Who could have expected that 90% of the 2020 road and trail racing season would be cancelled due to a pandemic? It was definitely not what I expected a year ago, but here we are. And it seems like we might finally be reaching a point where racing can be a possibility again. But racing and marathons post pandemic will certainly look different than racing before COVID-19. With a couple of races on the horizon, I decided to do some research on what changes I could expect as racing starts to return. Here’s what I found.
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Races & Marathons Post Pandemic
Every runner knows that the racing experience isn’t limited to the time between the start gun and finish line. Most runners look forward to the events that start before the race, like the pre-race dinner and race expo. While these used to be opportunities for runners to socialize and check out the latest running gear, the pre-race festivities will probably be very different for the forseeable future.
- Race Expos – It seems like this is one part of racing that is likely going to take a big hit. And with some races bringing tens of thousands of runners and their families into one (usually) indoor space, it makes sense. Many smaller races will likely continue with small packet pick-ups, but for larger races the expo may be reduced dramatically, or eliminated all together.
- Bibs – In response to the reduced expos and the smaller is safer notion, many races will likely revert to the old tradition of mailing out bibs prior to the race. This would allow early registrants to avoid packet pick-up all together. Don’t be surprised if you see this as an option, especially for bigger races.
- Online Resources – To help keep the expo spirit alive, some races are transitioning to an online version of the racers swag bag. Coupons, offers, and informational material might be emailed directly to runners, or available through a website. This is one feature that I honestly won’t be heart broken about, since I generally tossed most of those into the trash. The free expo snacks, are a different story. They will be sorely missed.
- Pick Up Windows – For races that don’t feel like mail and online packets are an option, it’s likely that runners might encounter assigned and specific pick-up windows. Instead of offering the choice of 2-3 days, racers might be assigned to a one hour block on a specific day in an effort to reduce traffic. Definitely not the most ideal setup for out of town runners, but a somewhat small price to pay to have a racing return.
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Hanging out for an hour before the gun goes off, and spending the better part of an afternoon near the finish line was often seen as a given. Racers have worked hard for months training for race day, and we all want an opportunity to relish in our achievement for just a little while longer (if we’re not dying to get to brunch, anyways). Once again, the start and finish lines are likely points in the racing experience that will look and feel substantially different, as race directors try to find ways to spread people out as much as possible.
- Masks – Most races will be requiring runners to have and wear masks at any point that they are not actually running. Some races may actually opt to require racers to wear them the entire time. Here is where something like a buff might come in handy for runners who want to be able to easily pull something on and off to cover their face when needed. For most road races, masks might be limited to start and finish lines. Trail races however seem to be opting for more mask usage during aid station stops in addition to pre and post race.
- Starting Waves – While large road races typically employ a waved start, where runners are corralled into groups based on expected finish times, trail racers have generally had one gun time. It looks like most races moving forward will be employing a staggered start time, allowing a limited number of runners to start together. A few races have even forgone the traditional start time all together, allowing runners to select a one hour window over the course a weekend to begin their race. Either way, prepare for starting lines to have much less crowding, and don’t expect to be able to start right at gun time.
- Finish Line – The finish beer was definitely a part of my racing ritual. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate my athletic accomplishments than grabbing a chair or curb and rehydrating with an adult beverage while I replay every difficult moment in my mind. Bonus points if the race offered breakfast tacos or muffins! But don’t plan on seeing food, band, or other recreational activities at the finish lines in the near future. It’s likely that most large races will encourage runners to exit the finish chute and keep moving, in an effort to maximize social distancing. Some smaller races might still allow for a little post-race convening, but don’t expect any communal food or beverages to be served, and plan to have a mask handy.
The space where we might see the most changes, the race course itself. Whether road or trail, race day will be an experience divergent from years past.
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- Numbers – I don’t think any of us are going to be surprised to hear that most races are greatly reducing the number of runners able to enter. While a city may have previously been able to welcome upwards of ten thousand athletes and their families, larger races may find that city restrictions will dictate the amount of people able to gather together at one time. Regardless of city restrictions, most race directors will probably reduce the number of spots to help spread out runners and allow for reduced support.
- Multiple Races – Many large trail and road races have multiple distance options. One of the ways that some races may reduce spots is to eliminate some of the smaller “fun run” distances like 5k and kids mile options. For races that continue to allow multiple distances, you might see those races spread out more than usual, potentially taking place on different days all together.
- Volunteers – None of us will be shocked to find out that most races will have a more limited support crew available. With city restrictions on gatherings, most race directors would prefer to save those numbers for actual runners. Additionally, in order to reduce the opportunity for the spread of COVID-19, races will probably reduce volunteer numbers to the bare minimum possible. This means you should prepare to wait a little longer, and have a little less available.
- Spectating – A big part of the racing experience is running past groups of cheering spectators, holding up motivating and sometimes humorous signs, and offering support and encouragement throughout the course. Many races may reduce the number of spectators at any given point on the course, or eliminate the option to spectate all together. As much of a bummer as it may be for friends and family to not be able to come cheer you on, it’s an opportunity to peer pressure them into running with you!
- Aid Stations – Runners are usually a self-sufficient and gritty bunch, but most of us have become fairly accustomed to being able to rely on water and other course support at aid stations. Unfortunately, with fewer volunteers and a focus on reduced contact, aid stations are probably going to have minimal offerings, if any at all. Some races are offering only self-served water and requiring cupless racing. Others might offer grab n go items like single-serve gels or gu’s. Trail runners will probably be disappointed (or devastated in my case) to learn that the communal bowl of M&Ms is no longer sitting on the aid station table. Fortunately, some race directors have become more creative, finding single serve solutions like Uncrustable sandwiches and individually wrapped candy at ultramarathon races.
- Pacers – Something that is unique to the ultramarathon world is the notion of pacers. Basically a moving support crew, pacers join runners for a section of the race and offer encouragement while running alongside the racer. Some races are allowing pacers only during overnight sections, or after a certain distance. Other races have removed the option all together.
We are all excited to know that, just like the rest of the world, the racing community is learning how to adapt and adjust to the changes necessary in response to this pandemic situation. While many races are still on hold for 2021, there are a few races making early appearances on the calendar. It is undoubted that racing will be very different in the near future.
There will be less support, fewer frills, and reduced fan fare. What won’t change is the community and competitive spirit, which is really what matters. Pushing the boundaries of what feels possible, struggling, and riding out the highs and the lows together. Those are the things that a pandemic can’t remove. And I’m so excited to be a part of it.