Inside the race to reimagine the Boston Marathon, during COVID and after
One runner collapsed and was revived by spectators and other competitors. Both the men’s and women’s champions were first-time winners. Instead of the usual Spring flowers, the race took place amid Fall foliage.
There were plenty of reasons the 125th Boston Marathon would be a memorable experience for everyone involved, but for people like Lauren Proshan, the biggest one might be the fact it was able to take place at all.
Speaking during a session at the Customer Experience Strategies Summit on Tuesday, the director of operations for the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) reflected on the enormity of the disruption brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, and what it took to keep the community engaged amid lockdown and the return of the marathon last month.
“It was awful. There’s no way to sugarcoat that at all,” Proshan said, describing herself as a planner who was suddenly found herself without anything close to a plan in place. “For us to just say, ‘Please be patient with us’ — that that only works for so long. People want answers. They expect you to have the answers. You’ve run this event in our case for 125 years. What do you mean you don’t know what’s happening? And that’s really tough.”
A new experience requires new (and often additional) expertise
The course of a race like the Boston Marathon is well laid out in advance, but achieving a specific finish requires both a strategy and ability to adjust based on unknown conditions. Proshan suggested something similar happened behind the scenes at the Boston Marathon when the pandemic and its restrictions began to unfold.
“There was a pause and acknowledgement period, where it was really important for us to understand that we needed to change our team dynamic in order to keep moving forward,” she said. “We were no longer the experts. So before we were able to move forward in the fields of epidemiology or public health we needed to add some more tools.”
This meant bringing in new experts to add to the existing team, she said, as well as third party agencies who could walk through the feasibility of taking different courses of action and what the ripple effects might be. Flexibility became the watchword.
“We were so used to knowing what works, and maybe making a slight change year over year for a better customer experience or for a more efficient experience. And now we were we were putting together contingency plans over and over and over again,” she said. “And we really had no feedback from our customers until we actually put the final product on the road, as it were, and ran towards it to see what people thought.”
Some of the changes included requiring runners to prove they are vaccinated or pass a COVID-19 test in the same medical tent where they would typically seek post-race refuge for pulled muscles, dehydration and more. Masked were required indoors in Boston and on the buses out to the Hopkinton start. In place of a crowded athlete’s village where they can grab a granola bar and stretch while waiting to start, runners were instructed to get off the bus and go, with electronic chips recording their start time.
The field was also about one-third smaller, with about 18,000 runners instead of more than 30,000, though nearly 30,000 people were running the marathon virtually.
On the other time, the runners didn’t have to wait as long before the rolling start began, which also gave them more room to move. The finishers medals were also bigger and golden to commemorate the 125th edition of the race.
“We will maintain some of the changes we’ve now adopted because it ends up being a better customer experience, even if it’s not for the greatest reason,” she said. “But you’ve got to see the silver lining when you’re retooling the plans over and over again before you can execute them.”
From BOLDERBoulder To COLDERBoulder
The Boston Marathon was hardly the only event experience of its kind that was thrown into disarray by the pandemic, of course. The same session also featured Cliff Boseley, race director at BOLDERBoulder that takes place in Colorado each year.
Like Proshan, Boseley said postponing the traditional event served as a catalyst for deep reflection on the entire experience for athletes and fans alike.
“I wouldn’t have said this in March, but when else do you get to kind of press ‘pause’ and to think about your organization or your team or what your product and service services are and how you deliver them?” he said. “Each of us had the opportunity to observe what might work in other markets and collaborate or capitalize on some of those ideas.”
This didn’t mean following the pack blindly, however. Rather than set up virtual races, the BOLDERBoulder had greater success with virtual challenges, which were less about timing competitors but simply engaging the community. Then came the decision to host a winter event, the COLDERBOLDER — a 5 km race complete with a “Cold Medal” that was described as the “polar opposite” of the usual event.
“The lessons learned from those events will make our main race better,” Boseley said.
Proshan agreed, adding that despite its challenges, the pandemic represented a blank slate from a CX perspective that may not come around again.
“An area like virtual event racing was brand new to everyone,” she said.”People were not looking to the BAA to be the leader there, because no one was the leader. So I think if anything, we acknowledged that. We could also very much be the new kid on the block.”
Shane Schick tells stories that help people innovate, and to manage the change innovation brings. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Marketing magazine and has also been Vice-President, Content & Community (Editor-in-Chief), at IT World Canada, a technology columnist with the Globe and Mail and Yahoo Canada and is the founding editor of ITBusiness.ca. Shane has been recognized for journalistic excellence by the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance and the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.