The Scotiabank Ottawa Marathon announced yesterday that it’s plan for their cancelled 2020 race is to offer a free virtual race and 50% off 2021’s registration fee for all currently registered participants. The Ottawa Marathon is an advertiser in iRun and our founder, Mark Sutcliffe, sits on the race’s board. (The race also uses Sportstats for timing, and that’s our parent company). That said, we spoke to Ian Fraser, Scotiabank Ottawa Marathon’s race director, in his first year on the job, and asked him to respond to the online criticisms. I do think it’s worth mentioning that early online criticisms may not represent the opinions of runner’s at large, and may be the vocal minority. With all that said, we put some of the most stinging online complaints to Ian Fraser.
733 runners have signed a petition on Change.Org to get a refund on their race fees. What do you say to those runners?
They need to come on a journey with us. And understand that the survival of our community is hanging in the balance. If we don’t survive there will be no Ottawa Race Weekend.
Have the registration fees already been spent?
Yes, and it’s important for people to understand where their dollars ago and when. We’re a 12-month operation and start incurring costs from the second the previous year’s race ends. We have paid for 33,000 T shirts, 33,000 medals. We were tracking for 33,000 participants and stopped registration at 18,000—so we already in the hole.
We’ve probably laid out 75% of our costs, if not more, and we’ve recouped just over half of our revenue. We would like nothing better than to put on this event, we would also like to survive. And not only is this not just about us, but all the small and medium-sized businesses that do contractual work with us: Sportstats, our event design people, they’ve been partially paid for their work and they have families to feed and they go into the same grocery stores as our participants. We’re not sitting on a pile of cash that we’ve hoarded because we don’t want to give it back. We just can’t.
Why do you think people are having such an emotional response?
We do this because we love running and we love this event and we’re people-people and for us to go forward, we have to strike a balance and we’re as disappointed as any one of our vocal critics, but we’re living in a time when all kinds of family and businesses are having to make compromises and difficult decisions. Things are being cancelled and the ground is moving under us day after day so finding ways that we can connect and move forward I think as a societal goal is imperative; for our race organization and beyond that, for society at large.
Someone on social media wrote: “This is absolutely unacceptable. We are all living through this crisis and although the organizations are counting on these funds, a lot of families are now counting or getting their money back for events that are cancelled. A reimbursement should definitely be provided to all participants.”
We’re trying hard to strike a balance. Do you as a participant want us to be here in subsequent years? Would you like us to carry on the event? If the majority of people say we don’t care if this ever goes on again, just give us our money back, I would listen, but I can guarantee that’s not how the majority of our participants feel.
Are you hearing a bunch of other stuff as well, positive comments about the fluid situation?
For all the negative comments we’ve had, we’ve had a steady stream of comments from Run Ottawa, from the running community at large, the general world of running; all of them saying that they understand, that we all need a place to run and events like ours have to survive. If it was different, we would handle things differently, but right now, today, we can not survive under any other kind of circumstance.
This person said: “I will avoid this race in the future. And I hope many will think twice about signing up again. You could have postponed this event. Other options should have been considered. You definitely took along enough to decide! Not cool at all! But I am only one person…..here’s hoping more will boycott this event in the future.”
I hope I don’t sound too strident, because all of this is difficult for me, but let’s address this. On the timing of the decision, we weren’t late in making the decision. When we announced, we were roughly eight weeks out from the event. When you look at another races taking place in the spring, a whole bunch of them made their decision in the same window, races like Boston, London, Around the Bay, the Vancouver Marathon. I don’t want to cast stones at anybody, but did we take too long? Absolutely not. Did we take our time so we could look at every option? Absolutely.
What goes in to putting a race of 33,000 people over two days?
For two days, we shut down for two days a city of a million people; Ottawa is the fourth largest city in Canada and for the race, we have a medical volunteer team of 250 people; we have a mobile hospital on site and all those considerations weigh in on the decision.
What about putting on the race in the fall?
Is it responsible to try and put on an event in the fall when no one has any idea if the world will be in a better place? Is it fair to double disappoint people? We want to provide our participants with clarity. We owed them clarity and by postponing to the fall, it wasn’t a point of clarity.
Here someone wrote in with virtual run critique: “It’s becoming increasingly difficult to run safely while social distancing. This will likely become more challenging and frowned upon by public health in the weeks to come. It may even be restricted.”
First of all, we’re all living in a world of COVID-19 time. If you look back six weeks ago and think about what we we’re doing, you would never imagine we’d be in such times. By the time our virtual race begins, May 31 to the end of the summer, social distancing could be tighter, it also could become more relaxed. What’s essential is we want everyone to follow the health regulations. For now, that means running solo. Above all else, we want to take people’s health and safety into consideration. We’re mindful that no one knows where this is going — we are not encouraging people to use our actual routes; we will be encouraging people to choose safe routes near their house. It’s hugely incumbent upon people to be smart, and I think people are. Have you been out lately? There are so many runners out; people who clearly were not runners before this started. I think we need to talk about some good news.
Let’s talk about some.
Use running as a mental health tool; as a metaphor for how we deal with stress, so many important things and that makes Ottawa Marathon’s survival more important. I know this community because I live it and I know it’s a positive community built on great spirit and great vibes and we should focus on that and people should know where every cent of their dollar is actually going and how it’s working right now. I’d also like to say that our Scotiabank Charity Challenge will be extended throughout the summer and that gives so many people a greater opportunity to become donors throughout the summer.
We’ve been friends since you started and I’ve always admired you. How are you personally holding up?
I had a shitty day yesterday and this morning hasn’t been much better, but I love my community and I love this event and I apologize if we can’t provide a perfect solution to everybody, but we’re human beings and doing the best we can to keep this Canadian institution alive.