Lessons from a pandemic: race director James Constantine on being innovative during a crisis

How has coronavirus impacted race organisers? We speak to James Constantine from Athletics NSW to find out how he's navigated 2020, and why he's hopeful for the future. If you're a distance runner in Australia, you should care about his vision to improve our sport.  
Race director James Constantine talks about innovating in a crisis

If you’ve ever competed at an athletics event or fun run in New South Wales, chances are you’ve crossed paths with the affable James Constantine (aka @that.guy.who.runs). Always ready to greet runners with a smile, Constantine is seemingly ever-present at Athletics NSW events. 

Constantine — who began working with Athletics NSW in 2016 — has carved-out a unique role with the organisation. His official job title is competitions coordinator. In that capacity, he plays a vital role in organising and delivering state cross country championships and the summer track and field season.

He’s also the events manager for RunNSW — the arm of the business that coordinates mass participation runs including the Sydney 10, the Sydney Half, and the Fernleigh 15 in Newcastle. On top of that, Constantine has become a de-facto community engagement specialist, using the increasingly popular Distance Running in NSW Facebook page to share news with runners and to seek their input about events.  

If you haven’t caught glimpses of Constantine corralling volunteers and athletes at races, you’ve likely heard him on a live-stream, calling the action from inside the broadcast booth. And if you tuned into the Inside Running Podcast’s London Marathon watch party in early October, you would’ve heard Constantine contributing valuable insights and giving updates on the splits of Aussie runners. 

James Constantine (left) wears many hats for Athletics NSW and RunNSW, and is a constant ambassador for the sport.

And of course, he’s not just a man-behind-the-scenes. At every opportunity, Constantine is lacing-up himself, and chasing personal bests in his Delta Running Project singlet. The 27-year-old is a very handy runner at distances from 5 km (16:05) all the way to 42.2. In October 2019, he ran a 15-minute personal best at the Berlin Marathon, finishing in 2:52.43 — a time he’ll no doubt improve upon.

Constantine then hopped a plane to Austria just in time to watch Eliud Kipchoge break 2-hours for the marathon (paced — of course — by a team that included four Australians).   

A new reality in 2020

If 2019 ended on something of a runner’s high for James Constantine, he came crashing back to earth in the New Year. For Constantine — and race organiser all around the globe — 2020 has been catastrophic. In some cases, even that’s an understatement. Under the current public health climate, mass participation events have been virtually impossible to deliver. And it’s still unclear when these events will get the green light to resume.    

RunCreature recently spoke with James Constantine to get an insider’s perspective on how the coronavirus crisis has impacted race directors and organisations like Athletics NSW.

This was a conversation that had potential to be dark and dreary. And yet, the picture that Constantine paints is a positive one: full of optimism and hope for the future of the sport. We discussed some of the creative ways Athletics and RunNSW engaged their respective communities throughout the pandemic, and explored some of Constantine’s exciting aspirations to continue growing the sport. And of course, we talked about his running. 

If you’re a  distance runner in Australia or New South Wales, you should care about James Constantine’s vision to improve our sport. This is an interview worth reading. 

RunCreature interviews James Constantine

RunCreature (RC): You’re a man who seems to wear a lot of hats and be in a lot of places. And as per your instagram handle, you are: that guy who runs. What’s your official role with Athletics NSW? 

James Constantine (James): It’s an interesting one. My title doesn’t really encapsulate what I do. My official title is competitions coordinator, but my email signature is RunNSW events manager. Everything to do with RunNSW, I like to be — at least — involved in the conversation.  

RC: Can you explain the difference between those two entities: Athletics NSW and RunNSW? 

James: RunNSW is the recreational running arm of Athletics NSW. It’s an important distinction because Athletics NSW has traditionally been very much track and field oriented, elite, high-performing juniors and eventually Olympians. So it’s not really the brand we want recreational runners to associate with mass participation fun runs like the Sydney 10 or the Fernleigh 15

That RunNSW brand was carved out by Scott Westcott, the 2016 Rio Olympic marathoner. He started that arm of the business in 2012. Scott worked for us for six years and did a fabulous job setting up RunNSW. I’ve taken that over in the last 12 to 18 months, and have been trying to continue Scott’s legacy in growing and promoting that arm of the business. 

RC: Can you tell me a bit more about your day-to-day and what you do in these complementary roles ? 

James: Sure. Athletics isn’t really like cricket, or football because it’s so front-facing and incredibly grassroots — we work directly with clubs and with athletes. We’re not this all-knowing, all-powerful organisation that sits above everyone; we are there at the coalface every week running competitions. We’re directly interacting with the athletes and the club admins. In that way it’s a very unique sport to be a part of and one I love so much because you get that human interaction. 

“Athletes, who are effectively our customers, actively shape how we run the business, and more broadly, run the sport in the state. I think that’s what I’ve really enjoyed about my job. We talk to athletes and plan events around them.” 

I also want to transfer the amazing participation increase [65 per cent up from 2018 to 2019] we have seen in our RunNSW events into Athletics NSW and some of the track events and championships. For example, at the state 10,000-metre championships, I really pushed to have a community event. This was so people who wanted to come and just try the sport of athletics — running on the track — without signing up for a full membership could do that. This is something I’m really passionate about.

I want to get people from the recreational running space onto the track, and break down the misconception that you have to be an elite athlete to enjoy it. You don’t have to be running with the likes of Ed Goddard or Marnie Ponton to actually enjoy the track.  

RC: How long have you worked with Athletics NSW? 

James: I started in October 2016 and for 12 months I was the officials and volunteers coordinator. Officials and volunteers are absolutely the backbone of our sport. All the NSW officials you see at track and field events, Sydney 10, at Cross Country, they’re all volunteers. They’re accredited officials, and a lot of them are national and international-level officials, but they’re volunteers and without them we don’t have a sport. So we’re incredibly grateful to have their many, many hours of expertise.

RC: Can you tell me a bit about your background, from an education and from a sporting standpoint, and how you came to find yourself in this role? 

James: After year 12 I went to Sydney Uni. I did an arts-science degree, majoring in psychology. The dream — initially — was to become a sports psychologist. I’ve always been fascinated by human behaviour and elite athletes and how they calm themselves in big moments to win Olympic gold medals, to break world records, to win NBA Championships, and so on. 

I always knew I was going to end up in the sport sector in one way or another. I thought it would be as a sports psychologist. Unfortunately I didn’t get the high distinction average I envisioned in my first year to go straight into honours, and then masters and a PhD… That path just wasn’t for me.

After graduating, I had about 6 months off to re-evaluate what I wanted to do, and during that time I actually joined my first athletics club: Athletics East. I then went to the Australian College of Physical Education and did a postgraduate diploma in sports business. Towards the end of that degree I got an internship at Athletics NSW. I had a sit down coffee with Brent Hayward, who was the old competitions manager, and we just talked about doing athletics… in shopping centres, and sprint races down George Street, and some of the initiatives [to popularise the sport] like the Great CityGames in the UK. 

We just talked about that for a couple of hours and I ended up getting an internship in the competitions department. I was there every other week, doing internship-type jobs: packing bibs, looking at officials’ attendance lists, sending emails. And then I eventually got hired full-time.  It was an interesting lead-in to working here, but obviously something clicked because I’ve loved it.  

RC: Can we please get another George Street mile race? 

James: They did run a couple. David Tarbotton has some fabulous images of some of Australia’s best runners just motoring down George Street, with people literally standing and looking out the windows of their offices, seeing this street mile go ahead. It was very much the 5th Avenue Mile vibe.

[Watch some footage of the 1992 Diet Coke George Street Mile].

Photo of the Diet Coke George Street Mile. According to news reports, some 200,000 spectators lined the streets to watch the men’s and women’s races (Supplied by David Tarbotton)

Logistics, road closures, astronomical costs, maybe a lack of sponsorship would prevent us from putting that on tomorrow. But any athletics initiative that we could potentially run in the CBD I would be all for it. Those CityGames in Manchester — I love seeing that. I’ll definitely try to bring back a street mile in the city. 

RC: Australia had something of a heyday with running around the time of the Sydney Olympics and the Melbourne Commonwealth Games. There seemed to be a lot of public interest and corporate sponsorship money. How can we help to popularise the sport again? 

James: It’s hard. In the last 10 years, we’ve seen a lot of the big sports keep getting bigger. You think of the AFL, the Cricket, the A-league has grown significantly… Unfortunately in sport there’s only a finite amount of resources and sponsors. 

The promotion of our sport is absolutely key. The performances of Stewy [McSweyn] and Jess [Hull] this year absolutely do no harm. Setting national records and getting into the mainstream media can only help to draw some attention to the sport.

It’s like any other superstar in any other sport… the general public sees your sport through your top athletes. So to have incredible athletes and role models like Stewy and Jess is fantastic. Having one or both of them make an Olympic final says, ‘Look Australia, we are competitive at the world level in this sport. You’re seeing it on your TV.”  To grow the sport it’s crucial that we as Athletics organisations celebrate and capitalise on their success. 

Challenges of the coronavirus pandemic

RC: I want to talk to you about the year that has been. I participated in several RunNSW events in 2019: We had the Kerryn McCann races in Wollongong, the May the 4th 10K in Sydney, and I did the Fernleigh 15 in Newcastle later in the year. It was an awesome line-up of events, and I was stoked to do it all over again in 2020. And then Covid hit and the world turned upside down. Can you talk to me about some of the challenges 2020 has presented to you as an event organiser? 

James: It’s been very challenging. We were supposed to run the Bankstown Invitational on March 14. We had to cancel and that was devastating. My heart just dropped. The first announcement was no more than 500 in a group, but I think everyone [at Athletics NSW] knew it was only going to get worse as we started to see the situation overseas. We understood pretty quickly that we were in this for the long haul and that we were in real trouble. 

As soon as that realisation came through, personally it was tough. As a runner I was thinking, ‘Geez, I’m not going to have much to do this winter’. I was really looking forward to running all those races, too. But professionally, in terms of my job, it was also really hard. There were a couple of redundancies in our office, all of us were temporarily stood down for 3 months. So we were massively affected, absolutely. 

The morale of the sports industry in Australia was quite low… These were awful times and totally unprecedented. We didn’t know what to expect. 

RC: Despite no physical races, you designed and launched a pretty successful virtual run series. How did that come about? 

James: I thought, if we can’t run physical events we have to do something. We can’t just stay silent for six months or longer. This is where the RunNSW virtual series was born. And look, you mention a virtual run now and you kind of get a collective sigh, but in late March, people thought, ‘Right, virtual event, this sounds fun!’

So we tried to capitalise on that as best as we could. It was a bit of pivot to make sure our distance-running community, the runners who predominantly compete over winter, actually had some kind of event to participate in. 

As a result, we’ve had over 3500 people participate in a virtual event over the last seven months. We created the RunNSW Strava group, which now has 2000 plus members, and the Distance Running NSW Facebook Group — which was originally created for elite runners but I’ve since opened up to the broader NSW running community — it has gone from a couple hundred members to more than 3000. 

“Our main priority was making sure we had some sort of event to offer people, but more broadly, to connect with the running community because with our sport, it’s so crucial that you maintain positive connections with the athletes.” 

Increasingly confident with a microphone in hand, James Constantine has become adept at (and had the privilege of) interviewing some of the best runners in the state.

RC: Were you, at any stage, hopeful that some mass participation races would still go ahead this year? 

James: We did hold out hope. We had about 50 calendars, I think, go around at different times. We would say, ‘Okay, if this is allowed, how do we push back or reschedule that event.’ It was almost a weekly update with new proposed drafts. It was incredibly frustrating.

I really hoped that we could run the Sydney 10 and the Sydney Half, absolutely. But I think deep down, I knew it was going to be almost impossible, especially as the bigger events [the Sydney Half Marathon and the Australian Running Festival in Canberra] started to postpone and cancel.  

And I was thinking in my mind, if the best case scenario is October, that’s when track and field starts.We were lucky, and we did manage to run the short course and State Cross Country Championships, in conjunction with the Wollongong City Council and Kembla Joggers, who have been fabulous in delivering those two events. 

But, in terms of events with more than 1000 people… it was always going to be hard. There were so many questions: Are we going to be able to run them in waves? Are the Sydney Olympic Park authority, who are the landholders here, going to permit the events? What will the government think? Are we going to have to apply for exemptions? What’s the feasibility? Is it financially viable, or even the right thing to do? Is our Covid safety plan up to scratch? Do we have enough hand-sanitisers? 

These are just some of the important considerations for running small events now, and larger events in future. 

RC: For an event like the Sydney 10, which has a couple thousand entrants, can you give us a bit of insight into the planning and logistics, and what it takes to make sure it all comes off perfectly?  

James: The biggest thing with a mass participation event is that you have to put the runner in mind first. So, if I’m a runner in January and I’m looking at the year ahead, I’m basically locking-in what I’m going to run that year. Many people see the Sydney 10, and they say, ‘Right, fast, flat course, 10k PB, I’ll lock that in for May.’ You have to give people as much notice as possible. 

“The logistics come afterwards. Locking in the venue, and the road closures, organising drinks, officials, volunteers, signage, MCs, music, finisher’s medals — medals is a big one because we have typically gotten our medals from China.  You’re looking at a 3-month process, at a minimum to put on an event like the Sydney 10.” 

It’s been incredibly hard for race organisers. We’ve got our challenges [at Athletics NSW], but at least we’ve been able to run a couple of cross country and race walking events, and we have the ability to deliver a track and field season. We’re lucky because we have multiple shots to still run our sport. A lot of other race organisers, such as Ironman, only have a couple of shots each year to run a mass participation event in Sydney with 10,000 or more people. 

RC: You took the position that you couldn’t be silent, as an organisation, for six months during the pandemic. You wanted to connect and engage with your community of runners in NSW, and provide options for people to get physically active. This required a bit of a pivot. What lessons have you personally learned from this period, in terms of being innovative and managing community engagement? 

James: Firstly, I think the biggest thing to mention is that everyone has been incredibly understanding and patient. Once people understood how serious this [coronavirus pandemic] was, everyone that I’ve spoken to or emailed has basically said, ‘Mate, we know you’re doing it hard. Whenever you’re back, we’re back.’ And that’s been incredibly motivating. It’s why I love my job so much and why I want to keep pushing through these tough times. It feels like you’re not running an event, but giving engagement to people who have your back. These are people who are going to be there on the start line — when we can provide a start line for them. That’s been really inspirational for me, particularly when we were [temporarily stood down] and on the JobKeeper. 

A really good example of this support was when we launched the virtual run series. I reached out to a number of really well-known distance running athletes including, Morgan McDonald, Jessica Hull, Benny Saint, Joe Burgess, Ed Goddard, Lauren Reid, Nathan Breen, Oli Raimond, Georgia Winkcup and several others. I explained that we were struggling, and I asked if they were happy to help out. Not a single one batted an eyelid. They said ‘Absolutely, we are here to help you guys and we’d love to be a part of it and be ambassadors.’ 

With no mass participation races, James Constantine decided to launch a RunNSW virtual series and brought in some top-flight athletes to serve as ambassadors.

“It reaffirmed that people are there to support you and to support the sport, and the community. I don’t know if this would happen in any other sport. It shows our Athletics NSW running community are all in this together, and we’re there for each other. That’s the biggest thing that I’ve taken away.” 

RC: I was impressed when the Virtual Run Series launched with the quality of athletes you got as ambassadors. That added a lot of credibility to those events. What did that mean to you? 

James: It was amazing. It says a lot about their character. These athletes want what you and I want. They want our sport to be bigger, to be promoted, and to have money so Athletics NSW can do more. So it’s an absolute credit to those athletes. When someone like Ben St Lawrence comes on board — someone who has dedicated so much of his life to the sport everyday for the last 25 years — it’s incredibly humbling. 

Building community and growing the sport

RC: You’ve also done a great job at building community. Can you tell me about the incredible growth of the Distance Running in NSW Facebook page, which now has some 3000 members? What’s it been like to see the evolution and have it turn into a community hub? 

James: It’s been really cool. I mentioned before, it was reserved for elite runners. That was actually in the title. And one day I sneakily took away the word elite

“Yes, running is an individual sport, and you’re racing each other when you’re on a start line. But what I want is for people to realise that outside that race environment, as soon as you step off the track, we’re all working toward a common goal. It all comes back to promoting the sport and making the sport better.” 

Once I got a few elite athletes on board, I started putting some polls out there, asking athletes where they’d like to see events. But instead of just getting that from elites, I thought, why not just get it from everyone. It’s great to talk to the top 1 percent but how about the other 99. It was a no-brainer to open it up, and we started getting more and more requests. The biggest jump came in early October when we ran the live-stream for the London Marathon. We saw the numbers in the group jump from 1100 to about 3000 in a 48-hour period. It was nuts.

We’re now talking to people not just in NSW but in other states as well. And that’s exciting, especially if we can deliver a full track and field season, and if borders start to re-open. We can help promote interstate races, and hopefully even get some interstate competitions going. The possibilities with the group are endless. But I suppose, the biggest thing, is that the collective voice of our running community is heard through that site.

RC: Like many Aussie running fans, I tuned into the livestream of the London Marathon with you and Matt Whitbread and the stellar cast of the Inside Running Podcast. It was awesome to get the truly quality insight and also the Australian perspective. Can you tell me a bit more about that event?

James: Firstly, a massive thank you to Matt Whitbread, who does a lot of producing of the Athletics NSW live-streaming. And a big thank you to the Inside Running Podcast and Brady Threlfall, Julian Spence and Bradley Croker, who took the initiative to run a side-commentary for the London Marathon to highlight the Australians. 

We brought in a number of guests, including Soph Ryan. She did an amazing job, going really in-depth with Ellie Pashley and Sinead Diver in the women’s race. And of course, with Julian Spence, we were getting live updates from Ellie’s coach as she was going around a World Major. It was really cool to hear that commentary. 

The Inside Running Podcast boys have done such a good job over 3 years of telling authentic stories about the sport, and really making it relatable to a wide audience. Now we need to transfer that momentum into the actual coverage of athletics. That’s what Matt and I are trying to do.  

RC: That leads into my next question, because you have some legit chops for calling races. How did you get into doing race commentary? 

James: The man behind everything is absolutely Matt Whitbread of the Bankstown Sports Athletics Club. He owns all the live-stream equipment. We have multiple cameras set up around the track, there are hundreds of metres of cabling, we call the races using three Mac monitors, we’ve got a big A/V box with about 1000 leads coming out of it. I don’t understand any of it (laughs). It’s Matt who sets it up every time, and we also have some great producing partners in Tim Gale-Re and Briony Norton

I got started in my first year at Athletics NSW. Matt was on the hunt for a commentary partner. I think it might have been a Sydney Milers club meet, which extended into the Albie Thomas program. That was one of the first meets where I jumped in the commentary box to have a crack. I don’t think Matt let me call a whole lot, because I was rubbish. I was basically just calling-out start lines. But as time went on, and I got a little more confident, I really started to enjoy it. 

Whether organising events, or providing insightful commentary from the broadcast booth, James Constantine is intent on growing the sport of running.

In the past, the set-up has been quite cumbersome, and so we’ve only covered big events like state championships. But we’ve got some new equipment that should simplify the process and we’re hoping to broadcast as many meets as possible this summer. And that’s particularly important when there are restrictions on the number of spectators allowed at competitions.

Commentating with Matt is always good fun. We’re great mates, we just love it. And we’ve received a lot of positive feedback. It’s just athletics on TV. That’s what it comes down to.  You see all the major sports on TV. And seeing athletics on a screen is exciting for a lot of people in the sport. 

RC: Does that provide more opportunities for commercial sponsorship? 

James: For us, we can start to say to potential sponsors that we’re getting 13,000 views for Albie Thomas. We’re getting 10,000 views for the 3000-metre championships. That’s 10,000 people you could be reaching who are highly engaged with our sport. We are 100 percent working towards getting some commercial sponsorship, and also providing higher-quality and more regular streams. 

When Matt started the streaming it was 2014 and — he won’t mind me saying this — it was clunky and choppy. But you know what, it was something. It was a start. And everything has to start somewhere. Over five years, he’s built the capability to what it is now.

“What you’re going to see this season are six camera-streams with multiple angles, cameras on each corner of the track. Hopefully a rail-side camera with athletes motoring past it. I’m really excited for what we’ll deliver this summer.” 

Personal running goals for the future

RC: Now, getting back to your running. You are a proud member of the Delta Running Project, which was founded by Jérôme Dupuy. First of all, it seems like an awesome collective of humans, and it also has some seriously talented runners. Can you tell me what that crew is all about and what it represents? 

James: Delta is a really cool group. Jérôme has done a wonderful job over the last two years to create what it is now. And Jack Maxwell was one of the early members, and he’s a runner who has gone supernova in terms of his improvement since it began. 

Delta is effectively a very niche, semi-elite performance group. Nobody is sponsored, nobody is making money from running, but Delta members all take their running very seriously because they’re all doing big mileage and running insane track sessions, at least from my perspective. There are guys there trying to run a 2:20 marathon, break 70 minutes for the half, and people like myself trying to run a sub-16 minute 5k. 

We take our running very seriously, but at the end of the day we have jobs, and families, and are happy to have a beer without looking at the calories.   

RC: What do you bring to the group, and what have you taken away from the other Delta runners? 

James: You can take running as seriously as you want to. And if you do decide to take it seriously, do that. There’s no dabbling in and out. If you’re committed stay committed. Don’t say you want to achieve a goal and half-heart it. Go out and do it. 

That’s been a real eye opener. There are so many great run clubs in Sydney. But for a lot of these groups it’s a social run — you go to run 5 or 10 k with your friends and that’s a social outing.

“With Delta, you go there to train, to run hard, and you expect to be on the floor gasping for air after your session. And you get better from it. And you achieve goals and you do it together. I think having those common goals and a purpose has built a great camaraderie in the group.” 

James Constantine, sporting his Delta Running Project singlet, ran a big personal best at the 2019 Berlin Marathon.

What were 3 to 4 runners at Gore Hill Oval a year ago, is now regularly 12 to 15 at some ungodly hour on Tuesday mornings. It’s a great group that’s grown very well and that has some really positive voices sharing wisdom, including Dave Costello, who is an excellent strength and conditioning coach, and Tom do Canto — who is technically a member of RunCrew, but who has been very willing to lend his expertise on what shoes we should be wearing.     

RC: Can you give me one big goal you have as a runner? 

James: It used to be time-based. I used to have them written on my wall: Sub 2-minute 800. Sub 4-minute 1500. Sub 4:35-minute mile. Sub 9-minute 3 k. Sub 16-minute 5 k. Sub 33-minute 10 k. Sub 74-minute half. Sub 2:40 marathon. 

These would be awesome to achieve, but through this year and covid, I have gained some perspective on what I actually want from the sport. Running those times are still goals for me, but they’re not my biggest goals.

My biggest goal is to help people enjoy the sport more broadly. Take a guy like Keith Hong. Keith absolutely has his personal running goals, and it was great to see him run a sub-3-hour marathon… but he means so much more to the community. He’s everyone’s friend at a running event. Everyone knows him. Everyone wants to go up and give him an elbow bump. He brings joy to people because they know when they see Keith at an event they’re going to have a nice 5-minute conversation and it’s going to make their experience a lot better. To have even a sliver of that impact on people would be incredible. 

“As much as I want to chase PBs and mix it up with the Delta crew, I think the biggest thing I can do in my position at Athletics NSW is to try to make a positive impact and leave the sport in a better position than when I came into it.”  

RC: And can you give me one big goal you have for the running community in NSW and Australia?  

James: I want people to look at going to a running event like going and having brunch at a cafe. You go with your mates, you do it and you enjoy it! You love the experience, you walk away with a medal saying, ‘That was worthwhile. The money I paid for my race entry, for the super fancy shoes I just bought, all the time I invested in the last 4 months training for this event, it was all worth it. And I want to do it again.’ 

We need to leave people wanting to come back. And with our track events, we want people who have never stepped foot on the track before to try it and love the experience and the atmosphere. If I can achieve that for a handful of people who are new to the sport, then that’s a job done. 

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