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Many runners are skipping virtual and live 5Ks during pandemic. Nonprofits are hurting

Amanda Parrish
Middletown Transcript

Westside Health in Newark had its 30th superhero-themed 5K/10K this year, but it wasn’t the way the health center hoped to celebrate the milestone.

Due to the pandemic, the run and walk that brings together families and community members was shifted to a virtual fundraiser.

“It was a big year. We were looking forward to celebrating and we just didn't have that energy of an in-person party we were hoping to have with that event,” Leann Marcinek, external affairs manager for Westside Health, said.

The race is usually held in June and they tried to plan it for November, but she said the outlook was bleak since the pandemic was not improving. They decided to hold it virtually in August instead.

Fundraising was down, sponsors were contributing less and less than half the people signed up compared to previous years.

This was the case for many nonprofits. An event that has become a staple for many organizations was canceled or moved virtually, and small businesses that run these races have suffered as a result.

5Ks see lower turnout

Races2Run owner Wayne Kursh coordinates many fun runs around the state. He said many of the nonprofits he works with have canceled, postponed or moved to a virtual venue.

"Just because you have a virtual event doesn't mean you are going to get a lot of people,” he said.

The national nonprofit Pancreatic Cancer Action Network holds PurpleStride 5K runs and walks across the country. The Delaware affiliate typically holds its fundraiser in Wilmington. When the pandemic hit, the runs went virtual.

Michele Cummings finished in second place and her son Quade won his age group in the Crush the Pandemic Virtual 10 Race 5K Run Series.

While the Delaware affiliate only met 49% of its $140,000 goal for its June 6 race, volunteer Matt Wilson said the virtual format forced them to find new ways to interact with the pancreatic cancer community that will benefit the organization in the future.

“The pandemic has shifted all of our thinking of how we do things,” he said. “People came together and thought about creative ways to get messaging out, to communicate care of the constituents, those with cancer or getting treatments.”

He said it was more than just promoting the event, but creating awareness for pancreatic cancer. Wilson said Facebook groups were one of the main ways they interacted with their members, listing survivors who signed up for the run and posting photos of people on their walks. On the day of the race, the organization had a virtual ceremony and a Zumba warmup through the group.

For Westside Health – whose race is coordinated by Races2Run – sponsorships, registration revenue and individual donations made from the 5K usually help patients who can’t afford their health care. Marcinek said when the pandemic hit, Westside Health shifted all fundraising efforts to a COVID-19 relief fund, including money from the race.

She said the center received fewer sponsorships for the race this year, but she knows small businesses have been struggling due to the pandemic.

“We try to be supportive of them by giving them recognition and visibility in the Delaware community. Nobody won. It's hard on everyone,” Marcinek said.

While other organizations chose to do theirs virtually or attempt in-person races, some nonprofits canceled completely.

Steve “Monty” Montgomery, who coordinates the Dewey Goes Pink 5K, said the race always raises a significant amount of money for the Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition. The race usually brings in thousands of runners, and organizers knew holding a socially distant event was unlikely and having it virtually was not an option.

“That would have been no way to celebrate the 10th year [of the race],” he said.

Montgomery said last year’s 5K had 3,500 people.

In lieu of the race, Dewey Goes Pink is selling T-shirts that are usually worn during the 5K and people will wear them on the day the event is usually held in early October. Those who purchase a shirt this year will reserve a spot in next year’s 10th anniversary race.

Although he is disappointed the race is canceled, Montgomery said what’s most important is helping the organization.

“It’s about taking care of the [Delaware] Breast Cancer Coalition,” he said. “People know it’s not about the party or the race.”

Registration for the shirts ends Sept. 30 at deweygoespink.com.

The Watermel Run 5K was held in Lewes Aug. 30.

Bright spots and concerns

Kursh said not all virtual events saw lower turnouts. The Races2Run owner said the Ronald McDonald House of Delaware 5K was held virtually Aug 9-15 and raised $2,000 more in 2020 than 2019.

He said some have chosen to still have in-person races, but it depended on who was holding it and where it was held. Kursh said some cities or towns were not approving special events permits through July and August. Most of the live races he has been able to have are in the southern part of the state.

When the Clayton Fire Company held its annual 5K live in August, turnout was higher, fundraising increased and sponsorships were up.

Kevin Wilson, president of the fire company, said their race isn’t a huge fundraiser for them, so they considered canceling it, expecting low turnouts. Because they hadn’t had any fundraisers since March, they decided to have it anyway.

“This was kind of not so much about the money,” he said. “We wanted to try and do it for our members.”

Although Clayton Fire Company had success, not all nonprofits did with in-person 5Ks. Kursh said Hudson Fields Phase One 5K Run/Walk in Milton on July 4 had less than half the people come out than normal.

“There is live racing, but people are still gun shy, like going to restaurants. I get it, but it's really affected the beneficiaries who are also trying to raise funds. They have really been hurt,” Kursh said.

The Watermelon Run 5K was held in Lewes Aug. 30.

Race coordinators suffer

Due to cancellations and low turnouts, businesses like Kursh’s are hurting too.

He said business is about 60% of what it was a year ago. He said they used the federal Paycheck Protection Program to help with salaries and bills, but it was gone after a couple months.

“When you don’t have live events, it's hard to promote them. The virtual, we have promoted, but it hasn't been as successful as we like,” Kursh said.

Kursh said they don’t charge as much for entry fees when it’s virtual because there aren't as many expenses involved. Because they only get a small percentage of revenue from races, when participation is down, so is the revenue they receive.

Ray Parker, who owns TriSports Charitable Events, said business has been down about 80%. Normally, he has about 50 to 60 events in a year, but as of September, he has only had seven: three virtual and four live races.

He has tried to keep refunds to a minimum and tell people their money will roll over to next year's races.

Parker said some of the larger nonprofits will be able to survive the pandemic, but the smaller ones are struggling to make it.

“I know what we do in some people's eyes is not essential, but in nonprofits’ eyes, it is very much essential,” Parker said. “There is not much you can do about what is happening now, but you have to look forward and hope for the best.”

Masks and social distancing

Races2Run and TriSports have had similar requirements for their live races: masks and social distancing before the races and at the start.

Runners are required to wear masks before and after races.

Both businesses require runners to wear a mask when they are registering and standing at the starting line. They make sure all runners are 6 feet apart and send them off in multiple groups of people to make social distancing easier.

“Once the horn sounds to signal the start of the race, they can pull [masks] down and run without their face coverings,” Kursh said.

The same is for TriSports, Parker said. After they leave the finish line, runners are on their own to comply with social distancing.

“We haven't had any issues with people not complying,” he said.

Kursh said no has fought him on the rules because everyone said they are happy to be racing again.

“Running a race, competing, finishing a race, yacking with your friends with a beer – it's a social hookup and it's so needed in today's world,” he said.