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As LA Marathon Returns, Race Directors Cautiously Optimistic

Photo of a woman wearing a pink tank top and pink face mask running in the street during the Long Beach half marathon.
Runners in the Long Beach Marathon on the 13.1-mile half marathon course in October, 2021.
(Sharon McNary
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LA Marathon Returns After Racing Industry Faced Difficult times

This year’s L.A. Marathon will look quite different from previous years. First, it’s taking place in the fall — when the starting gun fires on Sunday, it will be eight months after its traditional March date (and more than 18 months after it last took place in 2020).

And as some 13,000 runners and walkers stream out of the starting corral at Dodger Stadium onto Sunset Boulevard to begin their 26.2-mile journey, they’ll have more elbow room than normal — because only about half the normal number of participants is racing.

Pandemic Precautions

The smaller field was intentional, said Murphy Reinschreiber, chief operating officer of the McCourt Foundation, which puts on the L.A. Marathon. The organization wasn’t sure what public health authorities would require for social distancing and pandemic precautions when it selected the November 7 race date earlier this year.

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It’s been a long pandemic for people who’ve been deprived of the crowd scenes and excitement of racing, and a financially painful time for the small businesses that organize runs, charity walks and triathlons. Racing is coming back, but race directors are unsure how robust the return will be.

“Most people are convinced, as are we, that there are a lot of new runners out there, and walkers due to COVID,” Reinschreiber said, but added that an unknown percentage “aren’t ready to come back to events yet. And so it’s hard to know what the future brings.”

Back And Excited

Other local marathons have returned recently, attracting large fields. The Surf City Marathon in Huntington Beach, in September, drew some 13,000 participants running several different distances.

Meanwhile, the Long Beach Marathon in October pulled in about 10,000 participants in the full and half-marathon and 5K and 10K events.

Photo of a man wearing a bright green running top holding his hand over his heart amid other runners doing the same.
Roosevelt Cook, a competitor in the Long Beach Half-Marathon, during the playing of the national anthem
(Sharon McNary

Natalia Mendez, race director for Motiv Servicing Group, led production of both Surf City and Long Beach race series. She said the 18 months of no racing was a struggle, with furloughs, layoffs, events cancelled, and vendor businesses collapsing.

“The fact that we’re all back and we’re all excited to get back to racing makes me incredibly happy,” Mendez said as she surveyed the start line of the Long Beach Marathon.

The pandemic shutdown, she said, “was a huge hit to the entire event industry, not just running, but everybody who gets up and puts on events every single day.”

Through The Wringer

Race organizations that collect race fees — sometimes as much as a year in advance of 2020 races — had to keep track of which registered participants wanted to roll over their entries to this year or even next year. They also had to deal with requests for refunds, too.

“Everybody’s kind of gone through the wringer,” Mendez said.

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Gary Kutscher has been through that wringer. As race director of the Orange County Marathon, his business was looking strong in February 2020.

“We were having what we could have considered our best year in six years or so. We were up [about] 20 percent over the previous year,” Kutscher said.

But in early March, “the whole world shut down,” he said.

State and county health departments barred mass participation events. His weekend of races had to be cancelled, and he was stuck with costly souvenir swag all dated May 2020.

“I had 10,000 shirts and medals and more out in the warehouse,” he said. That was an outright loss, with no chance of refunds. Same with permits and various deposits and supplies already paid.

“We just had to eat the costs on all of that,” he said.

Despite there being no race, and lacking income from new registrations, Kutscher still had to come up with rent and payroll. He also lost income from vendors who rent booths to sell merchandise to runners at the pre-race expo. A federal Payroll Protection Program loan helped him keep people paid, he said.

Still, some of his long-time vendors appear to have gone out of business. The ripple effect of no racing also hurt charities dependent on runners’ donations and other event subcontractors.

“It has been really difficult with no new revenue coming in," Kutscher said. "We did a lot of pivoting."

A photo showing runners on the street during a road race as they pass a metal fence decorated with red white and blue flags
Runners at the start of a half-marathon race in Long Beach in October.
(Sharon McNary

Pivot To Virtual Races

One pivot was to offer a “virtual” race instead of an in-person one.

Participants could complete the distance on their own and get a medal in the mail. He offered one for his “Over Covid” race, where the medal was shaped like a coronavirus molecule.

Photo of  a medal on a blue ribbon. The medal is in the image of a Coronavirus molecule wearing a mask.
Medal from the virtual "Over COVID" virtual race from 2020
(Courtesy of Gary Kutscher)

Virtual races have low overhead, but participation can be low as well. Also, race directors are in business to put on real races, complete with the excitement of the start and finish lines and friends cheering from the sidelines. Putting on a virtual race means you’ve become a mail order company, incurring packaging and postage expenses.

Things Looking Up

By January, with the COVID vaccine rollout promising some return to normal activities, things were looking up for Kutscher’s race. His traditional May race date seemed too soon to be sure it could happen, so he chose November 7 for the in-person comeback of his Orange County Marathon.

Unfortunately, so did the Los Angeles Marathon. It starts at Dodger Stadium, and the McCourt Foundation, which puts on the race, chose the first date that was available after the end of baseball season, Reinschreiber said.

Kutscher had to pivot once more.

He canceled the full Orange County marathon but he is still offering the half-marathon so as not to compete with the L.A. race.

For now, he’s being cautiously optimistic that things will get back to normal, but it’s a fragile recovery.

“Even if COVID goes away and becomes a distant thought, I think that 2022 is going to be difficult,” Kutscher said.

That’s because he knows lots of people are running, but he remains unsure whether enough of them are ready to return to crowding into the start corrals of big races like they once did in the old days, before the pandemic.

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