February 2020 feels like a long time ago. Back then Covid-19 was still a distant threat, not yet the pandemic we've unfortunately come to know so well. Few of us had ever experienced a lockdown before, or been forced to work from home. Simpler times indeed.
The world of running looked very different too, not least for Tough Runner UK, a running events company based in Swansea. They went from running multiple races a month, to having their income decimated, almost overnight. But you can’t keep a good runner down – their races have just returned after a long enforced hiatus, with various safety restrictions in place.
Adam Newton, co-founder and director of the company, spoke to Runner’s World UK about how the company weathered the pandemic, and what they’re doing to bring back the kind of races we know and love.
RW: Can you tell us a little bit of background about Tough Runner – where did the idea come from?
The idea came about from being in sports for so long [Adam represented Great Britain at Triathlon], taking part in so many events, whether that was in the UK or abroad. I think there was a lack of inclusivity or a lack of fun. So we wanted to create a brand that made the case that you don’t have to be a certain shape or size, or a certain person, to run. Anybody can go out and run and just enjoy themselves.
I think as well, we knew the running community was really quite sociable. Maybe if people are lonely, it’s perfect for them to get involved with a sport, meet new people. So that was the idea, those are our values.
Until recently, how long were you away for? How long had it been since you did a race with lots of people together?
The last race we had was October, in the Cotswolds. So we’re talking six months of nothing.
When the pandemic broke out, were you still doing races at that point? What was the situation?
We had a busy schedule before March, before everything kicked off. In January we had some big events, with maybe 8,000 competitors over the three months. In February we had two big races as well. In March we had two big races and then on Sunday 14th March, that’s when they announced as of Monday, 'Things are going to start changing.' So 14th March was our last big event where we could have big events with mass starts.
How did you feel at the time – it must have been a shock to the system?
It shut our business overnight. We literally went overnight to earning nothing. Everyone was the same globally. We speak to organisers in America and everywhere and we all said that overnight revenues dropped by 95%.
You've spoken about the running world being sociable. How did you try to keep that community together when you weren’t allowed to race?
We did a lot of virtual stuff, so we created a community group. We created a massive Facebook group and we thought there’s got to be a way that people can still engage each other, support each other, tell each other stories. Hopefully that will motivate and inspire other people to think, ‘I’m going to get involved with this, I’m going to get fit and healthy, I’m going to lose weight.’
So we’ve got a massive community group going into the thousands of people, where daily we have challenges or monthly we have challenges. So many people are getting involved, just to support each other. Maybe they’re on furlough, or they want to get fit and healthy, or maybe they’ve realised that in the past they weren’t doing much and thought, ‘you know what, the best way to keep on top of [Covid-19] is to keep fit and healthy.’
Did you see many beginner runners coming in at that point?
Oh, so many. So many that just thought, ‘I’ve never done anything like this before. I heard from my friend it was a good challenge and they enjoyed it. I’m gonna get a pair of trainers and do what I can – I’m going to run 50 miles in a month.’ And then next month they’ll be like ‘I’m going to do 75, then I’ll do 100.’ There’s been all types really.
Do you think those beginners will graduate to doing the tougher races as restrictions ease?
Yeah I think so. I think they’ve got the bug now, and whether it’s our event or any other organiser, they want to get involved. They might even join a club later on down the line as well.
Has it been difficult to replace the thrill of a race day with virtual activity?
You know what, it hasn’t. You can still have fun at a distance – that’s one thing we learned. It was tricky at the start, but I think we realised that you could still do it. Alright, there’s certain things you can’t do, like after a race people want to celebrate with each other – you can’t give each other a hug and high five each other and say well done. That’s the only thing you’re missing really.
The fun element is still there, whether you’re at a distance or not. You can see from our recent event [the Exeter Epic Trail 10K] it was 100% people who were just living their best lives really. It was nice to see so many people just enjoying themselves and smiling saying, ‘I haven’t done something like this for so long.’
Did you need to have many restrictions on participants during that race?
We had sensible limits in place. We set them off in waves, so two runners every five seconds – you’d be surprised in five seconds how far you can distance yourselves. Everyone has to fill in NHS Track and Trace. Even little things like hand sanitisers everywhere. But it makes you realise that going forward, we’ll probably still have hand sanitisers in place because there’s nothing wrong with cleanliness and keeping on top of it.
So you think some of the extra precautions are probably here to stay?
Yeah a lot of people enjoy wave starts. We find a lot of the people we speak to, especially women runners, really enjoy going off in waves rather than big bunches. Whether they’ll be here to stay, I don’t know. But the feedback we get from it, no one is negative about it.
Why is that, do you think?
I think when they turn up to a race being in a big group, especially crowded by men, there’s still anxiety about it. For them to go off in smaller groups on their own or with friends, it makes them feel a lot more relaxed. And at their own pace, rather than thinking, ‘I’ve got all these people around me, who will be fast’, they feel more comfortable about it.
You’ve got a pretty packed schedule coming up. What’s the appetite been like for the races coming back?
There’s really good demand for it. We're finding feedback is getting out pretty quick. A lot of people are nervous, mind. Before the event we had a lot of messages asking about the precautions we have in place. A lot of people are still nervous because when you think there’s 1000 people doing a race, you think ‘Oh my god, 1000 people together' – some people are still not comfortable with it. But you have to reassure them.
The running community is a massive community but it’s also a really small community – word gets out pretty quick. People are just thinking, ‘I feel safe, they know what they’re doing, there’s no reason why I can’t sign up.’ So we’re seeing a really big increase in demand at the minute for events.
Are there any particular events people are really going for or is it an even split?
Anything. Any sport. People just want to get out and do it. They haven’t done it for so long, anything people can get their hands on, they’re doing it.
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