On a Friday evening in late July, three runners padded along a ribbon of single-track trail that charts a steep pitch up Big Mountain in Whitefish, where a proud tradition of annual races has gained greater footing over the past decade.
The runners didn’t wear bib numbers or racing singlets, however, and they didn’t wait for a traditional starting gun to signal their start.
But when their GPS watches chirped in unison, they were off, bolting across the line at a breakneck pace and charging up the 3.8-mile Danny On Trail at Whitefish Mountain Resort, which this summer hosted the 38th annual Big Mountain Trail Challenge to benefit the nonprofit Glacier Nordic Ski Team’s youth programs.
Unlike years past, however, the King and Queen of Big Mountain weren’t crowned at an official award ceremony. Indeed, of the 54 registered participants, most did not bother to submit a time, regardless of whether they paid their registration fee or ran the course.
In the age of COVID-19, organized competitive events are being canceled in droves due to logistical challenges, public safety concerns and restrictions on group sizes set in place as part of the state’s phased reopening plan, and foot races are no exception.
The runners who went into oxygen debt to summit Big Mountain did so as part of a virtual trail challenge, which have become standard fare in the past six months as race organizers seek out alternatives to keep their athletes engaged without foregoing the entirety of their registration fees.
“I think we are all figuring out this new world,” the Big Mountain Trail Run organizers posted on their registration site. “It was an experiment for us at least.”
The tide of race cancellations are disappointing for would-be participants, to be sure, but it’s also a logistical nightmare for race directors and event organizers to navigate, particularly as races become more sophisticated, more popular and more expensive.
Most competitive events require a bevy of deposits and other up-front expenses, which race organizers can’t recoup.
The most recent examples of local race cancellations include the Whitefish Trail Legacy Run slated for Oct. 3-4, which raises money for the popular Whitefish Trail network, and the Foys to Blacktail Trail Marathon, which was set to take place on Sept. 20.
The organizers of the Foys to Blacktail Trail Marathon are allowing registered participants the options of donating their registration fees, transferring their registration fee to next year for free or receiving a refund. Similarly, the Whitefish Legacy organizers are allowing participants to defer registrations to 2021, receive a 50% refund or support Whitefish Legacy Partners by donating the entirety of the fee.
“This year is just not the right year to host community events with hundreds of participants. We miss seeing so many of our donors, volunteers, and partners, and hopefully next year, things will get back to normal,” Alan Myers-Davis, development director for Whitefish Legacy Partners, said.
Both events are encouraging participants to run the course as part of a virtual challenge, and additional information will be available soon on their respective event websites.
“The DIY Legacy Run will be a great option for those still looking for a competitive experience on the Whitefish Trail this October,” Myers-Davis said. “We would like to thank everyone from race registrants to event sponsor for understanding.”
Besides being a disappointment for runners eager to test their fitness, the pitfalls of race cancellations include the up-front costs that race directors pay months in advance to secure permits from government agencies, which allow organized activities like races to take place on public lands, as well as the fees paid to food vendors, to purchase swag and merchandise and to reserve the services of timing companies.
Indeed, as the number of competitive running, cycling and obstacle races has increased in recent years, timing companies have gotten more sophisticated, offering real-time updates of participants’ race progress and immediate results.
Matthew Smeltzer, founder and lead timer for the Whitefish-based company Competitive Timing, compared the challenges to the timing industry to those staggering the live entertainment and film industry.
“We’re right up there with concerts and movie theaters in terms of losses,” Smeltzer said. “And that part is really tough for us, because a lot of people don’t understand our industry.”
According to Smeltzer, Competitive Timing’s second-quarter gross revenue figures in 2020 are just 8% of last year’s earnings, and government safety nets like the payroll protection program have been critical tools to help keep his business afloat.
Smeltzer is still waiting to find out if his company qualified for the state of Montana’s grant program geared toward preserving the long-term viability of the live entertainment industry, which he believes should include timing companies.
“The state’s mandate puts a cap on the number of people allowed to gather in groups, whether it’s for concerts or races,” Smeltzer said.