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Race Reflections: Racing in a COVID World

Two months ago I ran what was only my second race of 2020. In the now strange to contemplate alternate reality where life went according to plan – the one where the world wasn’t overtaken by a deadly pandemic – upon arriving at the halfway point of the year I was to have already completed 3 marathons, 2 half marathons, and some countless number of other shorter distance races that barely even register because they happen so frequently. Yet in these bizarre days of life in suspension, running any race, anywhere, in July of 2020 was quite extraordinary just by virtue of happening at all.

Therein lies the first of many takeaways from what COVID has brought to the fore: Never take anything for granted. Indeed, prior to this prolonged hiatus, racing had become less an event for me and more a default. Sure there were some notable exceptions, a few standouts in the crowd, but there is no doubt racing was regular enough to be routine. I had my pre and post race rituals down by rote, a goal or intention for each carefully considered, my schedule bent and maneuvered to accommodate training and travel. It was all second nature. Until the calendar was unexpectedly blank.

Even after I booked the race, a mere month in advance, I was only partly convinced it would actually occur. Inured to months of disappointment, a healthy skepticism seemed only prudent. Here too can be found another lesson. Doubt, uncertainty, and unpredictability are an inevitable reality of life but rather than let that be an obstacle, I believe in using it as an opportunity to embrace the present and practice a nimble adaptability where the future is concerned. After all isn’t that why you go out and train in all weather conditions, except of course those deemed unsafe? When has race day gone exactly according to plan? Surely when the starting gun goes off, your focus turns narrowly to addressing each moment as it comes. As we return to racing in the new normal, it’s important to be flexible and embrace change.

As much as I wanted to race, as much as I wanted to return to some sense of normalcy, it became apparent as I boarded the subway for the first time in months, there would be no erasing from my mind how different the world has become. Some differences are absolutely needed for safety. Such as an outdoor bib pickup and contactless aid stations. Some differences are mental. Such as the pre-race jitters you just can’t shake because what was once old hat now feels like starting over. Some differences are physical. Such as a constant awareness of where you are in relation to others and the ubiquity of hand sanitizer which you practically bathe in repeatedly. But even as the differences added up, some fundamental things remained the same.

The anticipation and sheer exuberance at hearing the countdown and the starting gun. The collective desire unspoken but nevertheless palatable, to push each other, push yourself, to bring out your best and to compete. The joy in feeling so abundantly alive as your heart pounds and you seemingly fly through the air. The excitement of seeing the finish line ahead. The pride in receiving a medal and satisfaction of having all those hours of training reach some cumulative and definitive peak then denouement. These are things for which there is no substitute. These are the reasons we mourned the absence of a seemingly trivial pursuit.

But in the face of this lingering absence I can report there is reason to hope. It is possible to hold a COVID safe race and race organizations are increasingly innovating, altering and adapting to make it happen. Naturally that does not mean every race can move forward in a COVID safe manner. Some races are too logistically complex, too expansive or too costly to effectively enact such measures. Each locality will have their own distinct timetable and requirements set forth by the local government who issue the permits. However, as more and more races occur across the country, there are some emerging commonalities you can expect to find when you return to racing.

Practices such as:

  • Severely capped participant numbers and on occasion participation limited to people from certain locales
  • Outdoor bib pickup, pre-assigned time slot bib pickup or a mailed only bib, with no in person pickup option
  • Signing of a pre-race COVID waiver attesting you have no symptoms or recent close contact with COVID positive persons
  • Contactless temperature taken upon arrival on race morning
  • Pre-assigned staggered start times, open rolling starts or extended start windows sometimes over the course of many hours
  • Fewer aid stations, limited volunteer support at aid stations, and completely contactless aid stations
  • Bare bones finish lines with pre-packaged to-go bags of food and drink

These are just a few of the changes race organizations are making to put on a safe event. But the most important element remains the diligence, compliance and awareness of each participant. By each of us working together, in coordination, we can ensure a safe return to racing.

For more details about NYC local races that have happened recently or are scheduled to happen soon, please see my previous blog post via this link.

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