A Runner’s Guide to Healthy Expectations
To say these are unsettled times would be an understatement. With the world in the grip of the COVID-19 crisis, many running events have already been canceled or postponed, with more cancellations to come. Which means that if you’ve registered for a race in the next couple of months (at least), you’re likely out of luck.
But that doesn’t mean you’re out of options. So we wanted to give runners a sense for what to expect when their race is canceled, and how to help both themselves and appreciative event organizers navigate this new normal as seamlessly as possible.
What happens when a race is canceled?
First things first — depending on how much of a goal race this was for you, you’ll most likely feel a mix of aggravation and disappointment (unless of course your training got sidetracked, then maybe… relief?). Which is not only normal but healthy, and especially if you put a lot of miles — and potentially months — into preparing for race day.
Once that initial wave of despair subsides, however, do realize this is no one’s fault, and everyone shares in your frustration. Nobody planned for this, and there’s no playbook for what to do when a global pandemic sets the world on edge. Even the Boston Marathon — the nation’s second oldest foot race, held through two World Wars and the 1918 “Spanish Flu” pandemic — was forced to postpone for the first time in 124 years.
So try to appreciate that in this fast-moving and turbulent situation, race organizers are a) likely even more disappointed than you at having to cancel their event(s), and b) doing the absolute best they can (often with limited resources) to take care of and do right by their runners.
So should I expect a refund of my event registration?
We want to answer this question as clearly as possible, so NO. Unless the event clearly states otherwise in its terms and conditions, you should NOT expect to receive a refund of your registration fee. This practice is common to nearly all races — we’ll cover why in a moment — and clearly stated in the small (and sometimes not-so-small) copy on the registration page.
By submitting payment, you enter into a contract that in all likelihood specifies no refunds. Now it’s time to honor that contract and embrace reality. Yes, it would be easy enough to post an angry, all-caps diatribe on the race’s Facebook page demanding a refund because the rules somehow don’t apply to you, but before you do so put yourself in the race director’s shoes. What would you do in the same situation?
In other words, don’t be “that guy.” Trust us, the last thing a race director wants is to have to cancel their event. Sometimes, though, the decision is out of their hands.
Which brings us to the French term force majeure, which translates to “superior or overwhelming force.” Most folks would agree that if a tiny piece of viral RNA that forces civilized societies into isolation doesn’t qualify as a force majeure, nothing does. You may have seen this term — or similarly, “Act of God” — on the registration page as a reason the race organizer would potentially cancel an event (or maybe you didn’t, but just because you didn’t read the terms & conditions doesn’t mean they’re not binding — just ask Apple). In many cases this is the only reason a race organizer would cancel their event. But as we’re all now experiencing first-hand, there’s a reason this term exists.
Again, none of this is the race organizer’s fault. And understandably, that can be one of the most frustrating aspects of this situation — the helplessness of knowing there’s no one to blame. But don’t use your disappointment as an excuse to lash out at a race organizer who is only trying to do right by you and their other customers. Maybe you can’t control the situation, but you can always control your attitude. (Even the Incredible Hulk gained control of his emotions eventually.)
Some running events are owned and operated by larger companies with revenue in the millions, which allows these events considerably more financial flexibility. Such events, however, are relatively few in number and certainly not the norm. So please don’t treat your local race director, who may themselves be an unpaid volunteer (this is more common than you may think), like a hedge fund manager who’s only in this for the money.
In fact, there’s a reason survey respondents recently rated “Event Coordinator” as the sixth most stressful job in the US. And even Boston Marathon Race Director Dave McGillivray has a button on his desk that reads, “My job is secure, no one else wants it!”
Wait… why can’t I get a refund?
This boils down to two words: sunk costs. Which means exactly what it says. Depending on the event, 80% or more of total expenses are incurred before race day, with most of those expenses being paid several months in advance.
Each runner’s registration fee covers shirts, finisher medals, awards, marketing, staff salaries, course certification, permits (sometimes several) and police infrastructure, for starters. Think of each race as a small business, because many are and the challenges are similar. And if you’ve never given much thought to all the preplanning that happens before race day, this excellent checklist will give you newfound respect for your friendly neighborhood race director.
With that in mind, it’s no exaggeration to say that for many events, offering their runners a refund would amount to financial suicide. And if you insist on demanding a refund, you’re essentially saying you’re fine with the event going out of business just as long as you get paid. Because another not-so-fun fact: whereas the typical event liability insurance policy covers natural disasters (e.g. fire, flood, earthquake), it doesn’t cover infectious diseases (who knew?).
What is more, many events are charitable, not-for-profit fundraisers, and so demanding a refund from these organizations essentially amounts to taking money out of the charity’s coffers to pay yourself. If that ain’t bad karma, we don’t know what is.
In the same way, chargebacks (that is, going behind the race organizer’s back to dispute the registration fee with your financial institution) are a definite no-no. Not only are you demanding money the race organizer no longer has (and threatening their business in the process), but you’re costing them additional fees on behalf of the bank. Hopefully we can all agree that we’d rather our discretionary dollars go to our favorite events than to our local bank.
The Road Runners Club of America sagely advises that runners “take a long-term view of your role in ensuring the financial survival of your community-owned events.” Hear, hear.
So then what are my options?
One thing you can (and should) expect from race organizers is clear, timely communication as to their plans regarding cancellations. Most runners simply want to minimize uncertainty and understand their options, and race directors should follow the lead of organizations like the Cincinnati Flying Pig Marathon in clearly communicating to runners their options as well as a timeline in the event of cancellation or postponement.
Where possible and appropriate, many races offer several alternatives to in-person race day:
- Virtual Races: Runners may transition to a “virtual” event in which they run the requisite distance in a place and at a time of their choosing; the race organizer then mails them their swag (medal, shirt, etc), typically at additional cost to the race.
- Deferral: A deferral option enables runners to roll their registration over to either the next year’s event or another event from the same company. Deferral options differ by event (some may charge a deferral fee to offset costs), and each event should clearly communicate its deferral options within a reasonable time frame following cancelation.
- Postponement: If the event is postponed rather than canceled (and lucky you if it is, since this requires extensive coordination with the race venue, vendors, etc), your registration will automatically be applied to the newly scheduled event.
- Donation: For events that work with (or are themselves) charitable organizations, you may be able to donate your registration fee and receive a tax write-off. How’s that for a win-win?
I’m kinda busy, could you TL;DR this for me?
The bottom line? We’re in unchartered waters here, and the boat just sprang a leak. So don’t expect or demand a refund if your race gets canceled; in most cases this just isn’t a realistic expectation. But do be patient, and do be kind to your race director — empathy costs you nothing, and a little goes a long way.
Hopefully you’ll view each race as a long-term relationship rather than a short-term transaction, and as an opportunity to pay it forward in a sport we all love. In the age of COVID-19, the Golden Rule applies now more than ever. And like it or not, we’ll all get through this the same way we get through everything — together.
In the meantime, we runners are no strangers to social distancing. So stay healthy and keep running strong! And let us know in the comments below what you’re doing to stay sane and support your local race director.
For a clear explanation of the costs (financial and otherwise) associated with event management, we recommend this open letter from Kirsten Fleming, Executive Director of Run Calgary and the Calgary Marathon.
Author: Mike Sohaskey
Mike Sohaskey is the co-founder of RaceRaves, the premier online reviews community for runners to share their race experiences and find their next challenge. Mike honed his creative and critical thinking skills as a research scientist, earning a Ph.D. in Cancer Biology from Stanford. He’s also completed over 100 races — including 50+ marathons and ultras — in locations ranging from Antarctica to Zimbabwe.
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