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A Race Director Answers Your Questions About COVID-19 Cancellations

With race after race getting canceled due to the Coronavirus pandemic, triathletes are left with a lot of questions. One of the nation's top race directors provides some answers.

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Stephen Del Monte runs DelMo Sports, which puts on eight events, including the popular Escape the Cape Triathlon in New Jersey, and serves as the race director for Atlantic City 70.3 and Rock n’ Roll Atlantic City. He also has a race production arm, which runs timing services, rents equipment, and consults for other large events.

With the spread of COVID-19 and the cancellation of most large gatherings, race directors have been faced with a tough proposition: races that must be canceled or postponed for public health, and a bottom line that requires paying staff and bills.

Del Monte’s race production business took a financial hit with so many races being called off. “We lost 10 contracts in the span of an hour,” said Del Monte. He’s also had to cancel two running races he was responsible for, but largely “we’ve been a little bit fortunate,” he said, because the bulk of their season in the Northeast doesn’t start until later.

He shared some of the things race directors are going through right now—and some of the most common questions they get.

Why do race directors have to cancel races so far out?

“For some RDs, it’s out of their hands,” said Del Monte. Some municipalities are simply pulling permits and suspending gatherings of large people, even months in advance.

He’s had conversations with city officials, asking them to wait to make decisions and give him the benefit of the doubt that he consistently puts safety and communication first. That’s where the reputation of the race director can come into play, he said.

But it’s also important to simply know your community. For most races, there are lots of pieces being worked on months and months beforehand—and right now it’s not possible to communicate and coordinate with police or city officials when they have so many other things on their plates. It’s insensitive, said Del Monte. Can you imagine asking for hundreds of volunteers for a race in June or trying to line up police resources in a hard-hit region, when they need to be focused on other things?

Why can’t I get a refund or a deferral for a race cancellation?

If the race doesn’t happen, a lot of athletes want to know why they can’t just get their money back. If it doesn’t happen, how could the race director lose money?

“Overhead,” said Del Monte. He has payroll for four employees (who he has committed to keeping on through the COVID-19 crisis, despite any financial losses), insurance, rent, permits. Sometimes, race directors also have to predict registrations and front their costs for t-shirts, medals, etc.

And even if you let athletes defer to the next year (or to a rescheduled date), “you’re going in the hole,” said Del Monte.

Consider his non-COVID-19 example: Three years in a row, he had to cancel the Escape to Louis Open Water Classic because of weather. Three years in a row, then, he let people defer to the next year, but he still had costs—timers, lifeguards, t-shirts, staff. “I had to pay a timer to not time the event,” he joked.

What are the race director’s options when canceling?

For Del Monte, race cancellations are about clearly communicating with his athletes and being upfront with them about the situation. He likes to post videos straight to his Facebook page, so athletes can see and understand he’s a real person trying to figure things out just like them. And, he said, when he’s given them the clear options he’s got, they’ve been “100 positive” and supportive.

For example, for the 10-mile race they were supposed to host in April, he gave runners two options: You can defer until next year at no cost or you can do a virtual event this year and we’ll upgrade all your swag (nicer long-sleeve shirts instead of t-shirts, bigger medals). People completely understood and now his staff is working out the logistics of mailing out hundreds of shirts.

There’s a lot going on behind the scenes that athletes don’t always realize, he said, constantly “putting together the pieces,” talking to city officials about the possibilities for rescheduling, exploring options, coordinating logistics. It takes a lot of work.

Are small race directors going to survive after all of the cancellations?

It depends.

It depends, said Del Monte, on how organized your company is and how it’s set up—i.e. Have you over leveraged by buying equipment on loans that you can’t afford to cover now? How much cash flow do you have to cover operating expenses for how long?

It also depends on how much your athlete community stays with you. If for years you “make deposits in your good will bank,” he said, then this is when you draw on those. If people trust you, then they’re more likely to be understanding about what’s happening.

But even if the race directors and race companies do everything right, it still might be too much of a hit for some of them to take.

“This is going to end some race companies,” said Del Monte. Not because they’re bad race directors, but because of the bottom line financials. If this had happened five years ago, he said, before he was more established, “there would have been no more DelMo Sports.”

And that’s why it matters where you, as an athlete, choose to invest your time and money, he said. “This is where who you choose to race with matters the most.” Do your homework when you pick races. Support your community. Know who puts on good events. “I’m giving you this precious Saturday in the spring, you only get a handful of them,” he said, so make it count.