Last year at about this time, Rich Kenah wasn’t feeling too swell. The executive director of the Atlanta Track Club (ATC), Kenah “felt horrible” that the ATC’s signature event and the world’s largest 10K, the Peachtree Road Race, would not be celebrating its annual Independence Day running through Atlanta’s streets due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was a tough pill to swallow,” Kenah says of the ATC’s big event going virtual in 2020.
And it was not a pill Kenah wished to ingest again.
Over the last year, Mission: Peachtree 2021 has become an all-hands-on-deck effort for the ATC, which remains committed to hosting an in-person Peachtree next month and restoring the city’s annual Independence Day tradition. Supported by a COVID advisory group of public health personnel, the ATC has devoted countless hours to developing “safe and appropriate” plans for the upcoming Peachtree event.
“We’re not going to be the world’s largest 10K in 2021,” Kenah acknowledges, “but our goal coming out of July 4th is to be the world’s safest 10K.”
After race cancellations dominated the calendar for much of 2020 and early 2021, races, including mass events like Peachtree, continue returning to communities across the U.S. And by and large, runners are signing up, eager to return to racing and capture a dose of quasi-normalcy in their athletic lives.
When Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, MN, opened registration last October for its marathon, half marathon and 5K slated for June 19, runners gobbled up the 4000 half marathon entries within a day. By Christmas, the event’s 4000 marathon and 1500 5K slots sold out as well.
The Gate River Run in Jacksonville, FL, reached its 8000-person limit within two weeks of opening registration last Dec. 1, including 4500 registrations on the first day, reports Doug Alred of 1st Place Sport Running. On March 20, nearly 7000 finishers completed the 15K race Ñ the nation’s largest in-person running event since the pandemic’s appearance in March 2020.
According to MultiSport Research’s January 2021 Endurance Sport Athlete Motivations Study, 83 percent of athletes expect to race sometime this year.
“First and foremost, we want to warm consumers back up to the idea of racing again and it’s promising so many are enthusiastic about getting back at it,” says Michelle Duffy, associate marketing director for Life Time, which hosts more than two-dozen races across the U.S., including noteworthy events such as the Miami Marathon, the New York City Triathlon and the Leadville race series.
Yet, many race organizers expect racing’s return to be a slow march ahead with layers of interventions and modifications in place throughout 2021 and likely into 2022.
“This is like turning up a dial, not flipping on a light switch,” Kenah says.
The list of adjustments to get folks to the starting line and create a safe environment is long and varied and all encompassing.
Shift Dates, Slash Capacity
When the Paris Marathon ditched its April date for October 17, organizers did so “to maximize the chances of running together.” The hope, of course, is that COVID-19 is less of a pressing threat in October than it was in April.
Similarly, the Boston Marathon moved its race from April to October while also trimming its field to 20,000, substantial changes to an event rooted in tradition and grandeur.
The ATC, meanwhile, elected to split up Peachtree between two days Ð July 3 and 4. At press time, race capacity had yet to be determined, but Kenah acknowledged it would not approach 60,000 runners.
All race organizers are adapting various strategies to assure that their events do take place in a lingering COVID environment. Here are a few of them:
A singular focus on the race. Many race leaders have stripped down events to focus exclusively on the race. Grandma’s Marathon, for instance, cut its popular Friday and Saturday parties, while the ATC similarly did away with finish line social events and the sponsor village at Peachtree.
Though Grandma’s leadership had discussions about increasing capacity following the immediate registration surge, officials tabled those discussions during the winter.
“We are committed to these numbers and staying there,” Grandma’s marketing and PR director Zach Schneider says. “One way to take the complexity out is to focus on the 9500 we have because our top priority is the race itself.”
Modified expos. Gate River Run took drastic steps at its expo. Upon registration, runners had to select a two-hour window on one of three days to pick up their packet. Once they did that, they could exit to the expo area or leave the facility altogether.
“It looked like it was dead all the time, but it worked,” Alred says of the expo.
Of note, some races have even debuted drive-thru packet pickups to further facilitate safety and limit crowds.
Virtual and hybrid options. BOLDERBoulder 10K leaders tabbed six different courses that participants could run over the three-day Memorial Day weekend. Each course was marked, measured and timed. Participants had to register for their selected course during a defined two-hour time block.
The Salt Lake Running Co. (SLRC) offered a virtual option with each of its three winter road race series events earlier this year. SLRC race director Pete Van Slooten says having the virtual option allowed participants an opportunity to be engaged in the race even if they weren’t on site, while also providing the races an incremental registration bump for little added investment in labor. In an interesting tie-in to SLRC’s three retail stores, virtual participants received a small store credit since they were not using race-day amenities.
Evolving policies FOR CANCELLATIONS. Given the uncertainty COVID-19 can bring, race organizers are reviewing their cancellation policies and other race terms. Seeking to balance clarity, fairness and peace of mind, many are crafting policies accordingly.
SLRC, for example, has altered its race cancellation policy to say that a race will go virtual if the in-person event cannot happen. In resurrecting the Philadelphia Distance Run Half Marathon and 5K, race organizers opened 4500 slots for the Sept. 19 event and promised full refunds to those who registered prior to June 15. The Paris Marathon, meanwhile, has offered full refunds to runners should the race be cancelled due to COVID-19.
Mandatory vaccinations or negative COVID tests. For its April 25 event, Toledo’s Glass City Marathon required entrants to have proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of their “first interaction with the event, including packet pickup.”
Likewise, the ATC will require Peachtree participants provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test to receive their race number, a measure that signaled the end of mailing race numbers to participants.
Masks. Most events are requiring participants to wear masks before and after they run. At the Gate River Run, Alred found runners overwhelmingly obedient at the start line. At the finish, however, race officials had to take a more proactive approach to ensure compliance, including signage, frequent announcements and dispensing disposable masks.
“The good news is that most participants are simply thankful races are back and we found they were willing to do just about anything to comply,” Alred says.
Altered start line procedures. With starting lines being a prime source of concern, race officials are making significant changes to minimize gatherings and enable social distancing.
U.K.-based crowd scientist Marcel Altenburg has encouraged Grandma’s Marathon to employ a rolling start in which five runners begin every five seconds. Altenburg’s model shows every participant should have 20 feet of available space to use while on the course.
Rather than setting off 3000 people every five minutes, as has become customary at Peachtree, corrals at the ATC race next month will hold no more than 1500 runners and begin every 10 minutes. Staff even measured the staging area to ensure that every participant would have 36-square feet of space around them, a drastic departure from the shoulder-to-shoulder scene at the typical 60,000-runner Peachtree.
Gate River Run, meanwhile, divided its field in half and used two separate starting lines. Every five minutes, the gun fired for 1000 runners at each line. After the mile mark, the two groups merged onto the same 15K course.
Smaller events are employing similar tactics to drive social distancing, such as setting off in small waves, maybe 25-50 people, every three-to-five minutes or arranging runners in a grid-like pattern Ð often with on-the-ground markings designating where people should stand Ð and mechanically moving people up to the starting line every five seconds.
The Silver Lining for Races
Though pent-up demand from runners has many race organizers encouraged and energized, they nevertheless acknowledge the stress of planning an event amid continued COVID-19 concerns and lingering uncertainty. Kenah, however, sees a silver lining to all the reflection and discussions the pandemic spurred.
“I truly believe running events out there will be better at their trade with what we’ve learned throughout this pandemic and the ways in which we’ve all been forced to critically think through things and brainstorm solutions,” he says.