'We need to survive': Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend goes virtual, while organizers plan for uncertain future

Hester Potts completes her half-marathon run on Sunday, part of a virtual Ottawa Race Weekend. Potts ran the last stretch with sons Euan and Lachlan, while their younger brother Logan helps hold the tape at the finish line.

Local chiropractor Hester Potts is one of thousands of people running in Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend this year. Her half-marathon was a tribute to her father David Theobald, a lifelong lover of sport and recreation who passed away last September at age 73.

“One of the things that my dad taught me was about perseverance,” Potts said. “I wasn’t gonna not do it just because you can’t have the organized event.”

Like large events around the world, COVID-19 forced the cancellation of Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend in its traditional form. Some 18,000 participants had registered to race in this year’s edition of the largest running festival in Canada when organizers announced March 30 that it would instead have to take place virtually.

 Hester Potts takes a well-deserved rest after running a half-marathon distance in memory of her late father in the Manotick area on Sunday.

Technically, it’s no longer Race “Weekend,” actually. Everyone registered has until Sept. 7 to plan their own route, run their race distances and upload their times to SportsStats, a virtual results platform.

Potts ran her her half-marathon Sunday morning through the areas surrounding her Manotick home, with friends, family and clients cheering from a safe distance. Thanks to her parents, particularly her dad, Potts has been a runner since she was young.

 Hester Potts caps her finishing kick in a half-marathon run on Sunday with two of her three sons, eight-year-old Euan and six-year-old Lachlan.

“He really set the example for me to make sport and exercise an important part of your life. I want to pass that on to my children,” said Potts, a mother of three. In addition to offering a way to connect with memories of her father, she said training for the race has been a helpful coping strategy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s been a great way to exercise and kind of collect my own thoughts, have a little bit of a break from my house … just for my overall well-being, it’s been a really good thing to do.”

Announcing a virtual Race Weekend during a global pandemic meant launching into uncharted territory, and no one could say for sure how runners would react. Ultimately, “there’s been a whole bunch of positive energy,” said Ian Fraser, executive director of Run Ottawa, the not-for-profit that organizes Race Weekend.

In addition to the 18,000 people whose registrations for the in-person races were automatically converted to virtual events, an additional 1,300 signed up to race remotely in recent weeks, and another 4,000 to 5,000 registrants are expected by Sept. 7, Fraser said.

“It’s pretty incredible. We are, quite frankly, overwhelmed. We knew that people needed a vehicle, they needed an outlet, but we didn’t think that new people would be scrambling to pick this up.”

Even some of those who were initially frustrated by Run Ottawa’s decision not to offer refunds after it cancelled 2020 Race Weekend have come around, according to Fraser. Every registrant will still receive a race kit including a medal and T-shirt, plus 50 per cent discounts from registration for Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend event next year.

 Ian Fraser was named executive director of Run Ottawa and race director for Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend on Sept. 3, 2019.

“Obviously it was not an ideal situation for anybody,” Fraser said. “We had to pay as we normally do for a number of things that are part of the event, leading up to it … it’s a pretty big machine, and, once it gets rolling, it’s kind of hard to stop it.”

The ultimate goal has been ensuring Race Weekend survives this pandemic to run again in future years. Run Ottawa is “trying to manage our money as carefully as we possibly can,” according to Fraser, and has applied for the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy and Canada Emergency Businesses Account, which offers loans of up to $40,000 to not-for-profits.

“Our participants love what we’ve done for the last 45 years. We need to be there for them, we need to survive. We also need to be here to support the Scotiabank Charity Challenge that takes in nearly a million dollars each year into local charities,” Fraser said.

“I fully believe we’ll have Race Weekend next year. Will it look exactly the way it has in the past? I’m not sure.”