When normal life was coming undone last spring under the weight of a deepening pandemic, key members of the Minnesota running community also were in survival mode. In an industry anchored on wellness and gathering en masse in public, they like so many others felt a way of life under siege.
Hundreds of recreational events were canceled. More than $1 million in registration revenue was lost. Traditional opportunities for vital fundraising were wiped out. But in the storm, a new coalition of organizations that make running and walking events a priority formed. Now, it promises to have a lasting impact as a conduit for best practices as road and trail events return to calendars and newcomers consider lacing up, too.
The Minnesota Running Industry Task Force started with a Zoom call last March and coalesced in late spring. Meeting at first were three of the largest race organizers in Minnesota: representatives of Twin Cities in Motion (TCM), which runs the marathon event among others; Anderson Race Management; and MN Run Series.
Virginia Brophy Achman, TCM's executive director, sits on national boards like that of Running USA. She said she saw how U.S. groups were aligning to prepare for COVID's fallout and felt Minnesota needed to follow suit.
Mary Anderson's company revenue was down 80%, and 90% of her 200-plus events were canceled or went virtual. "Last year just about killed me. It was horrible," said Anderson, who ultimately ran some events in South Dakota and Wisconsin, where health restrictions were more liberal.
Mike Cofrin is president of MN Run Series. Last April, he had to convert 11,000 in-person registrations to virtual for his popular Goldy's Run and its related races. All of it is virtual this year, too. "Our current stance is we're virtual now, and live when possible," he added, holding out hope for the Halloween Half-Marathon, Turkey Trot, Reindeer Run and others in his stable.
The three, co-chairs of the task force, started to reach out to their contacts, from major organizers like The Loppet and Grandma's Marathon to the smallest of operations. While doing so, they also worked on connections with state officials, specifically at Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), who are seeking input while crafting protocols.
Cofrin and Brophy Achman recalled the Minnesota State High School League making inroads based on the substance in executive orders. Meanwhile, road races were capped at 25 people maximum. The threesome sensed a disconnect.
"We knew we weren't being heard, and that we needed to establish a voice," Cofrin said.
This March saw a byproduct of new lines of communication. The state put out exhaustive guidance for organized sports games and practices that included rules for road races. In general, outdoor events of up to 250 participants are allowed, with additional rules for safely managing registration and volunteers. Also, the coalition has supplied to MDH focused "crowd science" data from United Kingdom researchers who've worked with major world marathons, Brophy Achman said. The data can help model what's regarded as a safe flow of runners through a race, beginning with the makeup at the start line.
The emphasis of the group, said Brophy Achman, is "how can we work together when the state is ready to keep moving that dial — that we already are getting ahead of it."
She said the coalition soon is expecting more running-specific guidance from MDH. Clearly, race organizers have gained some clarity and comfort. Grandma's Marathon is prepared to run its signature 26.2-mile event capped at 4,000 in June. It also will run its popular half-marathon and 5K. TCM opened registration Thursday on its website for its autumn marathon, which also will cap at 4,000. Like Grandma's, it's expected to quickly fill.
The coalition now includes more than 40 stakeholders and continues to meet regularly. The collaboration also has introduced a collegiality among some competitors that's important going forward, Brophy Achman said. "It has touched just about every person who organized a race in Minnesota," Anderson said.
Cofrin added that the coalition in turn has become "a great channel" for MDH to educate event organizers and participants.
Anderson credited some of the heavy hitters for helping create a vibe of inclusivity, in which small operations can have a voice, seek advice and offer ideas in channels that maybe didn't exist a year ago.
Grandma's and TCM have been "very vocal about helping the smaller events" seeking guidance, knowing that will help inform others, Anderson said.
Joy Leafblad agreed. As sports commissioner for Visit Mankato, Leafblad is organizing the Mankato Marathon and related races Oct. 16. She said the leadership at the top has brought assurance for many as new parameters for road racing are anticipated. Leafblad added that all eyes are on Duluth to see how Grandma's manages the largest races in the state to date. Two members of a Mankato community task force are running, with plans to report back.
"[The coalition] has allowed us to have one voice for many," she said, "and that's been very beneficial."
Anderson sees other benefits, too — for the racers and for those driven by the pandemic to try running.
She anticipates some people will be reluctant, while others will crave community.
"I am really excited to see what will happen once things do really open up," Anderson said. "I am hoping we can somehow capitalize on all these new people who are running."
Bob Timmons • 612-673-7899