The narrative over the past week has been that we all can't wait to just flush 2020 down the metaphorical toilet and move on with our collective lives into 2021, which can't possibly be worse than what we just went through.
This would suggest that in making a year-end list of "winners and losers" that the latter category would be remarkably easy to assemble, while identifying those who "won 2020" would be a touch tricky.
Certainly, we all lost in a sense in 2020 (and we cover that below). But a number of people (and companies) thrived in these uncertain times. We unpack how and why certain runners and brands somehow "won the Pandemic," while others struggled (and one in particular downright failed its people).
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Who Somehow Won in 2020?
John Lofranco's picks:
The mentally strong
It’s fair to say there have been some difficult circumstances this year, but it hasn’t been that bad for many people. Runners who saw the positive side and used their training as a way to bring structure to their day could have been advantaged.
The pandemic was, for many, an excuse to train a ton. But taking advantage of this required the ability to train without a specific event-based goal. That’s hard. By and large, runners were faced with the “why” of running. Seeing some training groups (in the U.S. mostly) ignoring social gathering restrictions showed how some people aren’t mentally strong enough (or maybe don’t actually like running enough) to just go it alone. But those who are, thrived.
The Canadian and U.S. (2020) Olympic Marathon Trials Winners
The long break is to the advantage of each athlete who has a spot locked up for Tokyo 2021, for various reasons:
Aliphine Tuliamuk: It allowed her time to have child (she's due in the new year) and then begin training again for Tokyo 2021. She showed at the U.S. Trials that she can win a competitive race in difficult conditions, which is what will be needed in Tokyo.
Galen Rupp: He can do what he’s always done, which is prepare as if he were a medal contender. The more time for him, the better.
Molly Seidel: She qualified in her first-ever marathon, and the big break has given her time to gain further comfort and confidence with the distance, including running a 2:25 in London in October.
Jacob Riley: He's had a couple big results in the shorter distances between 2012-15, but really his breakthrough was the Chicago Marathon in late 2019. Asking him to run three 2:10 or better marathons in a year would have been tough. So the break helps him recharge and prep for another big effort in 2021.
Sally Kipyego: She's an experienced runner who can now focus on preparing for the big race. Also, she’s older and has had a long career on the track, so a little more recovery time can’t hurt.
Abdi Abdirahman: Same as Kipyego. He’s been in the game for 20+ years at a world-class level, so the extra year gives him time to recover and ramp up for one last shot at glory.
Dayna Pidhoresky: It gives her time to focus without feeling the pressure of having to do a bunch of extra races in order to prove she's earned her spot.
Trevor Hofbauer: He's showed he's progressing consistently and linearly, so it’s an opportunity for a jump to an even better level than he'd have been if the race had taken place in 2020.
Testing paused with everything else, and that created a big opportunity for dopers. The pandemic produced lots of big performances - maybe that happened because people adjusted their training for lockdown, but isn’t lockdown training for distance running kind of what elite runners are doing anyway? It’s not like the top elites are distracted by work to begin with.
It's not just the elites that are tempted by doping. We don’t see it much in running but there’s a ton of age-group level doping in triathlon and cycling. Could this be happening in running, too? Is “lockdown training” an excuse for mid-range runners to take a leap?
Shoe companies, especially those not named Nike — Adidas, Saucony, New Balance, Asics, Brooks, On and Hoka
All these brands finally gained traction with their carbon-plated super shoe in 2020. The running footwear industry desperately needed something in an otherwise disastrous year, and each brand that produced a legit "Vaporfly killer" seemed to get a bit of an uptick in sales and attention.
At the beginning of the year, Nike and other shoe brands got a big win when World Athletics didn’t shut down the carbon plated shoes, and instead imposed some restrictions — but those felt tailor-made to allow for the Alphafly, thus preserving all the fast times run in Nike's shoes in the past few years.
Meanwhile, Nike didn't have a great year financially, but are crushing the competition in e-comm (and butchering the indie running store in the process).
Nike and Adidas have since cleaned up, and it’s been a big year for very fast times — imagine how many more fast times would have come if there had been a full slate of races.
Most importantly for all these shoe brands, it feels like the super shoes are now normalized — we aren’t really putting an asterisk next to those who won in Vaporflys any longer, so in a sense other brands following suit helped Nike legitimize their big technological gamble.
Joshua Cheptegei and those who thrived in the chaos
Keira D’Amato, Sara Hall, Shelby Houlihan, Moh Ahmed, Donavan Brazier, Jacob Kiplimo, Peres Jepchirchir, Ruth Chepngetich, Kibiwott Kandie, Martin Hehir — all these athletes did something special amid very restrictive training and racing circumstances. Creativity thrives under constraints.
No one profited off the massive shift in behaviour during the pandemic more greatly than Strava — with 2 million new users per month during 2020.
The dominant endurance sports social media app now has 70 million users in over 190 countries. The company parleyed that into $110 million in new venture capital funding to help them figure out what’s next.
Strava also finally flipped the switch on pro accounts, creating a path for monetization after years of zero profit.
But perhaps most importantly, Strava became the epicentre and virtual meeting place for runners when we couldn’t meet or race each other in person in 2020, solidifying its hold on its user base.
The company is in a weird space going into 2021 — too big for a midlevel bike or shoe company to acquire, and too niche for Facebook, Google or Microsoft to snap up. Only an industry giant like Nike would be able to afford taking on a company with the massive evaluation Strava would surely receive, and the Swoosh isn't foolish enough to make the same mistakes a rival like Under Armour has made trying to get into the technology game.
And Who Lost in 2020?
Kinda Good Runners
From high school to university athletes, to competitive recreational road runners, almost everyone (outside of the elite tier) saw races cancelled. That sucks. Even if you can understand that fitness doesn’t go away, not getting to see the fruits of your labour is disappointing. If all you care about is a participation medal, then yeah, you can do some virtual races that will mail you one after you upload your run to Strava. And there have been some impressive solo time trials. But nothing quite replaces a race, and those who know and feel this really lost out this year.
Traditional Road Races
Jamming tens of thousands of people onto a start line now seems like such a terrible idea that it’s hard to imagine a return to it. Not to say runners won’t feel comfortable with it; there will be enough people willing to race when a vaccine arrives. But I can’t see cities, which already have challenging - if not adversarial -relationships with race organizations in some cases, agreeing to these events in the short term and at their previous capacity — no matter what the economic impact an event may bring. That's too bad.
It remains to be seen if smaller, local, neighbourhood races will be a go. Those races aren’t money makers, so will anyone bother to organize them? We might see a change in pricing and amenities where the experience costs more but is also significantly pared down. It will test if people are doing it for the run or the “experience.”
The Running Industry
All the peripherals to races will be affected, too. Running retail is hurting. La Maison de la Course (which, in English, translates to "House of Running"), a new little chain that had opened up a few stores in the Montréal area in the years pre-COVID, has closed its doors. Some older, more established running stores are barely hanging on. In their most recent lockdown, Quebec added a new rule preventing big box stores, open to sell essential items, from selling non-essential stuff. So this policy, if implemented elsewhere, could help. After all, lots of people have supposedly taken up running this year. But without races with big expos to show them all the gear they don’t need, how will they know about any of it? Running has been exposed as a very simple activity. Good for runners and minimalists, bad for salespeople and capitalists.
And shoe companies had a good enough year, but do they need running stores to sell their stuff anymore? The industry ecosystem has entirely changed, and that's a bad thing for those who operate in the old way.
Well, all of us average runners
If you loved to run in races against other human beings in real-time and in person, then 2020 was pretty devastating. If you built your social life around your running group and looked forward to seeing old friends on the roads for long runs or at a local tune-up race, then 2020 felt very lonely. If you appreciated the structure and meaning that a training season (with an end goal) provided, then 2020 was chaotic and demoralizing.
The only good thing in all of this is that a year only lasts 365 days.
The city of Tokyo and country of Japan
Lost in the constant churn of breaking news throughout 2020 was an intriguing story about the battle between the International Olympic Committee and the Tokyo 2020 organizing group. Ultimately, the IOC won a game of chicken, with the Japanese government giving in and ostensibly taking the blame for the postponement of the Games last summer. That flinch will cost the Japanese taxpayer (and not the IOC) billions of additional dollars when all the lawsuits are resolved over lost revenue. Meanwhile, the Games will go on next year, and the IOC will get to keep its precious billions in television broadcast rights treasure.
The New York Roadrunners
NYRR own and operate a series of high-profile running events, including the New York City Marathon. Of course, all its races got cancelled this year. But amid a tumultuous summer in America, the economic impact of these cancellations revealed a deep fissure within the storied organization.
An anonymous group of past and present employees launched an Instagram account called Rebuild NYRR, and began to outline a series of accusations of racism, sexism and other forms of abuse within the organization.
This fall, CEO Michael Capiraso was forced to step down, after the group made clear that his lack of leadership was at the centre of the organization's failures.
NYRR is arguably the most important, successful and (economically) trailblazing organization in the running world. Its fall from grace in 2020 also reveals deeper issues within the running community that must continue to be addressed in 2021 and beyond.