COURTESY LARRY CHEN PHOTOGRAPHY.jpg

The COVID-19 pandemic’s arrival in the Centennial State forced widespread cancellations of events of all kinds, including many in Colorado Springs. 

As the state and El Paso County had shown improvement in reducing virus transmission in recent months, some outdoor events — those with space for attendees to properly social distance and with extensive safety plans in place — have been allowed to go on, although with substantial alterations.

In the past month and a half, annual events like the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon, the Broadmoor Pikes Peak International Hill Climb and Labor Day Lift Off have gone on despite the pandemic. 

Doug Price, the president of Visit COS, said Olympic City USA has a reputation as a premier destination for outdoor endurance sports like running, mountain biking and cycling, with the city, the Rocky Mountains and nearby Pikes Peak creating a unique landscape for outdoor events, both celebratory and competitive.

“[These events] draw elite athletes to the region who can’t experience these type of races anywhere else,” Price said in a statement. “In non-pandemic years, these events typically bring in a significant number of domestic and international participants to the region.”

But because of the pandemic, this year’s events drew far fewer domestic participants than usual and virtually no international competitors.

“And as a result, weren’t able to draw as much tourism,” Price said. “However, they were a great way to bring the community together and show support for local and national athletes, businesses and neighborhoods.”  

None of the three big events generated profits for their hosting organizations this year, but organizers said the losses were worth it to ensure Colorado Springs’ long-standing traditions would continue.

PIKES PEAK ASCENT AND MARATHON

The Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon — a trail running competition that begins at the base of Pikes Peak and climbs over 7,800 feet to the summit — offered less than half the event of a typical year, as organizers had to cancel the popular and highly attended Ascent.

Ron Ilgen, president of Pikes Peak Marathon Inc., said about 1,800 racers would have taken on the 13.3-mile Ascent course this year, but because of the large number of participants and the one-way format of the race, they could not safely accommodate them on the mountain. 

The Marathon (up the peak and down) portion of the event went on mostly as planned, Ilgen said, at least in terms of the race itself. 

On Aug. 23, 800 runners — the maximum allowed at each year’s race — took part in the climb to the top of Pikes Peak and back, departing from the mountain’s base in waves to accommodate social distancing protocols. 

In non-pandemic years, Ilgen said the Marathon typically draws some of the top mountain runners from around the world. But this year’s international presence was minimal — just one non-U.S. racer took part, whom Ilgen said was already in the country when the crisis began. 

“That made it more of a U.S. championship race or even a Colorado championship, because most of the racers were from Colorado,” Ilgen said. “So instead of this big national contingency it was more of a local championship.”

When the Ascent was canceled, Ilgen said it killed the primary revenue driver for the event.

“The Ascent is really where we make the money, being that we have 1,800 runners,” Ilgen said. “The 800 runners [for the Marathon] does not give us much of an entry-fee income.”

Some of the other big changes, Ilgen said, were the cancellations of the pre-race expo, post-race events and other social activities.

“These runners usually come from all over the world and it’s kind of a reunion for them,” Ilgen said. “But all of that was canceled. We couldn’t do that so it was really very basic. It was almost like a retro-race going back to the ’80s, when they basically showed up, got their bib, ran the race … and went home.”

Organizers are still calculating the overall economic impact of this year’s event, but Ilgen said initial projections call for about a $12,000 deficit — “very optimistic,” Ilgen said — but not significant enough to impact future events.

“Would we do it again? Knowing that we were going to drop $12,000? We might,” Ilgen said. “We’re proud of the race so we were going to do the best we could this year to see it completed.”

THE BROADMOOR PIKES PEAK INTERNATIONAL HILL CLIMB

Otherwise known as The Race to the Clouds, the Broadmoor Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is an invitational automobile race to the summit of Pikes Peak. 

This year’s race was set to take place on June 28, but was postponed to Aug. 30.

Megan Leatham, executive director of the Broadmoor Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, said hosting this year’s races required extensive changes. 

She said the most challenging aspect was “the tough decisions that had to be made.”

“Our first decision was to postpone the event 60 days,” Leatham said. “Pretty quickly thereafter we had to make the call to cancel Fan Fest, our downtown street festival which typically draws over 30,000 people. But the hardest decision was to prohibit our loyal fans from attending this year.”

Leatham said organizers considered several scenarios ranging from canceling the race entirely to limiting fans to 25 or 50 percent of previous capacity, but found there was no way to host spectators while maintaining COVID-19 protocols.

So the fan experience shifted online; the event was livestreamed on Facebook.

Leatham said race organizers are still waiting on final numbers to see how many people tuned in to watch, but considering the challenges of livestreaming a race on a mountain road for the first time, they were “ecstatic about the result.”

This year’s climb featured fewer racers than were originally anticipated — 44, compared to the 64 who were invited to compete — but she said despite the decline, there was no drop-off in the level of competition.

“The quality was superb,” Leatham said. “In fact, the finish time from our fastest competitor to our slowest differed by less than 4 minutes. This is the smallest difference we have had in the past 10 years.”

But without spectators in attendance, the race did not generate revenue. Leatham said organizers are projecting a deficit at year’s end.

However, she said they felt it was important to the community that they hold this year’s Hill Climb to “keep the tradition alive.”

“We were very proud when the green flag was dropped for the 98th running of this historic event,” Leatham said. “We achieved our goal to stage the event, follow all of the state, local and federal guidelines and keep everyone safe.”

LABOR DAY LIFT OFF

Scott Appelman, president and founder of the hot-air balloon company Rainbow Ryders, which hosts the annual Labor Day Lift Off alongside Colorado Springs Sports Corporation, knew drastic changes would have to be made to get this year’s event off the ground.

The Lift Off typically features dozens of hot-air balloons departing from Memorial Park each morning, as well as balloon glows Saturday and Sunday nights.

But the event typically draws massive crowds to Memorial Park — Appelman said in 2019, an estimated 175,000 people came over its three-day run — which could not safely be accommodated this year. 

So event organizers chose to spread the event out, Appelman said, orchestrating small balloon launches at several locations across town.

“People could go to the Labor Day Lift Off website and see the areas where we were going to fly from,” Appelman said. “We highlighted circles on a map that showed a 1-mile radius [from each balloon launch] so that when we were going to launch we would not have 4,000 people showing up.

“So essentially, we took one event and made it into eight or nine different events.”

Although there was considerable cost savings from not hosting the massive gathering at Memorial Park, Appelman said the cost of additional research, planning and obtaining authorization to organize individual micro launches made this year’s costs “very similar to that of hosting the big event.”

But without the park festivities, there was little opportunity to generate revenue.

In a normal year, Appelman said, the Lift Off would feature numerous vendors, who pay a fee to sell their products, as well as a small percentage of their overall sales. But with no large gathering there were also no vendors.

“And we usually have concerts and a beer garden and all that kind of stuff, which generates revenue for the event,” Appelman said. “So this year was not profitable, it was all about sustainability. We wanted to show that we could still pull the event off under these types of conditions, and still provide a quality experience for the community. 

“And judging from our sponsors and the feedback we’re getting, it looks like we did that.” 

Reporter

Zach Hillstrom is a Colorado Springs native and graduate of Colorado State University-Pueblo. He has worked as a reporter for Southern Colorado print outlets since 2015.