The future of marathons is in the hands of the casual runner

A new kind of race day.
A new kind of race day.
Image: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
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When my alarm went off in the early hours of Sunday, Nov. 22, it was still dark. I took 30 minutes to drink my coffee and grab my gear bag. The sun didn’t start peeping out until I was well on my way on I-95 South, driving to Fountainhead Regional Park in Virginia for what had become a rare experience: a competitive race with dozens of other runners.

As I made my way to only my second organized race in 10 months, things almost felt normal. All the big races I had planned on doing this year had been canceled or postponed until next year. I had particularly been looking forward to running the Marine Corps Marathon (MCM) for the fourth time in my hometown of Washington DC. There, I hoped to run a qualifying time for the Boston Marathon, the oldest race in the country, and one of the most competitive to enter. I gave up training in May when it became clear that participating safely wouldn’t be possible.

I wasn’t alone. Nearly all major marathons and other road races were nixed in 2020, from Athens to Boston. Some races, like the Tokyo marathon, have been postponed to late 2021.

The pandemic has been devastating for the race industry. In 2018, 7.9 million people across the globe participated in some kind of foot race, according to data from RunRepeat and the International Association of Athletics Federations. Running USA, a non-profit, puts this estimate at nearly 20 million for the US alone, although it includes charity walks, relay races, and other non-traditional road races.

While major marathons like the MCM only make up about 10% of global races annually, they bring in the big bucks: Running USA has estimated that these events, with tens of thousands of participants, contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to local economies.

That’s because road races involve so much more than just running. They require road closures, aid-station volunteers, food, drink, and port-a-potty rentals. All of those perks are why participants are willing to shell out hundreds of dollars for a race entry fee, and even more for travel. Major road races provide an atmosphere that lets runners safely push their limits without the fears of getting stranded, running out of fuel, or lacking medical attention.

There’s an intangible aspect of major road races, too, that makes the experience more than the sum of its parts. For many, deciding to sign up for a race is about deciding to take a new kind of ownership of your life: The dedication of weeks of training, the early alarms, and the sheer exhaustion are all worth it when you realize that you carried yourself across the finish line. The confidence that comes from completing such a physical feat is a reminder of self-worth—which may be shaken after a job loss, an illness or death, or a break-up. My first marathon was the 2012 MCM after a romantic split in college when I was feeling particularly low. Finishing that race was evidence of my resilience and strength, and every race after has been a reminder of it.

For seasoned runners, this year’s string of canceled road races has been disappointing, but understandable. It hasn’t stopped us from finding work arounds, though, like smaller, in-person trail races or virtual races. But for newcomers to the running scene, the lack of big races presents a bigger barrier: Large, competitive races are often the very thing that draws them into running. Without them, it can be harder to enter the community and to build the consistency that makes the hobby enjoyable. Even with compromises like trail and virtual races, it’ll take a longer time for the industry to recruit those newbies in the numbers they had been before.

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Scaling and trailing

Running is a relatively low-risk activity during a respiratory pandemic. It’s outdoors, there’s extremely limited physical contact with anyone else, and depending on the course, you likely won’t be in close proximity to anyone else for long.

It’s all the activities around the race setting—the expo for check-in, crowded start lines, finish line celebrations, hotel stays, restaurant dining, and crowd support—that pose the greatest risk. These high-risk race-day activities are the same ones we’ve had to forgo generally (just sub out “finish line celebrations” for “parties”).

So as long as Covid-19 is around, any kind of massive race event is out of the question. “We don’t want a race to be a super-spreader event,” says Brooke Nichols, an infectious disease modeler and health economist at Boston University. Nichols is an ultra-runner who had planned to try to qualify for the Boston marathon this year, a race for which she sits on the scientific advisory board. “That would destroy large events, running events, and it’d be bad PR for not only the marathon but for our whole community,” she says.

It’s impossible to say when a race like the Boston Marathon may return—it could be that it doesn’t happen until there’s a vaccine. But for smaller races, the mitigation strategies needed to participate safely are more feasible. Race directors can stagger race days to reduce the possibility of crowding. They can also take steps to start runners in smaller batches, eliminate finish-line festivals, and pre-package all food/water distributed throughout the course.

Andy Bacon, the director of the race company EX2 Adventures, which organized the 10-mile trail race I’d be running that Sunday, had pulled out all the safety stops. When I arrived at Fountainhead Regional Park by 7am, I was one of 80 participants; I was never in a group of more than 25 at once. Around 330 had signed up (a cap in accordance with local mandates at the time), but Bacon decided to split the event up over two days to minimize potential crowds even further.

He had spaced out check-ins (I was one of two people in line waiting for a bib) and starting groups (I was one of 10 that took off at once). Everyone wore a mask when they approached others or passed them on the trail, even if we pulled them down while we were running alone. Bacon even re-did the course map; instead of having two five-mile loops, he created a new course with two lollipop-shaped routes to minimize repeated passings.

“The goals are reduced touching and reduced gathering size,” says Bacon. “It’s much easier for us to do that versus [a race like] the Marine Corps Marathon.”

The nature of the course itself even meant I was alone most of the time—something unheard of for major road races. My starting group split up early; the path, which was riddled with rocks and roots, was only about four feet (a little over a meter) wide; we ran one at a time. The technicality of rocks and roots that riddled the ground slowed me down, and within minutes, I found myself alone on the trail with only my thoughts and the trees to keep me company.

That’s well and good for a trail race; a lot of runners enjoy them for the tranquility of convening with nature in that way. But with bigger road races—which are the type that draw in the most novice runners, crowds are kind of the point. The communal energy of hundreds around you with same goal, and the cheering spectators, are enough to help propel you across the finish line. The excitement of that celebratory atmosphere is what keeps runners coming back time and again.

In order for racing to go back to its regular heyday, the directors of big races will have to be able to handle all possible transmission scenarios with these kinds of crowds up to nine months before the actual event (the usual planning time for major races). There’s no one metric race directors can adhere to, like local case counts or percent positive test results, says Nichols.

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Going virtual

Bacon’s modifications to his trail race series made them doable—but sometimes, even that wasn’t enough. Around a third of his runners don’t feel comfortable with an in-person race no matter what measures taken, he says.

There’s another option: Going virtual.

Several larger races that couldn’t conceivably scale down opted for virtual versions of their events. They have proven surprisingly popular with participants, according to a spokesperson for Strava, the running and cycling social networking app that tracks a user’s routes and paces and allows them to share activities to an exhausting Instagram-like feed. Over 1 million people joined the app’s virtual 5k challenges in May and June, more than double the participation back in January. The app partnered with this year’s virtual NYC Marathon and had over 28,000 participants.

South Africa’s Comrades Marathon, pictured in 2016, is a popular event for both athletes and spectators.
South Africa’s Comrades Marathon, pictured in 2016, is a popular event for both athletes and spectators.
Image: Reuters/Rogan Ward

Virtual options have even been gained traction in the ultra-running community. (Ultramarathons are technically any distance beyond a marathon.) Rowyn James, who directs the Comrades Marathon in South Africa, said that going virtual was a hit for them this year. In normal times, Comrades is an iconic 55-mile race between Durban and Pietermaritzburg that was first run in 1921. This year, the race went virtual for the first time; 27,000 participants ran it as a 5k, 10k, 21k, 45k and 90k (the actual race distance) on whatever routes they pleased. After they finished, James and his team mailed them a medal color-coded for the distance they completed.

But without some kind of effort to create remote community excitement for a virtual race, they lose their appeal for a lot of runners. “Certainly in South Africa it’s gotten to the stage where people are tired,” James says. “Because everyone wanted to organize a virtual race, there’s been a lot of half-baked events…the concept has worn off a bit.” James is hoping that even if Comrades can’t happen in person next year for its 100th anniversary, the race itself will be iconic enough to draw in a similarly large remote participation.

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A case for the running community

Remote races are a bigger burden on the runner. Melanie Fineman, a 28-year-old law student at Georgetown University who hoped to run her third Boston marathon this year,  planned her own virtual marathon Monday on Labor Day in September. It wasn’t an easy task; she had to design a route that would safely get her the adequate mileage, while avoiding the stop and go of city traffic (she had to stop twice, which isn’t ideal). She had to plan how she’d get food and water on the course, where to go to the bathroom, and even which friends to have on call in case of emergency. In most organized races, all of those factors are taken care of; you just have to show up and actually run.

After her virtual race, which she completed in about 3 hours and 20 minutes, Fineman needed a break. “I’m not running a ton right now because it’s a big time commitment, and because we’re still in the middle of a pandemic,” she says. She’ll do Boston in whatever form it takes next year, but without the physical and emotional support of an organized race, she says it’s just not worth the effort of trying to do others.

Virtual races are essentially run alone, even if they’re done with an online community. Trail races are slower and more meditative. Neither are bad, but they’re not my preference: I love big marathons. I love the adrenaline that comes with being able to go push your pace on pavement. I love the competition that comes from your fellow runners and the spectators cheering you on.

The combination of the difficult terrain and lack of company at the Fountainhead race led to me walking up one of the daunting hills on the course. I listened to my breathing and noticed the footprints of those who had come before me in the race. At the top, I even stopped to turn around to marvel at the steep drop below, proud that I had made it without slipping—something I’d never do in a road races as I pushed against the clock. I couldn’t see anyone behind me. It was pure peace.

I took the tranquility of that moment with me as I finished the race—still largely alone—down a similar hill and back along some of the paths. The course had challenged me, like I knew it would, and I felt a sense of accomplishment I’ve grown used to crossing the finish line. For me, it was more than enough respite to return to activity I’ve loved for nearly a decade. But for others, that time on the trail may not be enough to substitute the energy of a major marathon. It may take some time to get these runners back, even after the pandemic ends.