‘Everything has halted’: Canceled road races could spell dire reality for fundraising charities

EJ Coveney was supposed to start strong in Hopkinton with a clear head. Supposed to pace himself through Framingham, Newton and Wellesley before trekking up Heartbreak Hill and eventually emptying the tank at the Copley Square finish line.

He was supposed to run his first Boston Marathon in April, and he was supposed to do it for his son, 17-year-old Drew who’s now in recovery after being the first-ever minor admitted to the Herren Wellness Center for substance use last summer.

While training 35-40 miles per week — plus pilates, yoga and skinning mountains — Coveney religiously took to social media to tell his family’s personal story of youth addiction. In total, Coveney raised more than $35,000 for the Herren Project, a nonprofit dedicated to drug and alcohol addiction treatment, recovery and prevention founded by former NBA player Chris Herren.

"I wanted to raise awareness, too,” Coveney said. “Not just money, but I wanted to do it with my friends and family knowing why I was doing it.”

Then the Boston Athletic Association postponed, and eventually canceled the marathon for the first time in its 124-year history due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In its alternative format — runners must complete 26.2 miles in the span of six hours during the second week of September — the historic race just doesn’t have the same luster. Coveney doesn’t even know if he’ll run the virtual event at all.

As road races small and large across the nation go virtual due to COVID-19, runners like Coveney are left either having raised or are in the process of raising money for a lost event. About 90 percent of an annual average of 35,000 events have a charitable component, and last year, runners raised roughly $206.5 million for charity, according to Running USA data. Another study estimated that number to be over $1 billion.

Now, many charities are bracing for an uncertain and possibly dark reality with their signature fundraising events either suddenly unfamiliar or nonexistent.

“Everything has halted,” Running USA CEO Rich Harshbarger told Yahoo Sports. “Fundraising, entries, ordering. It’s completely ground to a halt.”

About 75 miles south of Boston, there won’t be a live Falmouth Road Race for the first time since 1973. The seven-mile race that annually attracts Olympic runners worldwide is typically held in mid-August but moved to an “At-home edition” on April 30 amid safety concerns of large events.

Charity teams in Falmouth raised a record $5.1 million last year, but that was with a booming economy, not unemployment numbers approaching 15 percent during a global health crisis.

“Will we come close to $5.1 million this year? No,” Falmouth Road Race general manager Jennifer Edwards told Yahoo Sports.

The Young at Heart Johnny Kelley statue by Rich Muno on Commonwealth Avenue wears a mask, Mardi Gras beads and Boston Marathon medals. (Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
The Young at Heart Johnny Kelley statue by Rich Muno on Commonwealth Avenue wears a mask, Mardi Gras beads and Boston Marathon medals. (Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

‘Some good news and some not so good news’

Since the Boston Marathon was supposed to be held in April, charities participating in it reaped the benefits despite the cancellation.

Boston Children’s Hospital raised more than $2 million for its Every Child Fund, which focuses on patient care, research and staff training. The Joe Andruzzi Foundation neared its $300,000 goal for cancer patients and their families in New England.

Half of the Herren Project’s annual fundraising comes from its running initiative, and the Boston Marathon is its biggest event. And this year, with mental health and substance abuse issues exacerbated by the pandemic, the Herren Project needs the money now more than ever, Director of Active Engagement Pam Rickard said.

Same goes for the Joe Andruzzi Foundation (studies show cancer patients may be twice as likely to die from COVID-19), and the Boston Children’s Hospital, which takes care of sick children from all over the country and is now tasked with handling COVID-19 cases.

“Every dollar counts,” said Michael Bornhorst, BCH’s associate vice president of corporate development and special events.

But many events, especially the ones scheduled for this fall, don’t have the same luxury of Boston’s pre-coronavirus fundraising deadlines.

“The good news on the fundraising side is the majority of those dollars that have already been raised is going to go to those charities,” Harshbarger said.

“Those dollars are already in-hand and will go to those charities. The flip side to that silver lining, with no more events happening, or no end in sight in terms of mass gatherings happening, fundraising has pretty much all been stopped [for events in the fall].”

After School Matters, a Chicago-based nonprofit that organizes recreational and educational programs for more than 19,000 teenagers in the area, has a team of 20 runners set for the 2020 Chicago Marathon on Oct. 11. There’s been no determination about the race, and ASM’s runners are anxious as they await the status of the event, chief advancement officer Steven Berry said.

A spokesman for the Chicago Marathon, which raised a record $27.1 million last year, called the charity program a “pillar of the event.” The New York Marathon, scheduled for Nov. 1, has partnered with 450 charities with the goal of $50 million. Other major events in the fall include the Twin Cities and Pittsburgh Marathons — the latter of which has been made virtual — in addition to countless local races.

COVID-19 could jeopardize each of them.

Runners are seen at the start of the annual Marine Corps Marathon on Oct. 28, 2018 in Arlington, Virginia. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Runners are seen at the start of the annual Marine Corps Marathon on Oct. 28, 2018 in Arlington, Virginia. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Looking down the road

Concerns for both charities and the sport of racing extend past this upcoming fall. Most events’ revenue comes from entry fees, which could largely evaporate without in-person races. One anonymous race organizer told Running USA, “If I can’t have my event this year, there won’t be a next year.”

“The unknown, at this point, is how events will survive this,” Harshbarger said.

More than 100,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, and even as businesses reopen, every industry has been forced to adapt.

Team Herren Project recently held a virtual 5K, which raised $11,000, and plans to brainstorm more creative, safe solutions to raise money in a summer in which its 11 big events could get canceled. Before this year, THP has increased its fundraising every year, taking in a total of $1.8 million from running events over the past five years.

“It’s been incredible, until everything stopped,” Rickard said. “And, one by one, the races are dropping off the face of the earth.”

The Joe Andruzzi Foundation, founded by three-time Super Bowl Champion Joe Andruzzi and his wife, Jen, also organized a virtual 5K in mid-May using the Charge Running app. Team JAF director of development Danielle Fish called it a “huge success” because it created a sense of community. Runners could chat with each other online, send “sweaty selfies” and hear motivational messages from a coach or Andruzzi himself.

More than 100 athletes — many of whom are affected by cancer — participated and raised more than $2,000. Nothing will replace a massive crowd of people all running from the same starting line to the same finish line, but everyone will have to try.

“Lean into it,” Fish said. “This is kind of the new way, potentially of doing some things.”

Team JAF currently has 23 registered runners for the upcoming “at home” Falmouth Road Race. It’s still early, but that’s less than half their team from last year. The event has become so popular in recent years, Falmouth has to turn away thousands of applicants to adhere to the town’s physical limitations of 12,800 runners.

That won’t be a problem this summer, as runners will have a week to run or walk seven miles on their own. If all goes well, Edwards said it’s possible they have even more participants, from more diverse places, than a typical year might allow. And if so, there’s a “distinct possibility” Falmouth considers adding a virtual component to the race in lockstep with a traditional event. The Marine Corps Marathon in October could act as a case study by offering both an in-person race with safety precautions as well as a virtual option.

“We’re kind of building the plane while we’re flying it,” Edwards said. “And it’s fun. And it’s a little scary, but the plane is still flying.”

Not every race, and certainly not every charity has the history or foundation as Falmouth, or Chicago, or the No. 1 pediatric hospital in the U.S.

There will be turbulence.

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