Up and running
OREGON — Aaron Montaglione admits the pleas to support restaurants sometimes frustrate him.
While he appreciates the struggles facing the food service industry because of COVID-19, the founder of Terrapin Events said the endurance sports industry is at least as fragile as a local restaurant or pub.
"We need your support, too. And we can't do takeout or fill a growler," Montaglione said.
Montaglione has been staging runs and other events in the metro area for 19 years but isn't confident his business or those that he works with will be around if social-distancing rules persist.
"We're talking about an entire industry closing down because you cannot get together," said Montaglione, who had to cancel his popular Bridge to Brews 10K run this spring.
From larger events such as the Portland Marathon and the Shamrock Run, to smaller events including runs held for charities, the infrastructure they rely upon is at risk.
Enter the Endurance Sports Coalition, a national effort to generate awareness of and political support for an industry that the coalition says generates billions in annual revenue. The coalition was founded and is largely funded by endurance sports heavyweights including Spartan Race, Tough Mudder and Ironman. Smaller "mom and pop" operations such as metro-area Terrapin Events and Events 37 have signed on to support the lobbying effort.
"The events industry is going to take a hit unlike any other industry," said Brady Mordhorst, founder of Tualatin-based Events 37, which stages runs and other events, many of which help support nonprofits.
He said the failure of the businesses that support events such as foot races and triathlons would make it hard for many events to continue.
"If I can't find a company to time my race, whether because they don't exist any longer or because they are overbooked, I'll have to bring that in house, which of course will increase my expenses," Mordhorst said. "If that happens for multiple aspects of a particular run, the financials may not work out to actually host the run any longer."
Companies like Terrapin Events and Events 37 rely on myriad businesses and volunteer help. Businesses threatened by the COVID-19 shutdown include those that time the races, provide the medals handed to finishers, deliver portable toilets, print the numbers that runners pin on themselves, feed participants and make the T-shirts and other gear athletes want.
"Mass participation events are going to be one of the hardest hit industries in the COVID-19 crisis. Many events and the companies that make those events possible simply don't have the resources to weather this kind of storm and/or ramp up next year," said Tim Murphy, co-founder with his wife, Jessica, of the Portland footrace marketing company BibRave. "Endurance events are critical to keeping our society active, healthy and motivated, so their ability to survive and bounce back is critical."
There is no cost to join the Endurance Sports Coalition, which in less than three weeks has signed up more than 750 members. Most of those members won't support the effort financially but will be asked to spread the word and to motivate the participants in their events to lobby their representatives in Washington, D.C.
The Endurance Sports Coalition also joined the America's Recovery Fund Coalition, an alliance of more than 100 business and trade organizations pursuing a grant-based federal program to assist businesses impacted by COVID-19.
Local members emphasize they don't speak for the Endurance Sports Coalition, but see it as a welcome tool to help their industry cope with ongoing challenges. BibRave's Murphy said the Endurance Sports Coalition is vital to give a fragile industry a unified voice in asking for financial help from the government.
Murphy is projecting a significant downturn in business if races are canceled into 2021. Revenue streams impacted include races that pay BibRave to market events and brand promotion activity the company handles at major events such as the Boston Marathon.
"That's just one example — there's an industrywide cascading effect that occurs when races have to cancel," Murphy said.
Montaglione said that joining the coalition made sense for Terrapin Events, given that established industry brands and organizations such as Running USA, USA Triathlon and the Rock N' Roll Marathon Series are funding the effort
"Those guys are doing the work, which helps companies like mine," Montaglione said. "Hopefully, the entire industry gets something out of it, not just (the large companies)."
When they do return, foot races, triathlons and obstacle course events might look much different. Participants might be required to wear masks, or to carry their own cup with them between aid stations.
"I cannot imagine a race where you start a couple of runners at a time and be able to have enough participants to make it work financially," Montaglione said.
Even when social-distancing rules are eased as the months pass, Montaglione noted there is no telling how long it will take people to feel comfortable around crowds.
Another challenge would be finding the resources to stage postponed events should they be allowed by the fall. There are only so many weekends and Montaglione noted that police departments and others likely won't have the staffing to support multiple events.
"Our goal is the same as any number of businesses and industries that are looking to survive," said Kyle McLaughlin, CEO of Tough Mudder and the man heading up the Endurance Sports Coalition. He said that once the severity of the risk became clear, it was easy to get diverse organizations, including competitors, to band together.
"We realized that everybody was having the same concerns," McLaughlin said.
One of those is Jared Rohatinsky, whose Utah-based company, Brooksee, took over the Portland Marathon last year. This year's Portland Marathon, scheduled for Oct. 4, is still a go and planning continues for the race.
"We're still encouraging folks to sign up," he said.
Rohatinsky emphasized that runners who register for the Portland Marathon have the flexibility to get a refund, to move their registration for the 2020 event to 2021, or to move it to a different runner.
So far, Rohatinsky has had to cancel four of his events, including the Mount Hood Marathon and Half Marathon. That race from Timberline Lodge into Sandy was to happen on June 27.
Despite those cancellations, Rohatinsky said he has been able to retain much of his staff as his team continues to prepare for late summer events and for the Portland Marathon. Still, having a strong advocate in Washington is important, he said.
Rohatinsky is not providing funding for the coalition but is supporting the effort by providing information about his business that lobbyists can use and by helping spread the word about the coalition's efforts.
One of the first focuses for the Endurance Sports Coalition is to help vendors, such as timing services, get relief through the national paycheck protection and the small business loan programs.
The Endurance Sports Coalition also will advocate for the creation of a national COVID-19 relief fund that can make up revenue gaps beyond what Congress already has approved.
Bigger picture, the group also will advocate for the federal government to create a set of guidelines, policies and practices for anyone staging large events to follow. McLaughlin notes that if policies for protecting participants and fans from the virus change state to state or county to county, staging events becomes more complex.
"This is uncharted territory," Rohatinsky said. "Everyone is scrambling to be on the same page."
Terrapin's Montaglione says his company will be ready to go as soon as guidelines allow. His is among the many companies taking some events online by giving participants a window to run a designated number of miles. A costume contest where participants send in photos or videos is another idea, he said.
Those footraces that survive the economic strain of this pandemic could be poised to thrive because the stay-at-home orders mean more people are running for exercise. That trend is the motivation behind Release the Runner, a BibRave effort to market the sport by creating and sharing free of charge material that any company is welcome to use to promote the sport.
"The logic here is that, with gym and studio closures, more people are turning to running for their exercise than ever — and we want to keep those people in the sport so that when we can gather to run again our community will be bigger and better," Murphy said.
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