The video, titled “2020 Bighorn Race Announcement”, begins ominously.
Dark clouds hang over the race’s signature landmarks as drone footage sweeps through the Tongue River Canyon. Michelle Maneval, the long-time Race Director, stands at an outdoor lectern surrounded by stone-faced members of her mostly-volunteer race team.
“It is with a heavy, heavy heart that we have had to make the decision to cancel the 2020 running of the Bighorn Trail Run due to the global health challenge of the COVID-19 virus,” she says to the camera. “Thinking realistically, we do not believe this will resolve completely by the end of summer 2020, thus we are not planning a postponement date.”
The race will offer partial refunds, Maneval explains, but she asks athletes to consider not taking them if they’re able.
“We don’t want to complain about the economic side of this event cancelation,” she says. “On the other hand, we cannot hide the fact that this has had significant financial consequences for us.”
“This will undoubtedly have a major impact on Bighorn,” she continues, “the result of which is still unknown.”
A Painful but Unavoidable Decision
The announcement – which lives on the race website and was e-mailed to registered athletes – isn’t shocking. Hundreds of races through the summer have been canceled or postponed in response to the global pandemic. The health and safety of participants can’t be guaranteed in a race field that size, Maneval explains, nor does feel comfortable bringing athletes from 48 states and several countries to 757-person Dayton, Wyoming, whose medical infrastructure likely couldn’t handle a large outbreak.
“I would have liked to wait until the end of May to make a decision, but it became evident things wouldn’t clear up anytime soon,” she says. “And we had people traveling in who would need to make plans.”
“But it was a heart-wrenching decision,” adds Maneval, who just turned 50 and has directed Bighorn for 28 years (21 years as the sole Director), and in addition works at the family’s running and outdoor stores in Sheridan, Wyoming. She estimates she works up to 75 hours per week combining both roles in the lead-up to the race each year and notes she was directing Bighorn before she was married or had kids. “It’s a labor of love.”
While Maneval explained in the announcement video that Bighorn would not have a postponement date – “the Bighorns just aren’t the same in September,” she added – some race organizations have moved to postpone their events to later dates. The Yakima Skyline and Sun Mountain trail races, both put on by Winthrop, Washington-based organization Rainshadow Running, were postponed to the fall from their April and May dates, respectively. “It was the best decision for our company finances to still be able to offer these races in 2020, allowing us to have another set of runners run these races in 2021,” says James Varner, Co-Race Director and Owner of Rainshadow Running. “At the time we also were hopeful that races, in general, would be possible again by then.”
Varner says that if large events continue to be unsafe, postponement will no longer be an option. If a year’s worth of races are all held in the fall, he explains, the market would become oversaturated, with races failing to fill up and a potential shortage of volunteers needed to put on events like the 11 races Rainshadow puts on each year.
In April, Minnesota-based race director John Storkamp posted a communication to his website: April’s Zumbro Endurance Run and May’s Superior Spring Trail Races had been canceled, and it was likely the summer’s Afton Trail Run and Superior Fall Trail Races, as well as the five-part Endless Summer Trail Run Series – every race Storkamp’s Rocksteady Running organization puts on throughout the year – would be canceled as well.
Rocksteady Running has always had a no-refund policy, Storkamp explained, that is made clear at registration,and this time would be no different.
“We really hope to be able to hold the races next year and in the years to come, but we are already on track to start 2021 in the red,” he wrote on the Rocksteady website. “If we go too far into the red, the races are in jeopardy of not happening.”
This is the third straight year Storkamp has been forced to cancel Zumbro – the first two were due to Minnesota’s lingering winter weather – and he says that experience only reaffirmed their no-refund policy: “without it, the races would cease to exist, Rocksteady would go out of business, and personally we would go bankrupt.”
Storkamp, Varner and Maneval paint a similar picture of inflexible and pre-paid overhead and production costs: bills that were due before anyone anticipated a pandemic would force mass cancellations, and some due before a single registration fee had been collected. Notably, Storkamp and Varner both run their race organizations as a full-time job, and not as a side gig they can supplement and support with other employment. (Varner suggested that, while one-off races that rely heavily on volunteers and borrowing equipment may be in a better position to offer refunds this year, each race has a unique “micro-climate” of expenses and incomes, so it is difficult to predict.)
“We have…a staff, we have a book-keeper and an accountant, we have to pay taxes on a quarterly basis on our income regardless of when the race actually happens, we have an office, storage, utilities, insurance and maintenance to pay for year-round,” Varner says, listing examples of why some, though not all, of race entry fees have already been spent far in advance of an event. Much of the cost of putting on trail races, he says, is incurred “weeks, months and even years in advance.”
Storkamp says it’s difficult to stand by this policy knowing the economic impacts of COVID-19 are affecting athletes and community members who run his races and added a pandemic contingency to his no-refund policy: anyone experiencing financial distress can get in touch with him and he will send a check for 25 percent of their registration fee if he’s able to. Varner similarly has a “let’s talk about it” option if the other options he is offering – stay in the race at the postponed date, roll your entry over to the same race in 2021 or 2022, or transfer your entry to another runner – aren’t feasible. “I know these are hard times for many and I know what I’ve offered above might not work for everyone,” he says on Rainshadow’s website. “Please keep in mind these are hard times for me too and that we’re all in this together. I will do the best I can to meet you where you’re at.” And though they are asking athletes to consider not taking it, Bighorn’s 50 percent refund offer is rare among canceled races. They are also offering “first dibs” and a 25 percent discount on next year’s registration to athletes registered for 2020.
“We have found that when you are intentional in crafting your policies, have sound reasoning behind them, communicate those policies clearly during the registration process and apply those policies evenly and consistently while providing frequent communication and comprehensive explanations when a cancellation occurs, participants respond very well,” Storkamp says.
Varner also emphasized that running and racing is a luxury and that they seem trivial in the face of a global health crisis. “If we have many more months of race cancellations, we might have a serious problem on our hands, but if that’s the case I think there will be bigger issues facing the world than the lack of races to run,” he says.
All three Race Directors said the response has been 99 percent positive.
Storkamp walks the walk, so to speak, on supporting no-refund policies. He was one of nearly 7500 athletes registered for Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota this June when, on March 31, the race organizers announced it had been canceled. Like Storkamp’s races, there would be no postponement and refunds were not offered.
“Keep my entry fee and please let me know how I can donate more,” Storkamp commented on the Facebook post announcing the decision. “Grandma’s Marathon is an absolute asset to our state and to the city of Duluth.”
Varner says he attributes the positive response to a number of things, including “the general kindness and supportiveness of the trail and ultrarunning community, the goodwill that we have earned by taking a very customer-friendly approach to our policies as a whole over many years, and to the multiple favorable options we provided to our runners.”
What Race Directors Want You To Know
“We got one angry e-mail, and we got a little flak from a local reporter, but overall the response has been really supportive,” says Maneval.
“I don’t think people realize we need to own a storage facility year-round because of how much equipment it takes to put on a race,” Maneval says. “Think of all the tables and tents you see at each aid station, times 11 aid stations plus the start/finish area. That’s 75 tables we have to have and keep somewhere.”
She added that every runner should volunteer at an aid station at least once for every handful of races they run so that they can get a better idea of what goes on behind the scenes.
Bighorn has faced challenges before. With snow lingering in the high country last June, Maneval says the 2019 edition was pulled off “by the skin of our teeth.”
“We’ve always practiced patience and optimism,” she says. “It’s our biggest challenge yet, but we’ll be patient, and we’ll be optimistic. And we’ll see.”
Alex Kurt is a Contributing Editor for Trail Runner, and has also written for Outside, The Gear Junkieand Runner’s World. A thoroughbred Minnesotan, he currently lives, sweats and accrues sunburn in Santa Barbara, California.