Running Insight: So, how’s 2020 been for you?
Troy Busot: Endurance racing is definitely one of the industries hardest hit by COVID. Race organizers and timers are service businesses, which means that their inventory is their expertise and the experiences they create and this is an inventory that expires minute-by-minute as time passes. When these races are cancelled, you don’t get to stick those experiences in a box in the warehouse and sell twice as many next season — those opportunities are gone. It was insanely tough to watch the impact COVID had across an entire industry where so many friends and colleagues have their lives turned upside down almost overnight.
Have you seen anything like this before?
When the 2008 financial crisis had fully unfolded we looked back at millions of race results across several decades and found that it was the only period on record where we saw sharp increases in both participation and performance in endurance races. This means that not only did significantly more people race, but average and best times also improved in meaningful ways.
So what is different this time?
The wrinkle this time has been the social distancing aspect, but I think we’re going to see a very similar, albeit delayed, reaction this time as races start coming back online. People have been using this time to find a new sport, or maybe renewed passion for the road or trails, and we’re excited to see the impact of that increased training on race results.
What does a race timing/results business do when there are no races?
Virtual has played a big part of our business in 2020 for sure — at last count, we were well over a couple hundred thousand virtual results in just a handful of months. In addition to building a Virtual Race product, we used this time to pay down technical debt and refactor some of our core systems. You can’t hope for downtime, but you can certainly take advantage of it when it falls into your lap.
Any specifics on what you accomplished in this time?
With so few races on the weekends, we rewrote several big chunks of the Athlinks backend — cans that we had been kicking down the road for years simply because there were never big enough windows of downtime to execute on them. When it became clear that COVID was going to be long-term disruptive, we just took a big step back and asked ourselves how far we could take things if we had 30, 60, 90, 120 days of time to focus, and it really opened up the possibilities.
For example, our results and series scoring applications are now around 80 times – not 80 percent, but 80 times – faster. We built an athlete notification infrastructure into the results pipeline to help with real-time communication of new results, rivals activity, etc., that we’ll be building on through the fall. We also started some fun content projects that involve our athlete community. And we launched a new services platform called PartnerSync in Beta with a handful of registration partners like RunSignUp, CT Live and Spartan Race/Ticketsocket that we’re really excited about. More on that to come.
How can the race business ever recover from what has admittedly been a disastrous year?
Well, going back to the idea that the inventory of our industry is expertise and experiences — none of those fundamentals have changed. Leadville is still Leadville and Boston is still Boston — and people are still people. We have a deep need for competition, accomplishment and socialization. Races will look a bit different for the foreseeable future. We’re likely going to see the trend toward dirt and mountain continue as it requires fewer – if any – road closures and expensive municipal fees and typically have fewer participants, but we’re already seeing upticks in participation throughout the world.
What other factors are you seeing influence the run business?
Anecdotally, you look at bike and run shoe inventories around the world — just like 2008 there is a huge surge in people turning toward health and fitness to combat stress and to turn the tables on COVID and make their bodies more resistant to the worst of it. So there’s an army of willing participants being trained as we speak, but it’s up to the collective endurance industry to embrace and invite them into our world. Lots of people who have been most affected are going to have to take big risks in the fall and into 2021 putting on races and building momentum. I’d love to see run and bike specialty and brands take a more active role in helping to stoke those fires and actively marketing events. It’s definitely going to take the entire community to welcome these new athletes into event participation and convert them from hobbyists to racers.
What are some of the good things you have seen come out of all of this?
Medicine tastes bad. It makes you want to change enough to never get sick again. Tragedy is a recurring theme in hero stories — people rising from personal misfortune to accomplish things they never before thought possible. More often than not it takes something big to affect real change in people. Neighborhoods around the world are full of people walking, running, riding bikes and hiking — making real changes in their lives.
So what will you remember about 2020?
When I look back at this time what I will remember most will be the children from our neighborhood playing outside. And I mean really, actually playing with one another – no phones, no video games – just throwing balls, running around, riding bikes, playing hide and seek ... it’s fantastic. So if we can hold onto some of that, it will definitely be a positive.
What do you think the mood of runners out there is?
Anxious. Anxious to return to competition. Anxious to compete for the first time. Anxious about getting to a start line and finding themselves around a bunch of strangers. But people will want to return to that start line and it’s up to the industry to find a way to make it safe and accommodating, while still being a viable business for these (largely) small business owners.
How about of race organizers?
Even in the best of times, everyone handles stress differently. We have seen the difficulty facing race organizers as they attempt to balance the risk/reward of putting on races. This, too, will improve with time and athletes have to be patient and compliant with the safety protocols that are being put into place. We all want to get back to racing and it only takes a couple of incidents to set us all the way back to square one.
What trends that began in this environment do you see continuing as the running world returns to a next normal?
Virtual races are definitely here to stay. Athletes have wanted them for a long time and event organizers have struggled with how to integrate them with their in-person events, but we were all forced into solving some of those problems and we will continue to refine the way that we score and report those races — normalizing for course differences, treadmills, that sort of thing.
How about the size and scope of future races?
Events are now being capped by local regulations and are therefore much smaller than they were before. For instance, 1000 participant events are now capped at 100. While this presents obvious challenges, down-scaling these events actually makes organizing events more approachable and possible from players that might not have thought they could get into the events game. So, we’re seeing local businesses, non-profits, run clubs, etc., putting on small races in parks and on trails partly because the expectations and event operations are now much more attainable.
And hitting the trail?
We were already trending off-road, with gravel and trail races making huge jumps in popularity over the past five years, and that shows no signs of slowing. Along with that, I think you’re going to see novelty races make a big comeback — not like the Color Runs and big festivals from before, but races that combine disciplines like cyclocross triathlons or ÖTILLÖ ultra swim + run races, and Spartan/OCR type races going indoors with events like DEKAFIT. When you hit rock bottom, organizers have nothing to lose by making changes
Can that be done?
I would love to see an entrepreneur break things down to their basic parts and come up with something new — similar to how Spartan Race took OCR from zero to a million participants. Just blow it up and start over with a totally blank canvas and create something new and exciting. Then watch as content and brands and technology swarm on solving the problems that are created.
So you’re optimistic?
I’m actually really excited about the next five years. For the first time in a long time I see the possibilities for our industry completely opened up. Expectations have been reset and we’ll start seeing people taking more risks and being more creative. More people, racing more often, having more fun along the way.
With 240 million results from 1.4 million plus races from around the world, Athlinks is the world’s largest results database. It was created in 2006 as a place for event participants to access all of their past race results, research upcoming events and connect with other athletes and content related to the joys of racing.