It used to be, if you wanted to run a race, you signed up for a regular old 5K or half marathon. Now, you've got options: mud runs, paint-splatter runs, glow-in-the-dark black-light runs, zombie runs—you name it, there's probably an event out there dedicated to it. And that's mostly a good thing; we love that these "fun runs" are getting people active and interested in fitness the way a regular old road race probably wouldn't.
But the popularity of "themed" races has a downside, we learned this week, when the Better Business Bureau of Upstate New York issued a warning to consumers across the country about events that have been cancelled without notice (and often without refunds). There's been such a demand for these types of events that it seems some companies have sprung up out of nowhere to organize them—and then can't deliver on their promises.
"Taking part in a race is something that more and more people are seeing as an accessible goal, which is fantastic," says Gia Alvarez, a running coach and Lululemon ambassador in New York City. "And many companies are capitalizing on that surge, seeing a race as a fun way to market themselves and make money. My fear, though, is that they are underestimating what goes into organizing a well-run race—it's not a small feat, and someone who is new to the running world can easily take a wrong step."
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Last week, a Dirty Girl Mud Run in West Virginia was cancelled with just three days notice, and participants were told they would not get their money back. (The organizers have since changed their tune.) The week before, 5K Foam Fest runs in Ohio and California were suddenly scrapped as well. And back in June, the company that ran Electric Foam 5K events across the country filed for bankruptcy and ceased operations after several race cancellations and complaints filed against it.
Of course, there are plenty of reputable companies out there putting on spectacular events, and we're certainly not suggesting you skip out on fun runs altogether. But Alvarez and the BBB do offer some smart tips to keep in mind when looking for and signing up for such events.
1. Read and research. Check out the event website's "terms and conditions," and be wary of sketchy-sounding "no refunds under any circumstances" language. Then visit the company's BBB listing to see if there are any current complaints against them. Look for reviews on Yelp, Active.com, and the events' social media pages, too, says Alvarez. "If there is anything to be aware of, there will be comments from other runners on those sites."
2. Double-check the venue. If the race's website says it's taking place in a park or a stadium, make sure it's also listed on that park or stadium's website. (It's not unheard of for a company to schedule an event without actually booking the location first.)
3. Keep a paper trail. Always pay with a credit card so you can dispute the charges if necessary. Take a screenshot of your confirmation page, and save your email receipts until after the event's taken place.
4. Know where your money goes. It's awesome if a fun run also has a charitable angle, but keep in mind that most of these companies are for-profit—and just because they list a benefactor doesn't mean they're donating a huge amount, or even that it's a legit foundation. If those details are important to you, you can fact-check the charity at Give.org.
5. Be safe on race day. Even if your event isn't cancelled ahead of time, it's smart to be prepared for logistical problems the day of. "If a non-traditional race is held in an off-the-beaten-path location, there is a chance that medical tents and hydration support may be limited," says Alvarez. "Look ahead of time at the course map for planned aid stations—and if you are running a race without adequate support, bring your own hydration and medical supplies." (Reviewing the map may also help you navigate poorly marked twists and turns as well.) Finally, use the buddy system. "If you're doing a new race or one you're unsure about, do it with a friend—for your enjoyment, and your safety."