TL;DR Marathons don’t make money in India.
We lost money on 4 of 6 Go Heritage Runs (GHR) last year – and some of our runs this year will turn a loss as well. This is when our entire team is taking subsistence salaries and working out of a team member’s home (aka no office cost). Most big marathons would not make money if all the volunteer effort was actually paid for – trust me I helped organize a city marathon for 3 years. As a runner, you must demand value for the money you pay and this article is not to desist you from that. Rather, it merely intends to expand your perspective. Also, value and cost are two very different things which you should distinguish between as I elaborate here.
So why organize runs if you do not make money?
GHR fits in with the larger plan of Making Heritage Fun, which is the objective of GoUNESCO, of which we are a spin-off. GHR helps fund all of GoUNESCO activities across the world. The runs have helped us not just grow our other programs but also initiate new ones. While we had one internship program and just the India travel challenge in 2014 (when the first test run was organized in Hampi), we now have 3 different internship programs in which nearly 250 students are participating and we launched a new travel challenge in theUK this year. We were also able to start a new initiative last year (#makeheritagefun) in which thousands of people from over 100 cities across the world have participated.
Our goal is not to be an event manager. It is to make you aware of a destination’s heritage, get you out of your home to visit that heritage site with your family and actually experience some of the culture from there. This is the reason we spend time and effort on writing informative articles on our website, making unique, representative medals and adding extra, exclusive experiences along with the run. This is also the reason we eschew timing our runs – the idea is not to host a competition. We are not selling you a run – we are selling you a holistic heritage experience.
… and why must one pay to run at an event?
I started running because it was the least expensive way to stay fit. I quit my job in 2008 to start-up and could not afford anything close to the excellent gym my former workplace (Infosys) had. Not long after, I joined a running group (Hyderabad Runners) and thankfully that was free too, I pushed myself into long distance running after seeing these experienced runners. Only later did I learn that running wasn’t really inexpensive. There are shoes to buy and events to attend – all of which cost money. I used to complain about the high registration fees at running events until I helped organize an event. As our running club grew bigger, we started more formal events than the regular weekly runs we used to organize. We also went on to start a city marathon, the first in India organized entirely by volunteers. I had run a marathon before, but I realized (and still do today!) that organizing a marathon is harder!
So yes, running is cheap – but an event is a lot more than a run and here are some of the expenses that a running event incurs which will give you an idea about where your money goes.
Where does my registration fee go?
- Run Supplies and Kit
One of the most obvious expenses is the material cost, which includes the cost of water, electrolytes, light refreshments, medical supplies at aid stations, and the post-run breakfast. What’s not so obvious is that this is one of the smaller expenses. Contents of a runner’s kit – the running bib, bags and other collateral, increase the cost contribution slightly but not significantly. Timing infrastructure is a pretty big expense, and for timed runs, this is one of the bigger costs. The cost of a T-shirt may or may not be included in the registration fees but T-shirts are a significant cost. T-shirts made of dry-fit or quick dry material cost a lot more (at least a couple of hundred rupees per t-shirt) than cotton T-shirts even when ordered in large quantities. At GHR, our finisher medals are made of local crafts wherever possible. Although it would be convenient and cheaper to purchase shiny, metal medals and source them in bulk from China, our objective is to ensure that artisans from the region are encouraged and highlighted because of the run, and hence we are comfortable spending more per medal as a percentage of the registration fee.
- Start/Finish area arrangements and entertainment
Gates, lighting, sound, DJs/emcees – the start area at a marathon itself is almost as big as a musical concert. And if you include entertainment organized en route at some of the bigger marathons (bands/DJs), you can imagine the scale by which a marathon is bigger. The cost of venues, stages en route, renting equipment/instruments, event managers – count it all in. Now compare the registration fee of a marathon with a music concert – have you seen any marathon cost more than a decent concert?
This is one of the bigger expenses of organizing an event. There are several phases in organizing a run which starts much before even announcing a run and planning, coordinating different aspects requires a capable team. Go Heritage Runs are much smaller than city marathons and still each run has more than 300 tasks to be completed and nearly 10-15 external entities to coordinate with. This number can easily be multiplied by 10 times for a city marathon. No run can be organized without the help of volunteers and some of our regular volunteers are close friends who travel at their own expense to our runs and help us out. Although they are contributing their time, there still are costs associated. Giving volunteers a T-shirt and breakfast is a minimum any event should do and this cost can add up depending on the number of volunteers used.
While Go Heritage Runs have grown almost entirely through word of mouth, promotion in different forms (outdoor, digital, activations, promo runs, etc) take a big bite out of a marathon’s budget. One of our most important objectives is to promote awareness of the run destination and the heritage, culture, crafts there and not the run alone. This is the reason we publish high quality, well-researched articles which highlight various aspects so that you know the destination even before you come to the run. Our Editorial team is led by a senior journalist and this shows in the quality of articles on our website.
- Travel and accommodation
The upside of organizing runs outside cities is that you can get out of the city – it is also a downside. Team travel and accommodation is an additional cost that our runs have which city runs do not have to worry about. Not only on a run weekend, but we make at least a couple of trips for route recces, tying up with partners and for permissions. In fact, we made 3 trips to Madikeri even before we announced our run in Coorg. This cost is one of the limitations on where we can organize runs.
- Discounts, Free/Sponsored registrations
All runs/races give some registrations away for free. The registrations are given away to partners, sponsors (if any), armed forces, police, the under privileged and so on. In our case, we have always arranged for local school students at the run destinations to participate by giving away free registrations. We also discount local registrations as we want to encourage the culture of running, as well as make local residents aware of the interest shown in their town’s heritage by folks coming from outside. What better way to garner support for protection of heritage than make people feel proud of it?
Runs/Marathons are a great way to raise money for causes and many runners raise funds for their favorite cause too. Organizers including us, donate directly to charitable causes too. In our case, it usually is an organization or NGO at the run destination itself.
- Compliance, commissions and administration costs
Legal compliance is an essential part of running an organization in a sustainable manner, and it does take a bit of administrative effort and cost to ensure this. Payment gateways and registration partners who make it easy for you to sign up for a run have a small fee too. Taxes take a bigger cut.
- Prize Money and Team events
Some other expenses which bigger runs have and we don’t – Prize money for winners, Champions dinner, Sponsor and/or volunteer parties.
While registration fees do meet some of these costs, they can never meet the entire cost of organizing a run. Sponsors are hence essential for running events big and small. However, they bring in their own challenges as coordination with them and servicing promised deliverables requires effort. An ideal world would be one where a run is paid for entirely by runners, the true customers, which would ensure that they receive the entire attention. But until this happens, sponsors and sponsor interests will sometimes take precedence over runners’.
Running at an event in India is still relatively inexpensive. Compared with runs abroad which can cost anywhere upwards of $15, even the most expensive run in India with decent participation costs a lot less. I remember Bill Pierce remarking after running the Hyderabad Marathon in 2015 that running events in India have reached the quality of American runs in less than a decade while they took nearly 3. I would like to add that this is at probably 1/3rd the cost too. The running boom in India has excited several entities into organizing runs and unfortunately some runs are sub-standard. I trust runners to be discerning enough to choose for themselves though and to reward the ones which deliver value, but a few bad experiences cannot be avoided in the process, unfortunately.
To conclude, while running events may seem expensive at times, it would perhaps be wise for a runner to know why and look at value delivered for the registration fee and not just the cost of registration alone.
Do you think Go Heritage Runs delivers good value? Do let us know.