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A Can Of Worms

I’m going to open up a can of worms. Yes, I know I should not talk about politics, money or religion and just stick to coaching. But I must address the money issue.

I may lose some of you as fans and supporters. I may gain a few of both. But either way, I feel it’s important to open up a can of worms so that we have an adult conversation about frustrations that are easy to be feeling at the moment around that issue as it impacts many athletes who have signed up for races.

Here’s the hot poker. It’s the question of what to do about “Entry Fees” for races that are floating in limbo?

Many of you already signed up and paid for races before the pandemic hit. Then suddenly the world tilted sideways. It’s no longer safe to have any kind of sporting event where everyone is breathing heavily and god know what else that could potentially spread the virus.

So you wait around to see what’s going to happen. After a few months of no races taking place you do a bit of assessment. You see that maybe a race you wanted to do in the spring or summer is going to take place in the fall, but you are not in the mood to sit and wait. So you politely ask for your entry fee back because you just don’t want to do the race. Now comes the can of worms!

The race organizer tells you there are no refunds, but that they are happy to provide you with a few options of late season races that you can use your entry for. And if that doesn’t work for you, that you can postpone the whole ball of wax and use your entry for the 2021 edition of your cancelled or postponed race.

You are NOT happy about that! All you want is your entry fee back. It feels like someone just stole your money, or is at least holding it hostage against your will. The athlete vs race organizer face-off has begun!

But it’s not really a face-off if we tilt the world the other direction and look at what’s going through the race organizer’s lens. You are not the only person who has called their office requesting a refund. In fact, they have been inundated with calls and emails. The race organizer is completely stressing out.

Yes, at the end of a normal day they do make money in the process of providing the race experience. But the driving force for them to organize a triathlon is that they love the sport and want to create opportunities for as many as possible the chance to challenge themselves and be a part of the triathlon community. You are lucky that small breed of human beings exist!. There are easier ways to make money than being a race organizer who gets almost no sleep for weeks leading up to an event.

So they (the race organizers) are stressing because they are having to cancel or postpone races, which puts a huge chink in their income stream. And they also know that many of their loyal athletes are disgruntled with the can of worms dilemma of entry fees. And here is why it’s tough for them to just send a refund.

A race organizer uses the bulk of their entry fees well in advance of the actual race taking place. There are hard ongoing costs to that business that don’t just wait until race day to get paid.

And the bigger the organizer, the more of those hard expenses there are in advance. They have more paid staff and less volunteer staff. They have leases on office space and a million other bills that add up regardless of whether they continue to receive any kind of income or not. Small organizers working out of their homes might actually be the ones able to swing refunds. This is counter to what might be believed, the big guns have it tougher. Yes, they make more in the good times, but are hit harder now.

So you search around, still not willing to take “no refunds” as an acceptable response. And I get that!

Let’s say I have an airline flight that gets cancelled because of bad weather.  And that cancellation prevents me from being at an event that has no future replacement value to me. I want my money back! A flight the next day just won’t cut it. The airlines is open to giving me a credit to use for a future flight. But it can take a huge amount of wrangling to get that refund to happen.

This is a similar scenario being played out in sports but way, way more intense on all levels. An airline might have a handful of flights cancelled because of weather. But they still have thousands of others happening elsewhere. Race directors do not have that luxury right now. They have zero races taking place. That’s zero incoming revenue. I know that is the can of worms and does not alleviate someone’s desire to get an entry fee back. But it is a reality at the moment.

“But Boston Marathon reimbursed every athlete for this year’s cancelled event”!

Yes, that did happen. And the marathon was cancelled just weeks before it was to take place. The organizers had likely spent the lion’s share of the entry fees on all the prep work the staff has to do for basically a year to be ready to put on that amazing event. I am not sure how the race managed to provide those reimbursements! It was the right thing to do for sure. But again the can of worms. Very few race organizers are going to be in that same position to follow suit no matter how much they would like to reimburse you.

Before the pandemic a personal circumstance was usually met with an understanding response.

A sick relative that needs your help or an accident that is preventing you from racing was most often met with compassion by race organizers and a refund on your entry. This is not the same situation we are dealing with now. Everyone is hit and affected. No one from the racers to the organizers are going about things as they did for years. Everyone is stretched thin. And while a race organizer can still have compassion for you and your request, their response may seem far from understanding.

So here my plea to. We need race organizers to be able to weather this period until they can get back on their feet. If they just close their doors, you won’t be worried about getting race entry refunds. There will not be any races to enter!

Pick the most ideal of the less-than-desirable options you are offered by them and embrace it. Maybe it is doing the same race next year. It could be doing a late season version of the early season race you had so hoped to PR at. But it is a racing alternative. That is why you signed up in the first place. You wanted to race.

And most of all, if you are pissed off that you could not do your race, that is a good sign! It means you have a love and passion for competition, for challenging yourself and for being part of the incredible community of athletes that gather together on race day. Unfortunately that passion has been stifled recently because of the pandemic.

It’s still unclear when we will really be able to satisfy the racing bug again.But that time is coming.

Use any current frustration you might have to fuel your preparation. Race courses will be doing exactly the same thing in the future that they did in the past. The courses are places that don’t care what you did to get ready. They don’t discriminate or play favorites. They are simply a venue for you to bring out the best that you have inside of you. Time to start training, to be ready and to shower the course with the best side of you ever seen!

Join us at MarkAllenCoaching

And for those interested in actively supporting your local race director through fundraising, you might consider the following drive. It’s called RIDE2020. Getting involved with this drive is a great way to help race directors and organizers who you know are struggling to weather the pandemic.

Click RIDE2020 for more information.


  1. Hi Mark, thanks for the fair and level headed assessment of what is a very unprecedented situation. What you did not mention, but I believe is a significant factor, is INSURANCE. I know for a fact that Challemge offers a relatively “cheap” insurance (25 Eur) that allows you to pull out and get a full refund, no questions asked. IM should make this available too. I am pretty sure Boston could refund the Marathon because they had taken out some form of insurance or hdegd their bets in some other way. I get the feeling that people are upset with IM because overall they come across as money grabbing and unflexible, due to their dominat position in the market.

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