Outrunning the Virus

Race promoter makes due without racing

By R.E. Graswich
September 2020

Running should be among the safest of pandemic sports. Open trails. Space for social distancing. Virus loads diluted by fresh air. Fit and healthy runners. If two sturdy legs and a decent pair of running shoes don’t guarantee immunity, they help the odds.

But what happens when 800 or 1,000 runners congregate for a Sunday race? Or when 29,000 show up for the Thanksgiving Run to Feed the Hungry? Health officials don’t want to think about that. In mid-March they banned organized races until further notice—a prohibition that wiped out the running calendar and threatens to linger into next year.

Which means Rich Hanna has time on his hands. Hanna owns Capital Road Race Management, a Sacramento firm that organizes running events and provides everything from timing equipment to T-shirts and medals. With no races to manage and runners to clock, Rich Hanna is a run promoter without a road.

“It’s our new reality,” Hanna says. “We were getting ready for the Shamrock, which is run on the Sunday before St. Patrick’s Day. It was Tuesday. We opened up our packet pickup at Fleet Feet, where runners get their timing chip, bib number and T-shirt. On Thursday, we got the word from county public health that we couldn’t do the race. Our business was shuttered.”

Scrambling to save the company he built over two decades, Hanna got creative. He figured out ways to let runners compete virtually by registering for races, running alone and sending in their times.

“It’s not like the actual race,” he says. “It’s more of an honor system. You become your own race director. You can run the actual course, or any course you like.”

Virtual races let race organizers salvage some of their investments—the T-shirts and medals made worthless by canceled races. Some promoters asked runners to defer entry fees to 2021 races. Others postponed events, hoping authorities would allow racing later in 2020—a strategy that now seems futile.

Rich Hanna expanded the possibilities of virtual races. He came up with “Shelter In Pace: The Social Distance Series.” It’s three virtual races of 3, 6 and 10 miles. Runners independently finish one segment or all three. They submit times, send in photos and receive a three-piece medal that fits together like a pizza.

He’s thinking about scavenger runs, where groups of 10 (the maximum allowed under COVID-19) run around town looking for clues. Hanna says, “It’s possible because you can socially distance while you do it.”

Hanna’s most ambitious idea is a creative leap that combines running with virus research. He would gather 200 runners, with each tested for the virus several days before the event. He would start them in waves of 50, masked and 6 feet apart.

“At the finish, there’s no gathering. You pick up your medal, get your banana and water, and you’re gone,” he says. “Then you have to get tested again.”

The event would create a wealth of data about runners and virus transmission. Hanna hopes to partner with a research outfit or COVID test kit company. “We need to prove we can put on a safe event, where people will not get the virus,” Hanna says. “We would have lots of data on everyone who entered. You know the data junkies would love something like that.”

Creativity only goes so far. Hanna has three fulltime employees. The Paycheck Protection Program helped him avoid furloughs. But what he really needs is a full 2021 race calendar, filled with 100 events, like the old days.

“Running is going to be in great shape when we get through this,” he says.

R.E. Graswich can be reached at regraswich@icloud.com. Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.


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