Remember when mass events were a thing?
It’s been a hot second (nearly 50,000,000 of them, actually) since most of us have crammed together for live music, sporting events, or fried fair food. While we’ve still got a ways to go, there’s reason to hope that large gatherings and sardine-fests might be on the brink of a comeback.
As a professional marathoner, I’m naturally most amped about the return of road races: fun runs, marathons, long-distance relays, all of it. My last big one was over 17 months ago at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, during which the President interrupted the broadcast to announce the first COVID-known death in the U.S.
With all that’s happened between then and now, that may as well have been a lifetime ago. But as more and more races tentatively commit to going in-person — all six World Marathon Majors are slated for an epic 6-week span this fall — it’s time to start dusting off our racing flats and remembering how to push ourselves to the point of blurred vision and mouth foam, all in the name of crossing the finish line.
To prepare you for race season, we asked five runners representing a wide range of experience and speed to dish on how they’re feeling about the racing revival, and what they’re doing to get back in the saddle. Based on those conversations, here’s what you can expect the next time you toe the line:
Much is still up in the air when it comes to fall and winter road races. But one thing we can count on is a continued emphasis on public health and hygiene. Whether that means donning face masks until the gun goes off, trying to maintain a 6-foot personal bubble while you run, or having to flash a vaccination passport before you’re allowed entry, some of those measures will be here for a while.
As a seasoned marathoner — she’s cracked the Chicago Marathon’s top three times — and a health professional with a PhD in Radiologic Sciences, Taylor Ward of Ogden, Utah, is here for the health protocols. “I hope to see a continuation of efforts such as hand sanitizer stations available at races, even past the pandemic,” she says.
Relative newcomer to the roads Rob Spencer, who calls Austin, Texas, home, has a different take. “I’d hate to see too many restrictions in place that would take away from the fun race culture. I’d rather sit another year out than pay for an overly adapted race experience.”
Even though big-name races are on their way back, it may be some time before they’re able to accommodate pre-pandemic field sizes. As one example, if all goes according to plan, the 2021 New York City Marathon will accommodate 33,000 runners — beefy, for sure, but a whole 20,000 less than the last edition in 2019.
Neely Gracey, a Boulder, Colorado-based elite runner and the founder of Get Running Coaching, explains, “In road racing, there are a lot of close contact situations, especially in point-to-point courses where runners are transported in buses to and from the start/finish.”
Similarly, some starting corrals are so crowded they can feel more like mosh pits. One possible solution that Spencer supports is to implement more rolling start times (several waves of runners versus one massive start). Another idea that’s gaining steam is to allow racers a generous time window to complete the designated course, their timing chips offering proof of start and finish times.
Along those lines, it’s likely that races will attract smaller audiences than they did pre-2020. It’s harder for race organizers to control who’s on the sidelines than who’s on the course, but many will follow the lead of the Tokyo Olympics by asking the public to refrain from cheering runners on in person. (Not great news for the funny sign industry. My personal favorite: “Worst parade ever!”)
Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier Cali Werner of Houston, Texas, predicts, “I think the biggest difference may come from the crowd of spectators… The crowd lined the entire marathon [at the Trials]! I don’t believe we will have anything like that for a good while still, unfortunately.”
Jeff Ballew, a recreational half and full marathoner local to San Francisco, California, agrees: “The energy from the people running with me in the NYC Marathon and the energy from the crowd were truly what kept me going during the race. I’m worried many runners like myself won’t be as interested in smaller races if there are limitations in the future.”
By the time fall races roll around, many runners won’t have raced in person in well over a year. According to the 2020 Global Running Survey, about 8 in 10 runners participated in fewer events last year as a result of the pandemic, and a whopping 94 percent couldn’t participate in races they’d planned on due to sweeping cancellations.
Ward, who’s spent much of the last year rehabbing from major hip surgery, speaks from experience when she advises a gentle reentry to competition. “After a long time without racing, it will likely take a couple races before you truly feel like you are back to it,” she says. “The first race or two may be considered ‘rust busters’ and after a year-plus off of racing, there may be a lot of rust!”
Ward recommends a smart approach with realistic goals, while Gracey reiterates the value in putting “dress rehearsal” races on the calendar prior to the race you care most about. (What they’re saying is: If you’re going to flop, you might as well get it over with early than save it for the main event!)
The running world saw an explosion of virtual events last year, making up about 40 percent of race sign-ups, according to the 2020 Annual Industry Report by Run Signup. By comparison, virtual events only accounted for 2.8 percent of race sign-ups in 2019. While increasing in-person competitions will surely pull from those fields, virtual races are here to stay. Not only do they make it easier to socially distance than the classic model, they’re more convenient and usually cheaper, too.
Last summer, Werner participated in a virtual mile, 5K, and 10K. Though not quite the same as the real deal, they prevented her from getting too far removed from the racing mindset, motivated her to keep the pedal to the metal, and helped her stay sane during the uncertainty around her. “I would definitely do it again,” Werner says — though not to the exclusion of those blessed real-life competitions.
They’re not for everyone, though. Ballew cites the lack of crowd support for his decision not to race virtually last year. Gracey adds that some of her athletes clocked personal records in the 2020-style, while “others tried and had very little interest.”
If there’s one thread that emerged from these conversations, it’s a sense of gratitude for the return of racing opportunities. Gracey used the words, “Excited!” and “Thrilled!” Werner felt that most runners are eager to get back out there, and that “rejuvenated runners will make for some intense and exciting future races.” And Ward captured the sentiment well when she said that “the race cancellations from COVID have allowed us to appreciate the gift to even race at all… The connection brought by the running community is what drew me to the sport in the first place, but I feel that we will all have a greater appreciation for it now.”
Her hope, and ours, is that this pent-up excitement and newfound gratitude outlasts the scars the pandemic leaves.