Camp Fire Forces Cancellation of 2018 Monterey Bay Half Marathon

BSIM Events team mobilizes quickly to notify runners of cancellation plan, makes the best of a bad situation on 12 hours notice

A deadly wildfire that has forced the cancellation of numerous Northern California endurance events prompted the Big Sur Marathon Foundation (BSMF) Events team to call off its popular half marathon just over 12 hours before its scheduled start. The decision was made late in in the afternoon on Saturday, Nov. 10. Race start had been scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 11 at 6:50am.

Around 7700 runners were registered for the Monterey Bay Half Marathon, a flat and scenic mid-November event with a professional prize purse that has become known as one of California’s most popular destination late fall half marathons.

While the BSMF team had been keeping a close eye on the weather since mid-week prior to the scheduled Veterans Day event, things didn’t turn for the worse until weather patterns shifted midday on Saturday, sending smoke from the Camp Fire near Chico toward the Monterey Peninsula.

The 3K and 5K events went on Saturday morning as planned, but later in the afternoon, detailed forecasts from NWS and NOAA and smoke from the northeast inundating the Peninsula prompted race director Doug Thurston to make the call no race director wants to make.

“Weather maps forecast that air quality in our area will remain in the ‘unhealthy’ to ‘very unhealthy’ area into Sunday afternoon. After consulting with our Medical Director and the National Weather Service, we have determined that it is not safe for runners, volunteers, staff, and other race-related personnel to participant in tomorrow’s scheduled events. We deeply apologize for the inconvenience and disappointment that comes with canceling the race but we feel it is the appropriate course of action at this time,” read the official communication notifying runners of the cancellation. (See the full official cancellation message here.)

Moving quickly to spread the word

With no time to spare, a quickly assembled war room near the still-ongoing race expo mobilized to create communications plans. Those who were late arrivals to the expo were notified in person – the decision was made a half hour before it was to close. But not only did runners need to be notified, but sponsors, spectators, volunteers, city officials, law enforcement, vendors, musicians, local media and more.

Though BSMF had dealt with a fire-forced cancellation in the past at one of its smaller events, the Salinas Valley Half Marathon in 2016 (in that situation, runners had 72 hours notice about the decision), Thurston noted that the rapid response required for a 12 hour cancellation notice was a vital reminder to have emergency cell phone lists in place before they are required.

“While crafting our message (of cancellation) we were also compiling a master distribution database – both for our pre-registered and late registrations, to make sure that everyone entered in the event was communicated to,” said Thurston. “We sent that out, posted on all of our social media channels, and reached out to the local media. Meanwhile we were also communicating with city officials, police, sponsors, vendors, musicians and volunteers to let them know.”

To be perfectly prepared for the unexpected, Thurston advises that it is a good idea to have your staff compile, in advance, all of the cell phone numbers of those they might need to communicate with in the event of the unexpected. On a weekend, sponsors and vendors may have different numbers than where you usually reach them.

Race director takeaway: Have a detailed contact list available for any communication contingencies, assembled in advance.

Participant reaction

Because the Monterey Bay Half Marathon is such a popular destination event, the majority of participants had already arrived for the event, picked up their bibs and checked into their accommodations. In fact, many of the San Francisco-area residents were asking if BSMF had any air quality concern on arrival, as smoke had already affected the city earlier in the week. (For those unfamiliar with California geography, Monterey Bay is located on a peninsula about two hours southwest of San Francisco.)

Knowing that some determined runners would probably head out on the course on their own, BSMF decided to open the finish line area in the early morning, between 7-9am, and offer runners food that was already on hand as well as the chance to pick up the medals they would have earned.

They even went so far as to continue with the road closure and start line setup on Del Monte Ave., normally a busy street, though in the dark on race day with less than 5 percent  of the expected participants showing up, a bit of a ghost town.

“We were anticipating not that thousands would show up but that enough would show up that we would want to keep them safe,” Thurston explained. “We ended up having around 100 to 150 runners that came expecting to run, who hadn’t gotten the message we’d sent out 12 hours earlier. In hindsight, we would not have employed those resources.”

BSMF also arranged to have an ambulance and skeleton medical team in the finish area in case those who did decide to run had any health or medical issues.

“They were not needed but it was good insurance,” said Thurston.

Race director takeaway: If you notify, your runners will hear you. Most will not plan to run anyway, but some will. Be prepared for that situation as best you can.

At least several hundred runners ran the course, which takes place along a bike path and next to a shoreline scenic drive, unaided, and nearly half picked up their medals at the finish line area Sunday morning. The Monterey Herald reported that the event “turned into a party after getting cancelled.”

However, “the participants didn’t necessarily stick to our time frame,” Thurston noted. The intent to conclude the unofficial finish line festivities by 9am was to protect volunteers and staff from having to be outside in the sub-par air. However, many who ran on their own finished up after that time, prompting response and unofficial runner services until well after the anticipated 9am stop.

When things wrapped up, all leftover food was packed on a truck and driven to Butte County, where it was donated to displaced victims of the Camp Fire.

Race director takeaway: if you open race day services like food and medals, even unofficially after a cancellation, be prepared for runner demand.

By and large, however, overall the runner reaction to the circumstances of the cancellation was very understanding.

“One of the things that surprised us, was how many of the runners and those who heard about the cancellation were concerned about us and our events committee. They knew how hard we had worked and were disappointed for us as well. We were very heartened by that,” Thurston said. Knowing that many had lost homes and lives in the fire (the death toll is currently at 56 people, as of Nov. 15) also put things in perspective.

Ongoing response and fiscal impact

The day after the race was to have been held, the BSMF Board of Directors gathered for an emergency planning session about next steps in the cancellation aftermath.

A number of deferment and donation options are being offered to the runners, including the chance to participate in the 2019, 2020 or 2021 half marathon event; or donate a large portion of the entry fee to a non-profit supporting Northern California fire relief or one of the Monterey County charities funded by the BSMF. You can read more about that here.

With such a close-in cancellation, almost all of the expenses of producing the race are incurred, even if the event itself doesn’t take place. Thurston said that the race did not have contingency cancellation insurance, so they will not be able to file a claim for expenses that had been incurred. The organization will likely feel a financial hit as a result.

“These kinds of decisions for a non-profit have implications of the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Looked at in the aggregate, this is something that for us could have many years of affect. But if you’ve run your organization well, you should be able to survive that and I’m sure we will,” Thurston said.

RUSA editor’s note: The Monterey Bay Half Marathon was one of many Northern California races cancelled due to the Camp Fire. Others to date include: Napa Valley Harvest Half Marathon, 10K and 5K in Calistoga; the 2018 North Face Endurance Challenge Championships, the Biofreeze Berkeley Half Marathon, 10K, 5K and 1K, Mermaid Run San Francisco , and the Spreckles Lake 5K and San Franciscan Mile. (If you know of any other races that were cancelled, please email us.)