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Will Running Races Return? Marathons after COVID19 – The good, the bad and the ugly

marathons after COVID19

The past two months have seen the world literally stop in its tracks as governments have shut down and sheltering in place to prevent the spread of COVID19 as become the new “normal.”

The usual Saturday morning marathon training group runs have been replaced by an uptick in home treadmill purchases or running solo as social distancing becomes routine. But on social networks like Facebook and Twitter, runners are wondering about marathons after COVID19.

Each week, another group of marathons and other races adds their names to the growing list of either cancelled or postponed running races. Runners training for Boston or other big-name marathons are left wondering what marathons after COVID19 pandemic will look like.

Its a fair question, and its one question I’ve had to wrestle with as an athlete and also a sports medicine physician and former marathon medical tent director for the Carlsbad Marathon and Rock-n-Roll Marathon and Half-Marathon in San Diego. COVID19 has presented a series of circumstances and challenges that none of us has anticipated in regards to mass-participation endurance sports.

Marathons After COVID19

Its the end of May 2020 as I write the first version of this article (I’m sure it will up updated throughout the year, so check back) and many communities in the U.S. are trying to emerge from the sheltering-in-place guidelines put in place by most states back in March to slow the spread of COVID19.

Despite these extreme efforts nation-wide to mitigate the spread of the virus, over 96,000 people have died from, and over 1.6 million people have tested positive for COVID19 in the United States. Worldwide, the reported death toll from COVID-19 is just over 338,000 as of May 23, 2020, with over 5.2 million infected. Those are staggering numbers in just 4 months of the virus.

Storefronts and restaurants are just starting to reopen in many places while gyms and other recrational facilites still remain shuttered.

Boston Marathon, the oldest continuously held marathon in the world, postponed its annual April race to September. The race organizers are hoping that the later date will allow Boston Marathon to continue its continuity record, but at the same time Boston was postponing, the Berlin Marathon, already scheduled for later in September, announced that the 2020 marathon would not be held due to concerns about the potential spread of COVID19.

Race directors as well as medical directors are facing uncharted territories as they wrestle with how to plan for marathons in a post-COVID19 world.

Social distancing will be the new “norm” for probably the next 12 to 18 months until either an effective vaccine is developed or there is enough herd immunity from previously infected people to slow the transmission rate of the virus.

Races will have to plan for implementing social distancing not only at the marathon, but at the pre-race marathon expo, which is a huge source of revenue for many races.

Medical staff will have to come up with a COVID19 plan to ensure that symptomatic runners don’t race and expose other marathoners. Measuring temperatures at the start of the race may become just another part of the pre-race check-in.

Marathon medical services

Marathon medical tents will also have to anticipate having separate areas for runners that present to the race medical tent with suspected COVID19 symptoms on race day. Personal protective equipment (PPE) will need to be acquired for race medical staff, adding more cost to produce the race. Vigorous sanitization and cleaning procedures will need to be implemented at the starting area, finish line and post-race areas to decrease and diminish the risk of exposing runners and race volunteers to the virus.

What’s the proper sanitization protocol for those pre-race port-a-potties to prevent COVID19? We really don’t currently know and the logistics of having to clean and sanitize those port-a-potties after each use is mind-numbing.

How do we change the pre-race runner corrals at the start of the marathon? Social distancing becomes difficult, if not impossible when 40,000 marathon runners all try to cross the start line in waves.

Runners crowded together at start of running race
Runners crowded together pre-COVID19. What will marathon starting lines look like now?

Marathon race operations now have an added layer of complexity to an already complex race day operation. Not only does the marathon need to supply aid stations with water, drinks and food, but they now need to develop a way to deliver (and clean up) those aid stations while minimizing the risk of COVID19 exposure to everyone.

Marathon Spectators

Spectating along the course, especially for the biggest races like Boston. New York and Chicago become a huge challenge and headache if social distancing is still required by local or state health departments. Will face masks be required if you want to watch your loved one struggle up Heartbreak Hill in Boston or run around the borders of Central Park in New York City?

The NFL and MLB have already discussed spectator-less games when their leagues restart later this year. Will the run through the deafening din of Wellesley College co-eds turn into a silent run by the campus instead if marathon spectating is restricted?

Marathons after COVID19 represent a daunting challenge to everyone involved, including the race directors and volunteers, race sponsors, the runners and their family, friends and spectators. This challenge also extends out to the communities hosting these events as thousands of marathoners typically travel for the more well-known marathons, many having to travel by airplane and then stay at hotels in the host marathon city. The visiting marathoners also eating out in restaurants and visiting tourist destinations within the city (or at least the race expo while their family tours the city.)

How do race directors handle entry fees when they are forced to postpone or cancel their marathon? And how will marathoners handle being told they can only roll-over their entry fee to the next year and not get a refund?

Advertising money for marathons after COVID19

Advertising dollars are expected to drop in the second half of 2020 as businesses wait and watch to see what the economic impact of the lock-down in the U.S. will have on the economy. Less advertising means less sponsorship money flowing into these races, many of which already run on a shoestring budget. How many marathons and smaller, local races will be unable to carry on because of the financial impact?

How will cities deal with permitting and handling the cost of police and road closures for these races?

In other endurance sports like triathlon, World Triathlon has released its COVID19 triathlon guidelines for race directors with recommendations to minimize risk of COVID19 exposure to athletes, volunteers and spectators.

But I think marathon race directors, medical staff and local public health officials are up to the task of promoting and improving marathons after COVID19.

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