When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, under the surge of the pandemic, announced new recommendations to cancel gatherings of more than 50 people for the next eight weeks, Get in Gear was one of the first road running events in Minnesota to act.
The date was March 15, and within 24 hours the event — which offers five different races and was scheduled April 25 in Minneapolis — announced the cancellation to thousands of runners. A “rite of spring” since 1978 (as Get in Gear proudly calls itself) was derailed.
Since then, 50 Minnesota races within the eight-week window have been scrapped or postponed. Then another large domino fell last week: Grandma’s Marathon. The event, which also includes a popular half-marathon and 5-kilometer race, was expected to bring in 20,000 entrants for its 44th year.
Now, the status of another 200 races between June and October remains uncertain, with questions of how races will proceed.
“When Grandma’s had to cancel there’s no doubt that was a blow,” said Mike Logan, president of Twin Cities in Motion, which puts on the marathon and popular TC10-Mile. He said it’s been difficult to watch the COVID-19 pandemic affect the entire racing community.
“Even if stay-at-home orders are lifted or reduced, we know that large gatherings in all sports are being scrutinized.”
Grandma’s Marathon’s absence will cost the city of Duluth upward of $10 million in lost revenue, according to Visit Duluth, a tourism group.
Twin Cities in Motion already has put off two of its events in May, and the organization is developing contingencies for those and events later in the year, including the Twin Cities Marathon on Oct. 4, Logan said.
Options include combining several races, relocating them, or more postponements and cancellations. However, an event the magnitude of the marathon would be difficult to reschedule. It takes nearly 18 months to plan for the race, Logan said.
Twin Cities in Motion has a built-up reserve of capital to sustain a complete lost year of racing, but other smaller racing organizations across Minnesota aren’t as fortunate.
With all 10 of the organization’s races in jeopardy, the Minnesota Distance Running Association (MDRA) might request payroll assistance from the trillion-dollar pandemic stimulus package in order to stay afloat, operations manager Sarah McInerney said.
“Without it, I don’t think we’d make it,” McInerney said.
MDRA has a $250,000 annual operating budget, but half of its gross revenue comes from training programs and race entries. Five races and half the training programs have been canceled.
Get in Gear relies heavily on registrant fees. While organizers expected 5,000 to 6,000 registered by race day, they had only 2,500 before the race was canceled, complicating matters.
“There is no way we start the beginning of the year with enough funds that are needed to produce an event,” said Paulette Odenthal, Get in Gear’s executive director. “If 100 percent of the refunds for the registrations were given back this year, we would not be able to have a Get in Gear in 2021.”
While Get in Gear isn’t giving refunds, it isn’t alone. Almost every race in Minnesota has a no-refund policy built into registrations for any scenario.
Grandma’s Marathon received blowback on social media. However, race directors across the community insist that’s a minority; most people are understanding and some have offered to send money to help the organizations, they said.
“We’ve had people send us money and say, ‘Hey, anything we can do to help you survive this so you can still be here next year,’ ” said John Storkamp, who founded Rocksteady Running to organize trail races across the state.
Storkamp already has canceled the Zumbro Endurance Runs (100, 50 and 17 miles), an early favorite on the trail running calendar, which had 615 runners registered to run the first weekend in April. The 50K and 25K races on the Superior Hiking Trail in May also fell.
A new movement of sorts has responded to the cancellation of races.
Many of the biggest race organizations — including Twin Cities in Motion, Grandma’s Marathon and Get in Gear — have introduced virtual races. Participants are encouraged to run the distance they would’ve covered and submit their times online to receive a finisher’s shirt and medal.
The approach isn’t meant to simulate the actual race, but to encourage the public to fill the void and continue to run while practicing social distancing.
For Dan Hylton, a 49-year-old housing researcher from Minneapolis, the ability to keep running and try a virtual race has helped relieve stress. Hylton competed in a virtual 10-mile race put on by the Upper Midwest Trail Runners earlier this week, repeating a half-mile loop near his house until he hit 10.
“The fact that I’ve been able to get out and run and it is in fact encouraged has been one of the great stabilizing things for me in this time,” Hylton said. “It was the fastest 10 miles I’ve ever run.”
Several organizations and runners are also using the sudden gap to help COVID-19 relief efforts.
The Minnesota Running Series is offering several virtual races between 5K and a half-marathon. Those who donate to the Open-Door Food Shelf also receive a finisher medal; thus far nearly 900 runners have helped raise more than $8,000.
Twin Cities in Motion also has started a virtual running fundraiser, Run for All, with participants dedicating to running and raising money April 24-26. Donations will benefit Feeding the Frontlines MN.
Aaron Boike, a 31-year-old personal fitness instructor from Golden Valley, improvised his own 100-mile run. After planning to compete in the canceled Badger Mountain Challenge in Washington state, Boike was determined to see the results of his training.
The morning of March 28, on a 1.6-mile loop in Kenwood Park in Minneapolis (nicknamed “Mount Kenwood” by Boike), he, Matt Van Donsel and two other friends began the run which would take them around the loop over 62 times. Several friends and family members pledged to donate to the PRISM Food Shelf in Golden Valley. After 24 hours battling torrential rain and at times snow, Boike and Van Donsel finished. Their buddies, for their part, knocked out 50 miles. The run generated $1,600.
“At first, I thought it was hilarious and kind of ridiculous … but it was a ton of fun,” Boike said. “It made it fun to give back a little bit and made it less of a selfish endeavor to do this.”
Paul Hodowanic is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.