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United States map with CANCELED stamp

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.

Other RaceRaves articles you’ll enjoy (trust us!):

March Madness, Lunatic Style
10 Quick Picks for 2020 races
Runners Choice: Best Half Marathons in the U.S.
Runners Choice: Best Marathons in the U.S.
Best Bets for Boston Marathon Qualifying Races
Tested & Trusted Race Day Tips
Running on all seven continents

And for more helpful articles, check out our blog!

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9 thoughts on “So Your Race Has Been Canceled. Now What?

  1. 100% AGREE!! Either be part of the solution or be thoughful. AND for the love of humanity, quit posting every negative thought or complaint on social media.

    Please consider using this forced “time-out” for doing good.

    1) Start a food campaign to help out your local Salvation Army and your favorite restaurant. (Details below). Or donate to mine (venmo me @shilpa-abbitt)
    2) Take this time to clean out your house and donate items to your local Salvation Army. When we come out of this, many will have lost their homes, jobs, and savings.
    3) Easy but efficient – donate to the Salvation Army https://www.salvationarmyusa.org/…/the-salvation-army-resp…/

    Food campaign Details-
    Call your local Salvation Army – ask how many people in their shelter.
    Then call your favorite restaraunt- order individually boxed meals, pay for it and take it to the Salvation Army. This gives the workers there a much needed break, because when disaster hits they continue to do the work! They work hard to ensure that the needs of first responders and the local community are met.

    1. Good call, thanks for sharing Shilpa — I’d also add that now is a crucial time to volunteer at your local food bank, since many are short on volunteers during this crisis (and yes, you can do this while practicing appropriate social distancing!). Similar to the food campaign you mention, at least one group in LA is raising money to purchase meals at local restaurants and take them to the healthcare workers on the front lines. If we all stay smart, stick together and pitch in, we’ll get through this sooner rather than later.

  2. Mike,
    Well written and appreciated. As a volunteer Race Director for a large marathon, I can vouch for the countless hours spent planning for everything to go right. I would rather put a smile on a runners face than create disappointment. As a runner, I also get that there is going to be disappointment for cancelled events. The shock seems to be over and overwhelmingly runners are understanding and supportive. Let’s focus on how awesome it is going to be when we can finally start seeing races happening again. All that pent up frustration is surely going to lead to many PR’s, right! P.S. The link in the story for the RD checklist “may” be incorrect?

    1. Thanks so much Scott, and thanks for all you do to make the Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon an annual success! Great to hear that with the initial shock subsiding, the vast majority of runners are rallying behind you and your fellow race directors, since this is going to be an ongoing challenge for some time. And hopefully the silver lining on this very gray cloud is that the time off makes all of us as runners appreciate even more just how fortunate we are.

      Appreciate the heads-up on the link, looks like that page vanished so we’ve replaced it with another equally compelling list — which likewise makes my head spin just reading it. Hats off to all the RDs who empower the rest of us to pursue our goals and chase our dreams!

  3. This is an AWESOME explanation to post about the cancelling of races.

    Who would have thought, that an ACT OF GOD, would be a virus?

    I signed up for my first Virtual Race as a pick me up. What I will be doing is sending a donation to the charity that the Run with the Cows sponsors so that they can send me my swag and medal at no cost to the organizers and/or charity. I think the only difference for me is that I will not be able to claim it as a tax write off as I live in Canada. This is the reason why I like to do smaller races that support their own community and local fundraisers. Hopefully, other runners will do the same with their virtual runs. I’m excited because this opens me up to run another race in Kansas when the time comes to visit and complete the State of Kansas,

    Good luck to all Race Directors. It’s going to be a pot filled, bumpy, miserable ride of sorts but we are all in it together and will get through it all!

    1. Thanks for your kind words and support Leona, and good call on the charitable donation — hopefully plenty of runners follow your lead and turn these lemons into lemonade! This is the time for the running community to come together, step up and show our solidarity in the face of even the most unforeseen force majeure. Be well!

    1. Ah, the feeling is mutual! 😊 Thanks so much Rachel, very kind of you to say, and we’ll always strive to inform and empower our fellow runners while welcoming new members into our community with open arms. Take care!

  4. I’m reading this now after 9 months from posting. I agree with most of it, and you know what? Some races have even offered refunds, even when the fine print said “no.” I’ll go back to those races. However, there have been a few who offered NOTHING. And to those races, I say “Go out of business!” I won’t and will never support a race like that. You might think me harsh and even a non-runner for that…..and you know what? Tough! As a customer, I think even when it’s “no one’s fault” a good race and RD should at least offer a deferral or virtual option. Just about all the businesses have done something in good faith, even if the fine print said no way. The good races have offered something. Those that take the money and do nothing…..they need to just go away.

Your turn – what do you think?