Real Races with Social Distancing: How Vacation Races Held the Bryce Canyon Ultras (651 participants) and Zion at Night (815 participants)

Real races with social distancing continue to happen and Vacation Races is leading the way with the Bryce Canyon Ultras (May 30-31, 651 participants) and Zion at Night (June 5-6, 815 participants). Salem Stanley, Founder & CEO of Vacation Races, says, “What participants want from a race and perceive as being safe has changed. What local officials recognize as safe and require for a permit has changed. It’s our job to find where those two meet to make things happen.”

Salem, Lyle Anderson, and Dehn Craig joined us to give a rundown of how they made the races happen, what went well, and what they’ll do better next time. Watch the full Q&A session with the Vacation Races team.

What Do Participants Want?

Vacation Races produces races in national park destinations across the country. Many participants travel (both domestically and internationally) to participate, which requires both money and comfort with travel. Before moving forward with any real races, they surveyed past participants to measure their willingness to travel, spend money, and participate in a real race. 7,168 people responded.

How much do these things concern you?

How far away (one direction) are you willing to drive to an event?

What’s your interest in participating in a race that has the following group sizes?

How has your financial situation changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Key Takeaways

  1. Survey your participants to understand the market. The results from Vacation Races’ survey won’t necessarily apply to your participants, and it’s important to understand what they want.
  2. While the financial impacts of COVID-19 have been devastating for our industry, there are people who haven’t been financially impacted. Participants will spend money on events.
  3. Group size and shuttles are scary to participants. That means loop courses are the way to go. There are issues with transport for point to point course, and with participants passing each other (thus creating larger group sizes) with out & back courses.

Planning and Permits

The Vacation Races team is based in Utah, where both races were held. Utah was one of 11 states that didn’t go to a shelter in place order. Group size was limited to 50 people at the time of both races.

Vacation Races has built very strong relationships with their permitting officials and the Forest Service. For both races, they talked to the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, local health department, local law enforcement. In all conversations, they deferred to local permitting agencies. Their approach to getting a permit was to lay everything on the table: “Here are the changes we’ve made to put on a safe event, and if you aren’t comfortable we don’t have to do it.”

Zion at Night was a new event. Because gatherings in Utah were limited to 50, they came up with the idea to do a rolling start with groups of 50 every hour (with an average finish time of 2.5 hours that ensured no overlap of finishers). However, Zion is about 100 degrees during the day. They decided to hold the race at night during a full moon, which created a truly unique experience that participants are raving about.

Salem says that it’s always been the job of race directors to put on a safe event, and communicate the steps that they are taking to do so to both permitting officials and participants. There are new rules, but complying with regulations and producing a safe event haven’t changed.

Participants all received a very detailed race guide, that included all the measures being taken to make the event safe and rules that they needed to follow. You can view the race guide here.

Key Takeaways

  1. Communicate and maintain relationships with permitting officials. Be open and honest with your dialogue.
  2. Create a detailed race plan that outlines all the steps you are taking to have a socially distanced event. Make sure that it’s communicated to both permitting officials and participants.

Registration, Corrals, and Caps

Bryce Canyon Ultras was open for registration prior to COVID and participants were given flexible options, including a full refund. 651 wanted to participate in the race. Zion at Night was a new event. They opened registration 3 weeks ahead of the race and had 815 registrations.

Registrants selected a one hour time slot, which were capped at 50 per hour and set up using corrals. At the race, the 15 minutes before and after the hour were busy, but the 30 minutes between was dead. In the future, 50 people every half hour would be sufficient for social distancing.

Many participants liked the rolling start, where they could begin at any point during the hour. It took away the stress for them, giving them time to use the bathroom, eat, stretch, and relax. Even after COVID-19, Vacation Races plans to offer a rolling start. People who like the excitement of a mass start would be able to start together, and the many participants who prefer a more relaxed environment will still be able to choose a time slot.

Key Takeaways

  1. Shorter registration periods are ok. This gives you time to determine whether the event can be held. There is a lot of demand, and people will sign up on a short notice.
  2. Use corrals to set up time slots.
  3. While a rolling start may not seem like a “real race”, understand that this is preferable for many participants.

Expo/Bib Pick Up

There were no expos for the races. Bib and race packet pick up were before the start, so runners were picking up on a rolling basis based on their starting time slot. The set up was similar to what you see in grocery stores – markings on the ground to ensure social distancing and arrows to direct foot traffic. Communication ahead of the event told participants not to gather in groups, and participants were respectful of rules.

Vacation Races noted that people did use porta potties, but used more hand sanitizer than usual. This was disappointing to Dehn, as people should always use that much hand sanitizer when using restrooms.

Aid Stations

Vacation Races’ participants are used to bringing their own backpacks and water. They’ve always had cupless races. At aid stations, they used water monsters with a homemade solution using drum set foot pedals and a pulley to keep it hands free. This is something that needs to be improved for future races – and is a good business opportunity for any company that is able to manufacture and sell a touchless water dispenser.

Finish Line

There wasn’t a celebratory finish line with a post-race party. That expectation was clearly set – finish, catch your breath, and get out of here – and people were very receptive to and respectful of that.

Vacation Races set up their normal arch. Participants received a food box and picked up their finishing award from tables – all touchless set ups. Because of the rolling start, there were never any crowds at the finish line and participants didn’t linger.

Looking Forward

Vacation Races plans to continue putting on real races and virtual races through this year. They don’t have plans to change how they sell races. It’s important to note that Vacation Races has always had a great refund policy, making it safe for participants to sign up with a guaranteed refund or deferral.

With the two real races that they’ve already put on, they didn’t make a ton of money but it’s how they can survive and cover payroll (Vacation Races has not furloughed anyone). Salem said, “We’ll do some crazy stuff to survive. And then we can get back to doing what we do.”

If you have any questions, you can reach out to Salem via email: salem at

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