In a sports world virtually put on hold, going on a run outside feels like one of the few aspects of life that hasn’t been disrupted by the novel coronavirus pandemic. But for many runners, from the global elite to the recreational athlete, the daily outings build toward a goal, whether it’s an annual pinnacle or a lifelong pursuit: a marathon.
The scrubbing of marathons from the spring calendar was to most people just another tiny shard in the virus-triggered implosion of normal life. But the consequences rippling through the quirky, grass-roots sport illustrate how something as small as canceling a race can be devastating for those who have so much riding on one or two dates a year.
“The disruption,” said David Monti of distance-running data and news service Race Results Weekly, “is just massive.”
The pro athletes at the front of the pack may lose half of their annual incomes. The hordes of runners who line up behind the elites would feel exactly like Charlie Brown when Lucy yanks away the football - if he had spent four exhausting months powering toward that kick. And the directors of the races that were canceled or postponed face at best a logistical nightmare and at worst a financial catastrophe.
The cancellation of spring marathons and the uncertainty of when or even if they’ll be rescheduled have left all of them unmoored, with no timetable as to when answers will be determined.
Very few runners make a living running marathons, and even fewer make a truly good living at it.
“The people at the top of the food chain ... they typically run two marathons a year,” said Monti, who recruited elite athletes for the New York City Marathon for 19 years. “They typically have large and generous shoe company contracts, which not only pay them a salary but also give them bonuses for performance. A person like (world-record holder) Eliud Kipchoge is losing hundreds of thousands of dollars for one appearance that is missed.”
But Kipchoge and the relatively few like him will be fine, Monti said. The pacesetters and folks a rung or two down in the rankings will be most affected by lost opportunities.
The marathon world has a series of majors, similar to tennis and golf. They are six large races that offer prestige and big payouts, and pro runners hoping to cash in can choose Tokyo, Boston or London in the spring. This year, only Tokyo occurred, and just barely - organizers booted the roughly 35,000 nonelite runners who entered and allowed fewer than 200 elites to run an eerily quiet race. It turned out to be the only spring marathon that offered big winnings, series points and large appearance fees.
With Boston and London joining Berlin, Chicago and New York City in the fall, five of the six majors will occur in a seven-week span.
So why don’t runners just suck it up and do two of those in the fall? A few may try - heck, prolific distance runner Michael Wardian of Arlington, Virginia, said he hopes to do all five - but most human bodies don’t work that way. Racing 26.2 miles usually requires at least 16 weeks of hard training, and the all-out effort on race day leaves even top athletes needing months to recover.
The overwhelming majority of marathoners run for reasons other than a payday. They set their spring race goal months ago and rearranged their lives to try to reach it, and sometimes the only thing that kept them slogging through dreary 20-milers in January and February was the vision of crossing the finish line in April.
So before the true toll of the pandemic was widely recognized, many runners’ first personal disruption was seeing their marathon erased from the calendar.
“I have a couple of friends who were like, ‘Woe is me; I’m devastated and heartbroken about my races being canceled,’ “ said Angela Moll, a pediatric ophthalmologist and masters runner who lives in San Diego. “But for the most part I think everyone else is being pretty levelheaded about it all, which is really good to see.”
From the beginning, most runners realized there were far bigger issues than a scrambled marathon schedule.
“I’d been following the news, so I knew it was coming,” said Michelle Novotni of Fairfax, Virginia, an engineer who had planned to run her first Boston Marathon on April 20. She was working from home as she spoke while trying to corral her toddler. “I’m not stressed about not being able to run Boston right now. The next however-many weeks, months may not be fun. But I think when things get better, there will be another Boston Marathon, and that is something I have to look forward to.”
Novotni found a silver lining as well: Boston’s announcement came on a Friday, so she knew she could bag the 17-miler she had planned for the weekend, guilt-free. Everyone’s training schedule needed adjustments.
“You can’t make a marathon plan that’s now eight months long or nine months long,” said Greg McMillan, a former pro coach who now oversees a robust online coaching service for all levels of runners. “Your body will break down.”
As races began to drop, McMillan faced an avalanche of questions from his hundreds of suddenly directionless runners who were all trained up with nowhere to go. “The biggest challenge for them as well as all of us - right? - is what do I do now? I got really fit, and there’s literally no races. How do you finish off this training cycle?” he said.
McMillan is advising his runners to put in one big effort to take the symbolic place of the marathon: a solo time trial, a long “race” against friends (at a social distance) or perhaps a virtual version of whatever event they had been targeting. It’s an unsatisfying closure, but it’s something to do before they put their training on ice until it’s time to ramp up for the fall.
All marathons are not equal. The sport has a few haves and a lot of have-nots.
People in the industry say the smaller races face the most dire consequences because they operate on shoestring margins even in the best of times.
“Ninety percent of the races that are either canceling or postponing are nonprofits that do a lot just to stay alive on a daily basis, let alone when you have to cancel a major event,” said Troy Schooley, CEO of the company that operates the Pittsburgh Marathon, which had been scheduled for May 3.
Even some well-known races are run on tight budgets, said Rich Harshbarger, CEO of distance-running trade association Running USA. Most money is spent months in advance on things such as city permits, business expenses, T-shirts and medals.
Few races are able to give full refunds - runners agree to this in the waivers they sign - but many race directors have been creative in their attempts to keep runners’ goodwill.
Some are allowing them to defer to next year’s race or are offering discounts for other events or merchandise. Many have set up “virtual” versions of their races in which competitors can run the distance wherever they are - on the honor system - and still receive their T-shirts and medals.
To try to salvage their events, a few race directors hope to move to to-be-determined dates.
But moving a marathon is not nearly as simple as sending out save-the-date cards for an event that involves hundreds or thousands of people and shuts down 26.2 miles of road.
Rick Nealis, director of the Marine Corps Marathon, and other race directors and industry observers fear smaller fall races could be squeezed out when some of the big dogs from the spring muscle into the already-crowded pack.
“Obviously when you get a race that can bring 40,000, 50,000 runners, these [smaller] races that are in the fall are going to see some of their customers go somewhere else,” said Nealis, whose marathon is usually one of largest fall races. “Some races are going to see a downturn in numbers, because they’ve changed the whole running timeline.”
Adding to the unknown is that there’s no guarantee of a fall season, either.
“I don’t know what this industry looks like in a year, especially with the smaller races,” Schooley said. “I hope that we see everybody band together through this and no races go away. That would be my dream scenario.”