The Boston Marathon returns to in-person racing this Monday for its 125th iteration, an event that the Boston Marathon CEO Tom Grilk calls, “More complicated than any other iteration any of us have ever seen.” Hosting 20,000 runners at a time when the London and Berlin Marathons recently held their own events, but the Tokyo Marathon postponed their fall event to the spring, in-person racing has obviously become … complicated. iRun editor Ben Kaplan spoke with Grilk just five days out from his race.
Ben Kaplan: Let’s open broadly: what’s different about this year’s event and what’s the same?
Tom Grilk: The athletes will run down the same roads they do every year. That’s the only thing that’s the same.
TG: Everything else is COVID affected.
BK: Of course.
TG: It would have been easier to say we won’t bother doing this. It’s complicated. It’s hard. We’ll wait until next April, but for us and everyone we work with, we want to do our part in the reopening of society.
BK: Were you able to attract volunteers?
BK: Pretty incredible.
TG: It’s down from 9,500, but we don’t have as many runners. Our return rate exceeds 90%, for everybody.
BK: Just from an economic perspective, obviously hosting the Boston Marathon will help the restaurants, hotels and shops that have been sent reeling from COVID.
TG: People come here and spend a lot of money.
BK: How much?
TG: 30,000 runners exceed $200-million. We won’t be that big this year, but people do come here and spend millions. It’s a great assistance to all manner of hospitality.
BK: Can you talk about the actual event for participants?
TG: For starters, there’s no Athlete’s Village. There will be no mass gatherings at any point, so runners get their number at the Expo and receive a wristband based on their qualifying time and that leads you to a bus. Once you arrive, you roll.
TG: It works out to be 3,500 athletes released every 15 minutes.
BK: Kinda fun. Everyone can chase each other.
TG: The idea is that we’ll have much less density on the roads than usual. We’re using lots of fluent dynamic modelling software.
BK: Not a phrase you usually hear regarding elite competitive marathon racing.
TG: It’s true. I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time watching dots on a screen going down a road.
BK: And runners at the Expo need to present a proof of vaccine?
TG: Yes, either that or take a Rapid Antigen Test and produce a negative result.
BK: Times are so strange. It’s Wednesday and I feel like by Monday the world beyond running can drastically change.
TG: Things are definitely relentlessly dynamic. The disease keeps changing and if there’s one thing we know—apart from the great human tragedy—is how rapidly things change. It looks better than … whoops … here comes the Delta Variant. Who knows what’s next?
BK: Next for your guys in just another six months is another event. Is there a pent-up demand from runners to race?
TG: For sure, and since we don’t know what the field size will be . . .
BK: This year you’re at 20,000?
TG: Yes, down from 31,500, so if the conditions are the same, we can expect to have a field that is the same size in April. But we don’t know if that will be true or not. Come November, a month after this race, we open entrees for April of 2022.
TG: All we need is someone to give us a perfect prediction of the overall future global environment.
BK: Less difficult but still predictive: On Monday, do you expect the same kind of famous Boston crowd support?
TG: It’s up to the municipalities to determine how they do things. We’re encouraging people to wear a mask when you can’t be socially distanced and I’d be surprised if Wesleyan College is encouraging their students to be quite as emotional. But we’ll see. For generations people have come out for Patriot’s Day and this year it’s in October. Maybe spectators are already committed on Monday to pick apples.
BK: Not likely.
TG: Lots of firsts happening this year.
BK: Another first, and now you’re talking to Canadians, but the land borders are closed between Canada and the US and I know other countries aren’t allowed to fly into America. Do you expect an American field on Monday?
TG: The number of entrants from outside the United States is definitely down. We have about 2,800 runners from outside the US competing and we offered everyone outside the US the opportunity to switch to virtual and said we’d refund the difference. 900 people switched.
BK: Do you feel comfortable in the safety of your event?
TG: We haven’t heard of any event leading to any sort of mass outbreak and the first Abbott World Marathon event was Berlin a few weeks ago and we’re not aware that that led to any public health difficulty.
BK: I haven’t heard anything.
TG: We also surveyed all of our runners a few months ago. We had a 77% return rate and 95% said they were vaccinated or planning to be. People coming have taken the steps to protect themselves and the people around them.
BK: Godspeed, my friend. Have a great race.
TG: What people have wanted for over 18 months is to get out and get together and the Boston Marathon brings people together. People around here take pride in the Boston Marathon.
Photographs courtesy of the Boston Athletic Association.