I willingly paid $550 to run the Dopey Challenge at Walt Disney World. That was 4 days and 4 races. It also was 48.3 Magical Miles. Each Magical Mile costing approximately $11.38 for me to run. And that didn’t include all of the extras, such as travel expenses and running gear. But why is running Disney, or any other large, high-demand race so expensive? Well, because of economics–supply and demand; they have a consumer base willing to pay those prices. But let’s look into why your local marathon registration fee is priced the way it is.
I live in the great state of Ohio, so I’ll use the 5 major marathons as an example. These races have an average registration fee of $75 that increases to $115 at the expo (with an average 15,000 participating in various distances on race day). Since I am not a race director, I am thankful to have had a few race directors willing to speak to me about what goes into their costs. Once I get through a general laundry list of items, I’ll throw in my commentary on a few that I think are important.
Race Day Necessities:
- Energy Gels
- Portable Toilets
- Start and Finish Lines
- Mile Markers
- Speakers and Announcement Equipment
- Timing Maps, Clocks and System/Services
- Medical Services
- Warehouse Storage
- Event Insurance
- USATF course Certification
- City Permit(s)
- Facility Rentals
- Expo Location
- Finish Line Location
- Packet Preparation
- City Services (Police, EMS)
- County Services
- State Police
- Department(s) of Transportation
- Traffic Engineering
- Private Security
- Private EMS
Other optional services:
- Bus Transportation
- Course Entertainment
- Course Photos
- Pace Team
- Social Media Tracking
- Winner Prizes
- Festivities (i.e. fireworks)
WOW! That’s a lot of stuff, and I’m sure I left a few items out. Is all of it necessary? Well, most of it is.
Let’s start with the starting line. What’s there? Porta-pots. Yeah, you probably want that available. There also might be some fencing for the corrals to help organize the chaos at the starting line. Those might be rented, but if they’re owned then they’re probably stored in a warehouse. Rental or storage, both cost money. What about starting line festivities? Who is signing the national anthem (probably paid)? Are their fireworks or a big giant video board? Maybe there’s just a speaker system so you can hear announcements and directions.
As we move beyond the starting line, what do we see? Mile markers and cones. Those thousands of cones might be like the fencing, owned or rented. Same with the timing mats and equipment, it may be rented or owned by the race company, but it still requires a paid worker to operate. And with the timing mats comes the cost of timing chips.
Most courses are certified, because in order to qualify for the Boston Marathon, the course must be USATF certified. The top 30 qualifying races only have approximately 20% of participants qualifying. Another thing to keep in mind is that a certified course means that the distance was verified, so you won’t end up running 27.2 instead of 26.2 unless you fail to follow directions and get lost; regardless if you’re seeking a BQ, a certified course benefits all participants.
One example on the course of a few things that the race fees cover which don’t apply to every runner. Many of us bring our own energy gels instead of grabbing one from a volunteer. Some even go so far as to carry their own water or Gatorade to avoid having to use an fluid station.
Let’s consider some of the things our registration fees pay for that we don’t use and probably should. First off, unless the race is sponsored by a medical group, the first aid tents and medical team are typically going to be paid services. There might be a few volunteers, but because of legal matters, any medical treatment beyond first aid is most likely going to done by someone who is paid to be there (cuz–insurance). Next let’s just tackle the Pace Team. Some Pacers are part of a team and are paid to run the race and pace whoever wants them to, but some pace teams are entirely made up of volunteers. Those volunteers need to be outfitted so that you the runner can identify them as a pacer. Guess what that apparel isn’t free.
Speaking of apparel, there’s t-shirts to help runners identify Race Volunteers. Just think of Merchandise in general, like the race t-shirts or other race swag. And those packets you pick-up don’t put themselves together; it’s either staff putting in long hours or it’s outsourced to another company or group. And before the start line there was the Expo, that space wasn’t free! And last let’s not forget, how did YOU hear about the race? Do they have a website? They probably own the domain and might pay a web designer to manage the page. How about online registration? Some of the fees are passed on to the consumer (or you), but some are charged for just posting on their website.
Okay back to the race!
So your friends/family are lazy and don’t want to come watch you race, they’ll just receive text messages updating them on your progress, or you just have it posted on your social media. Well that runner tracking service probably costs some money. Guess what else isn’t free, having those photographers out on the course; yet still those pictures are $30/each!
When you finish, was it underneath a Banner or some blown-up contraption? That costs money. Are there stands for spectators at the finish line? Unless the finish line venue (that was rented) came with stands, those were probably an additional rental. Did you get a finisher’s medal? And that party. Some of the food might be donated by corporate sponsorships, but some of it was probably purchased. Don’t forget the winners probably receive prize money. And I did just mention sponsorships, which can help cover some of the many costs of a race but not all.
Once race is over. The party has ended. Now begins the clean-up. Depending on the city permit, or the rental agreements, they might have actually have to pay for a clean-up crew instead of relying on volunteers or their own staff. But when speaking of staff, some staff is paid, some isn’t. There might be one or two full-time positions supporting the race, the rest volunteer their time. The race director, or social media manager, might be volunteers.
Some (not all) races try to encourage elite runners to attend, offering free entry as well as VIP-like perks. Races don’t need elite athletes, but it often helps bring some attention to their race. There really isn’t any true free publicity anymore, is there? Let’s continue this theme with perks offered to “legacy” runners, which many races are starting to offer in order to encourage participants to come back each year. Both elites and legacies could possibly receive apparel and other merchandise at no cost to themselves, so that money has to come from somewhere.
I didn’t give you any “real” values to put on the costs. Let’s revisit the Dopey Challenge. I paid for 4 races. That’s 4 t-shirts and 4 medals. But wait, it was a challenge. So that was an additional 2 t-shirts and 2 medals. And some cities and companies are starting to hold various challenges and series were you can “earn” extra finisher medals and t-shirts. Take that a shirt printed in bulk costs maybe $10-15 each (cost of material and labor) and a medal is roughly $3-5 each. That’s $78-$120 just in shirts and medals. Timing services and social media tracking cost roughly $3-5 per participant which still leaves roughly $400 remaining to the race company to provide me with 4 races with water stops, energy stops, restroom areas, closed roads, traffic control, security, and first aid.
Question: Do you think your race fees are worth what you receive?