We can run, but otherwise, we’re supposed to be in hiding.
And while that strange dichotomy brought on by a global health crisis may ultimately kickstart another running boom in the United States — not unlike the Great Recession did a decade ago — for now it has road race organizers and the fitness industry at large scrambling for cover.
“In the long term, this has the opportunity to get people out and active and engaged in a sport that maybe they hadn’t thought about in a while,” said Rich Harshbarger, chief executive officer of Running USA, the national trade association for distance running. “I think that’s the good news.”
The bad news, though, is buried in the numbers Harshbarger and others in his industry are busy trying to digest. More than 5,000 race events in the U.S. from March through June already have been canceled or postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, including marathons in Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, Traverse City and Harbor Springs, along with the annual Riverbank Run in Grand Rapids that doubles as USA Track and Field’s 25K championship. And race officials — particularly those for smaller events operating on shoestring budgets — are struggling to cope with the financial consequences.
“The hard part,” Harshbarger said, “is what are these events going to do, how are they going survive and what is the landscape going to look like when we come through this?”
Industry revenue has dropped by 80-90% “practically overnight,” according to Running USA, which is now joining forces with other organizations — representing everything from Spartan Race and Tough Mudder events to USA Triathlon and USA Cycling — to lobby Congress for relief.
And even as race organizers try to get creative, offering virtual-run experiences or deferred entries to 2021 events in some cases, “the reality is that a lot of these events are facing real economic hardship,” Harshbarger says.
Running on empty
The bulk of race revenue comes from entry fees, and “a good portion of that money is spent long before the race happens,” notes Keith Hanson, a co-owner with his brother, Kevin, of the Hansons Running Shop stores in suburban Detroit.
The Hansons, who also operate a nationally renowned training program for distance runners based in Rochester Hills, had to cancel a 5K run they had scheduled for late March. They offered refunds for the $15 entry fees for the 500-600 runners who’d signed up, but Keith Hanson acknowledges it’s a different story for bigger races, most of which have no-refund policies and spend that entry-fee money on everything from salaries and city permits to T-shirts and medals.
“I’ve talked to race directors who were practically in tears about not being able to refund,” Hanson said, “and people are upset with them.”
The running industry already was dealing with some mixed emotions. Race participation numbers that had been steadily growing since the early 1990s spiked a decade ago after the Great Recession.
“What we saw back then was, because people’s jobs were impacted and their incomes were limited … there was a real return to a sport that has very few costs associated with it,” Harshbarger said.
But those numbers peaked in 2013, with just over 19 million race entries, according to Running USA data. That total fell to 17.6 million in 2019, a sixth straight year of decline that’s largely tied to the industry growth in other sectors, from yoga to adventure races, and from CrossFit and Orangetheory to SoulCycle and Peloton.
Those are all pricier options than running, generally speaking, and with Americans only just beginning to feel the financial effects of this pandemic, it’s “absolutely” possible the sport will see a similar rebound in the months and years ahead, Harshbarger said.
Particularly given the current environment, with public gatherings banned and gyms and exercise studios closed, though many have shifted their classes and training sessions online. Running has become a social activity, too, but on a training level, it remains mostly a solitary habit.
“It’s something that all you need is shoes and a little bit of time,” Harshbarger said, “and it seems like most people have that right now.”
On the run
They have permission, too. It’s written in black-and-white in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Executive Order No. 2020-21, the first exception listed in Michigan’s stay-at-home directive: “To engage in outdoor activity, including walking, hiking, running, cycling, or any other recreational activity consistent with remaining at least six feet from people from outside the individual’s household.”
And at least anecdotally, we’re seeing signs of runners springing to life all over, especially as the weather warms up in southeast Michigan.
“I’m sure we’ve all seen more of our neighbors lately than we’ve ever seen,” said Hanson, an avid runner who completed his first marathon at age 13 and captained Michigan State’s cross-country team back in the mid-1980s.
He sees them on his early-morning runs in Oakland County, and on evening walks with his wife. Harshbarger, the former race director for the Detroit Free Press Marathon, sees them as well. And in the middle of a phone interview earlier this week, he paused in mid-sentence as he looked out his window in Royal Oak and laughed, “There goes a guy out running past right now.”
The Hansons, for their part, are busy running around Metro Detroit making deliveries. The doors are closed at the four area Hansons Running Shop locations, but they’re still offering online shopping. (The Hansons have about 40 idled employees in all, and they’ve promised to keep paying full salaries and benefits for all of them through March and April, at least.)
Early spring and late summer typically are the stores’ busiest times of year, bolstered by the start of schools’ track and cross-country seasons, respectively. But Keith Hanson said sales were up 20% this year even before the shutdown for their nearly 30-year-old business, and the online purchases are now accounting for about 25% of their usual revenue.
And while the Hansons had to temporarily suspend the nightly group training runs that have become so popular in the local running community, they’re hopeful those will return as soon as it’s allowed. In the meantime, they’ll keep plodding along, and encouraging others to join them.
“I do see that this has the potential to have people change their lifestyle a little bit,” Hanson said. “Because there’s a long-enough period where they’re going do this and they’re gonna start to see changes and start to feel better. It’s a huge stress relief to be outdoors, whether you’re running or walking, or just exercising. It’s a healthy way to deal with a crisis.”