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Volume 27 No. 90
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A Light at the End of the Tunnel: Endurance Racing’s Current State and Future Potential

COVID-19 has turned endurance events upside down. Major global events such as the Ironman World Championship, and the Berlin, Boston, Chicago, and NYC Marathons have been canceled and moved to virtual competitions.

Spectator sports’ crystal ball on returning to traditional competition has been hazy, while endurance sports’ has been a dense fog. Ever-changing health and safety considerations, race operations challenges, and registration uncertainty are a few of the issues race officials are trying to manage. 

Octagon interviewed medical professionals, race officials, race organization executives, coaches and athletes to get their perspective on where the sport is heading. One thing is certain, large-scale mass endurance events will change significantly due to COVID. Said one race executive, “We need to plan for the race, and then have a backup plan. We must first work from the national (CDC) level, then to the state, then local levels on how we prepare to mitigate risk, and operate a safe race.”

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the industry is seeing certain positive trends arising amid the pandemic. There is increased interest in health, fitness and competition — and the return to endurance sports, albeit in a different manner, could be very bright. Brands that lean into the endurance arena now may be pleasantly surprised with how they can connect with consumers in new ways as competitions slowly begin to resume. 

So where do brands and race organizations go from here? Thousands of racers standing shoulder to shoulder, eager to put their hard work and training to the test in a competitive environment was the normal landscape. Reduced fields, staggered starts, and prerace social distancing is inevitable, but what about on the course during competition? The six-foot social distancing guidelines set by the CDC pertain to an individual standing still, not one who is running or biking in an exerted physical state. Organizers are hard at work to determine the operational standards that will allow races to get back on the course.  

Race economics are a focus as well. Endurance races, especially smaller local races, rely upon entry fees of participants — covering venue rentals, signage, insurance, local police support, on-course nutrition, first aid, etc. to cover operating costs. Before COVID, race organizers had a good sense of the number of participants they could count on for a given race. In the COVID era, all bets are off. Last-minute cancellations, or lack of advanced registrations, will have an impact on covering operational costs. So, do you plan a race if you’re not certain to break even?

Amid all the near-term challenges, there is certainly light at the end of the tunnel for the return to endurance sports. The increased desire for health and wellness during COVID-19 has skyrocketed in recent months. According to a study from several sources, there are an estimated 7 million new runners in the U.S. since COVID hit. Additionally, U.S. cycling sales through all retail channels grew 75% in April to a total of about $1 billion in sales for the month, according to the NPD Group. NPD said April was the first month since they began tracking the cycling market that sales have reached $1 billion in a single month. In a study of 12,000 people across 139 countries, exercise is up 88% during COVID-19. According to a RunRepeat study, people who ran once or twice per week have increased their running by 117%.

With the cancellation of the majority of races through November due to COVID-19, race organizers have pivoted to allow their participants to compete through expanded virtual racing. The sense of community, training, and competition, is driving new ways to connect with the passion. It probably comes as no surprise that virtual training and racing has increased dramatically during COVID-19. The Rock & Roll Marathon has seen 160,000 participants over 10 virtual races, Spartan Race saw over 40,000 results posted in 24 hours for its Project Unbreakable: The World’s Largest Virtual Race, and the New York Road Runners have seen more than a 119% increase in virtual racers from 2019 to 2020.

Athletes want to race, and virtual racing is almost the only way for racers to scratch the competitive itch. The number of “net new” participants in virtual racing is surprising and encouraging. Almost one-third of the 13,000 runners in the Virtual Dick’s Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon were participating in their first-ever marathon. Rev3 Triathlon has seen a similar dynamic, as  more than 30% of its virtual triathlon participants had never competed in a Rev3 triathlon before. Other major race organizations are seeing similar spikes in participation. 

There are likely multiple reasons for this rookie phenomenon — perhaps the live race seemed too intimidating, and the virtual race provided an easier way to try it out. Perhaps a global pandemic motivated people to set new goals and get into racing. Whatever the reason, it provides a positive outlook for endurance stakeholders for the long term. They now have a new pipeline — thousands of racers who may have never had exposure to their races without giving virtual a try. 

While no one truly knows when or how endurance races will return to the “new normal,” the future may be bright given the pent-up demand. The growing interest in fitness and racing is extremely encouraging, and the pipeline of new racers continues to grow. Brands that get more involved with this passion, and build a stronger relationship with fitness and endurance consumers, can benefit greatly in the long run.

Ian Hall is senior vice president of marketing for Octagon and is a five-time Ironman finisher.