ARTICLE: What does it cost to organise a marathon?

This year I took a greater role than previous years organising our club's main fund-raiser - the Glendalough Lap of the Gap Marathon. It's a big effort even at the current size of the event with over 30 volunteers involved on the day itself.

In my own capacity I spend about 30-50% of all my available work-time in the final two to three months before the event to ensure everyone runs smoothly. Several volunteers give up work days as well in the final week to ensure the course is absolutely ready to go.

But time is not the only cost that goes into organising an event. The vision for the Glendalough Lap of the Gap Marathon is to grow to a size where we can not only keep a Race Director and a PRO fairly busy for a great part of the year but to create enough revenue to invest more widely back into running-related sporting projects. We would like the event to grow to a size where we have no choice but to ask other clubs to come in and help us in return for directing funding back to their particular projects. This year we were extremely lucky to get a grant from Wicklow County Council facilitated by Wicklow Tourism and the Wicklow Outdoor project. This grant has been earmarked to updating the visual profile of our event - including the shooting of a drone video and development of a new website. Our event is hard and unique and we need to attract a substantial amount of overseas visitors - I estimate as much as 30% of the total entry to secure its long-term future. I want it to become an event like Pike's Peak and the Snowdonia Marathon and similar 'iconic marathons' that just keeps going and going.

The numbers

I cannot quite divulge the actual figures we are operating under but I can share some percentile figures as well as how cost is distributed for an event like ours.

  • Profit margin: the margin for our event is roughly 8% in 2018
  • Growth: our numbers grew by 27% in 2018 with profits increasing 353% (this was largely due to nearly no profit in 2017)
  • Numbers: We began life with 146 registrations and grew to 183 in 2017 with 253 this year. A very positive trend although a bit short of our stretch target of 300. In 2019 we are targetting 500 runners over our three events and in 10 years we want to be at 1500.

The costs

Our costs make up about 92% of all income we receive meaning that it would be impossible to run and event like ours as a professional event due to low profits. Very large events have the ability to pay and reward volunteers something we cannot yet do. Our costs are distributed as shown below:

As we can see the very popular tshirts and medals make up a large part of total cost in an event (it might surprise people just how much) and race entry fees could drop around the country if they were not seen as necessary. We often discuss whether it should be an optional add-on. 

We dedicated 18% of our total cost to prizes. Some find this elitist but I personally like to strike a balance between having a good event for the masses while also being able to reward athletic excellence at the front. We must have both worlds, in my view.

Our marketing budget may also be a surprise - at a paltry 2%. To grow our event this must obviously also grow in the future.

Figures for expenses are to an extent 'artificially low' because most equipment is written off over the amount of years you expect the equipment to last and on top of that much equipment is borrowed for free from friends of the event. In the first case the organiser carries the risk if future events don't manifest - meaning the club would take the hit for any costs outstanding on equipment bought in the early years. 

Critical elements such as professional services and timing and finish line make up a further 25% which can only be reduced by using scaled back solutions or shifting more work from professional outsourced employees back to busy volunteers. 

The greater benefits

I don't think I will delve any deeper into the minutiae of the costs of running a race than this. As an event grows many costs scale but thankfully not all which is what allow very large events to fund-raise significant amounts of money (the mini-marathon, for instance). It is not our aim to reach this sort of scale as it would not be sustainable in the National Park - but we want to reach a scale big enough that the income from this event can make a difference to the local sporting community. 

Events such as ours contribute more than is shown above, of course. First of all, we create business for local suppliers - all our suppliers are Irish and the majority are based directly in the Wicklow area. So our event along with the others that go with it creates jobs for race organisers, hotel owners, bed and breakfast managers, bus companies, bottled water manufacturers and so on. The success of an economy is all about the 'velocity of money'* - you need money to shift hands as much as possible. So anything (non-destructive) that creates more transactions is a benefit to a community as a whole. Our event in isolation may only pay a tiny fraction of the salary of each person who receives a payment as a result of a person making a purchase in relation to our event - but it's the totality that counts. Thus it's very important to encourage any local enterprise or project that has this type of effect. It's very tempting to look at the 'payment vendor' with their 'registration fee' as 'evil' - but in reality it's just another service creating one or more people with a paid job (which is what we want).

* If you pay me €3 for a cup of coffee and I go to the shop and buy two newspapers for the €3 and the shop owner then pays you €3 to borrow your mobile phone for a call, we have €9 of financial activity but it's the same €3 floating around.