I’ve been meaning to post on the topic of race fees for a while, but I was inspired to write this post today because of two separate running-related events that arrived at my inbox. The first and most surprising was the news that IO Events, the organizers of the Temecula Valley Half Marathon and the Arizona Half Marathon, are going out of business effective immediately. The second is the announcement of two new races from the organizers of the Zion Half Marathon, which I am running in March. Two stories of different race organizers moving in different directions. What does this say about what runners should expect and what choices we make in registering for events?
The major reason why I don’t race more is cost. Look, I live in a place where I can run 12 months a year and I run four or five days a week. At the same time, I’m also a graduate student with limited funds and I see race fees are rising all the time. Half marathons, especially here on the West Coast, can easily cost $100 or more in race fees. Major race series organizers like Run Disney and the Competitor Group (organizers of the Rock n’ Roll Series) are driving this trend, as are major half- or full-marathon events like those in New York, Boston, LA, and Chicago. Fees also tend to run in increments, with incentives for early birds and incremental increases leading to race day. The reasons for this are obvious: Registering early helps organizers determine appropriate staffing, supply levels, etc., so they want to reward this behavior. As a runner, though, I’ve lately been concerned by the practice of organizers charging high race fees–especially for first-time races–without offering adequate information to runners.
IO Events actually kept their race fees rather reasonable (I paid only $55 for the Arizona Half), but they often were not forthcoming with information on race courses, locations, and times. The inaugural Arizona Half Marathon in Spring 2012 was supposed to take place in the Scottsdale/Fountain Hills area of Phoenix. I considered registering for it at that time, but held off because even within a couple months of the race there was a lack of information about lodging, course, and elevation. Eventually, the announcement was suddenly made that the race had been moved to Estrella, a different suburb of Phoenix many miles from the original location. A friend of mine did run that race in the new location and enjoyed it, but the experience made me wary of registering for future events. Indeed, it seems that IO’s business went downhill after the race I ran this fall: A planned Nevada race in November was cancelled, another went ahead only after delays, their weekly e-mail newsletters stopped, and all future events have now been cancelled.
Response on social media turned ugly in a hurry after the cancellation of this year’s Temecula Valley races was announced. On IO’s Facebook page and event pages people have called the company a scam and a fraud. Rival race organizers used the pages for the cancelled/delayed Nevada races to recruit for their own events. The business owners’ home address was posted online today (yikes), and participants in the cancelled races claim to have already filed complaints with Arizona’s Attorney General and the Better Business Bureau.
As a runner, I feel for everyone involved in the situation. If IO Events was running a con, they certainly were running a long con: Several years of planning events successfully in Northern Arizona, two runnings of the race in Phoenix, one in Temecula, another in Nevada. They put their name and contact info out there, they met with race participants… No, if anything they are guilty of being a small business with some poor planning skills that tried to expand to far, too fast in a bad economy. They definitely have a responsibility to their runners, but runners must also be conscious of what we agree to when registering for a race. How many of us really read the fine print on those waivers? I don’t always. But, there are some practices I do try to follow:
- Look at the details: A good race organizer should have a course, an elevation chart, a start time, and sponsor/partner information on their Web site before registration is open, or at least before they start charging elevated fees. If a course says it’s “proposed,” be aware that is hasn’t been signed off on by local authorities and is subject to change. I’ve refused to sign up for several races that did not offer this information up front, including most recently the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Francisco Half, which was charging nearly $100 in registration fees for a first-time race that still has no course, location, or start time. (I even contacted RnR’s customer service to complain about this when I was considering registration, only to get an extremely vague response and no offer of a fee reduction. Classy.)
- Know the company: What other races do they organize? How long have they been around? Have other events been successful? Do they have paid staff, and what is their level of experience? Do they respond to correspondence and what kind of answers do you get? A company may have a successful track record, like IO did, but recent cancellations, expansions into new cities, or trying to create too many new events at one time can be a sign of trouble.
- Be aware of the risk you assume: In every race in the country you will sign a waiver that is worded to protect the race organizers–not you. As a participant, you often not only sign away your right to collect from them if you are injured while participating in the event, you may also sign away your right to a refund in the event of bad weather, emergencies, organizational issues, or the bankruptcy of the company. Ouch. (Incidentally, U.S. bankruptcy laws generally protect companies from their creditors while they deal with their finances–meaning you are unlikely to get fees refunded if an organizer has legally declared bankruptcy.)
- Consider whether late registration fees are worth the risk. If anything about the event or its organizers seems uncertain or “off” to you, consider waiting. You will pay more when you register for a race a month or less in advance, but it may save you some heartache in the long run.
In my opinion, we as runners play an important role in keeping the race industry honest. With the number of races (especially half marathons) booming nationwide and with no overarching regulatory body, it’s up to the consumers to educate themselves and keep organizers on track. The Rock ‘n’ Roll event series continues to thrive despite unanswered questions about mass illness at its 2011 event in Las Vegas. The fact that the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Francisco Half would sell out with no course, no start time, or even a starting location within the city of San Francisco is astonishing to me. Likewise, the RAM Racing Hot Chocolate 5k/15k series continues to expand despite a disastrous event in Washington DC last year, a very poorly reviewed run in Chicago, and the postponement of its planned events in Denver and San Francisco. As long as runners don’t demand more, irresponsible practices will continue. Do your homework, share race reviews on social media, Yelp, or elsewhere online, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Hopefully we all have many happy racing days ahead.