

PC: Mike Wheeler

I have a lot more I could write, but I think it’s going to take a few days to process everything. There were a lot of emotions this weekend as we saw people try something hard and succeed. Seeing the joy on their faces was so fulfilling. Hearing their stories made us feel like proud parents who did something right when raising their kids. For now, I’ll just say that this was an experience that we’ll never forget, no matter how many years we do this.

There’s a lot more work to do in the coming days. Many of the boxes are still just packed in our garage. I decided to go in to work today, because I actually needed a break from race stuff. In the coming week we’ll finalize everything and complete our lists, and start the process of thinking about what’s next!