Back up and running
It has been 16 months since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world and marathon running as we knew it. Races big and small were impacted and many have had one, if not two editions cancelled.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel with in-person events returning and to date we have had more than 25 of our AbbottWMM Wanda Age Group Qualifying races take place, with a very busy fall ahead.
We caught up with one of our qualifying events – the Scotiabank Calgary Marathon – to understand how the team behind the event have worked through the last year and are planning their return to the roads.
Kirsten Fleming is the Event Director of Run Calgary who oversees a full-time team of five and has steered her crew through some rough seas and back towards a return to racing. We spoke to Kirsten as she looks ahead to their event in September.
What was the situation for your event in 2020?
This all feels like a lifetime ago now that we are halfway through 2021. We initially suspended registration in March of 2020 as the story was unfolding and we wanted to work towards a postponed date. It soon became clear within weeks that we were not going to have an event.
We made the decision as a team quickly but it took a while for us to get our many stakeholders (board of directors, sponsors, city, vendors) on the same page as people were experiencing all sorts of emotions and had so many opinions but none of us really knew what lay ahead.
We worked on a virtual plan and were fortunate enough to be able to convert 60% of our registered participants to virtual. Initially there was some push back from participants across the country about races enforcing no refund policies and they were upset that we were cancelling rather than postponing but as the pandemic evolved, runners were generally incredibly very supportive.
We are a small team so we managed to keep the core staff together although we weren’t able to keep contractors or hire seasonal staff. This continuity of the staff was key in order to be able to ramp up when the time came, so we are grateful that by the grace of government supports, sponsorship fees and our loyal virtual runners, we have kept the operations going and have used the down time to be stronger for the comeback.
We moved the marathon from May to September this year to give ourselves the best possible opportunity to hold as normal as possible event that people have come to love and look forward to. We also had to adjust the field size from the normal 12,000 runners to 4,000 in-person and 1,000 competing virtually.
What is the current COVID situation in Canada?
Due to the size of the country, each province in Canada has dealt with COVID differently so some provinces with fewer COVID cases and higher vaccination rates starting to open up, including to events, but still with restrictions in place.
Alberta is a pro-business province and as we approach summer, permits are being issued and we have been told by the health ministry that we will be moving from ‘mandated to recommended’ over the coming weeks.
Run Calgary is erring on the side of caution and still planning for a COVID-adapted plan for September and then when we return to our regularly scheduled programming in 2022 we are throwing the marathon party of the millennia!!
How will the experience differ for runners this year?
We have changed the format of package pick-up, creating better flow through for the start and finish areas which eliminates dwell time - something we normally encourage!
We have 17,000 seats for spectators so we will still allow people to come and watch but they will be spread out rather than everyone bunching in lower stands. Instead of cinnamon buns, smoothies and smiley fries being whipped up fresh at the post-run party, runners will be gifted grab and go bags as they leave the finisher chute.
We are focusing on athletics and fundraising rather than all the bells and whistles of a normal year. It will be a throwback to what races used to be before they became such spectacles.
Give us an idea of the work involved to make this event safe to return in 2021.
Every planning decision we are making is through the lens of COVID safety as well as general safety. The question we ask constantly is ‘how can we keep the experience high and risk factor low?’
Our staff has invested more than 2880 hours into learning, planning and creating revised plans and budgets to be able to host an event in 2021. It’s been an endless stream of conversation with colleagues across the industry, reading materials from other industries and experts, watching and participating in webinars, team meetings, site checks, and then reworking and testing plan after plan. I have never felt more confident in my team’s ability to create and execute a world-class event.
We will be better for what we have gone through this last 18 months and we are confident it will be obvious to our participants when they return to our start lines.
What has been the most challenging thing about working in marathon events during COVID?
I have said many times over the last 18 months, it’s a lot of work not putting on races. While I am being facetious, the truth is we typically plan with a high level of certainty that the event will happen. It’s been difficult to keep things going when you don’t know what or when you are working towards.
The support of my peers in the industry both across all the other Canadian marathon directors and from around the globe has made the uncertainty more bearable and it’s been a shared experience and challenge.
What are you most excited about in the return of your event?
We have put on 11 virtual races and challenges for our loyal regional following since the pandemic began and it’s awesome to see the online engagement, but there is nothing like being at an actual in-person finish line.
I am excited for a lot of things but mostly to see the smiles and pride in peoples’ eyes on race day. While I don’t expect to be sharing high-fives or hugs, I will take the elbow bumps and cheering as a big win to be back.
What were some of the key things that you learned from the pandemic effect on marathon events and what learnings will you carry forward for future events?
We used this year to future proof our organization. This meant diversifying, finding new ways to do things, becoming more efficient and knowing our guests better.
Take nothing for granted, our industry was nearly destroyed overnight so I feel very grateful we are able to take the things we learned forward. I also realized the importance of reading the fine print.
Growth and innovation come out of necessity so I feel energized about the dawn of a new era in our industry and I am excited to see 18 months of collaboration start to actualize at start lines all over the globe. If I were a participant, partner or charity I would be extremely optimistic about the future of races.
The Scotiabank Calgary Marathon is part of the AbbottWMM Wanda Age Group World Rankings Qualifying Series. Find out more HERE.
Click HERE for more information on the Scotiabank Calgary Marathon.