at the races Don’t Expect an American-style Return to Racing in Canada in 2021

Don’t Expect an American-style Return to Racing in Canada in 2021

25,000 runners took to the start line at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon in 2017.

Kevin Jones is a reasonable, smart, data-driven director of risk management who’s worked with everyone from the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon to the Rolling Stones. As American races open up with in-person options, we asked Jones the question on runner’s minds: when will Canada do the same?

Ben Kaplan: What do you do and how do you do it and who do you do it for? 

Kevin Jones: I’m an executive director at Odyssey Medical and we’re a risk management service for any mass gathering. Pre-COVID, 2019, we assessed more than 2,000 events across Canada, from the Fury 5K to the Rolling Stones concert. 

BK: I received an email that Alanis Morissette was playing Toronto in July. Will that happen? 

KJ: No. 

BK: Definitely not? 

KJ: Not with spectators and a crowd. Until we’ve got the vaccination rate above 70%, I don’t think will there be any kinds of large groups gathering. And look at the major music festivals, even the ones in Quebec have been cancelled this summer. 

BK: What are you seeing across the country? 

KJ: Struggling. Look at Alberta. The province was pushing the boundaries and now it’s become the country’s new COVID-19 hotbed.  

BK: Are we going to have in-person races in Canada? 

KJ: I wouldn’t anticipate it. Not until there’s stabilization of our medical care units and the ICUs aren’t above capacity. 

BK: You work with Canada Running Series and I dreamed on my Sunday long run of crossing that finish line with a PB and drinking a beer afterwards amongst adoring crowds. Is that happening? 

KJ: There’s high potential for some small local Canadian races. The local races used to be feeders to the big events, but now the feeders are going to be our leaders. I think in 2021 and 2022, there’s going to be a reverse paradigm: the leaders will look at the breeders and feeders and study how their race went. 

BK: Can’t we have races in the fall? 

KJ: We need to prove to the government any sporting event can be done with a very high margin of safety and there’s lots of variables working with us to get back to in-person racing, including that you’d see compliant behaviour amongst runners to whatever rules were in play because people so badly want to do stuff. 

BK: I love that. Whatever the rules are, we’ll follow. Just let us race! 

KJ: It’s a passionate crowd that loves racing and I think you’d certainly expect more compliance at a race than, say, a big box store where people don’t feel particularly close to their event. But look at the rules around golf that Canada has adopted. Ontario is the only North American jurisdiction banning golfing outdoors and it’s beyond a reasonable doubt that it’s less risky than other activities based on outdoor space and distance.  

BK: Running races are outdoors and distanced. 

KJ: They are, but there is uncertainty on the course and we don’t want people to congregate. 

BK: There are Canadian races being planned for in-person events this summer and fall. The Muskoka Marathon on October 3. The sold-out Petit du Nord in Quebec on October 3. The Banff Marathon, Melissa’s Road Race and all over Prince Edward Island. Is this indicative of a return to racing in Canada? 

KJ: I think there’s hope these are going to happen. And I certainly think a structured race of 3 to 500 people sees more behavioural compliance than, say, a protest of 200 people. 

BK: What about races in Canada? 

KJ: There’s evidence that outdoor sporting activities are lower risk than something like concerts, but I don’t suspect we’ll see large gatherings of people in Canada in 2021. 

BK: What’s a large gathering? 

KJ: Remains to be determined, but in the context of 2021? Over 1,000 people. In terms of what’s the difference between 1,000 and 5,000 people, all of that will be determined in time. 

BK: So how will racing evolve? 

KJ: Small cohorts of, say, groups of 250 people racing at any one time so that by the end of the day, maybe 1,000 people ran the course, but never were they all running at the same time.  

BK: It’s infuriating that while we can’t race with 10,000 people, 20,000 people will run Boston. 

KJ: Their vaccination rate is leaps and bounds ahead of ours and I think the new normal is that everyone has to be thankful for whatever they have the opportunity to do. 

BK: True, but still sucks. 

KJ: No doubt it’s challenging for everyone and the regional differences do make things tough. Even here in Ontario, different parts of the province have issued different lockdown protocols 

BK: So where are we at? 

KJ: A local race with 500 people in Canada is an experience worth having. But I don’t think anyone should set their hops on a 2019-type racing experience in Canada. That’s still a year away.  

BK: What are the benchmarks we should look at for when things become normal? 

KJ: Vaccination rates above 70% and the healthcare capacity at a manageable level. Before we get there, no large-scale event director will be issued a permit. Nor would they want one.


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