at the races Epidemiologist Guiding the Return to Racing in Boston, Chicago, and influencing the...

Epidemiologist Guiding the Return to Racing in Boston, Chicago, and influencing the rest of the world


Dr. Brooke Nichols is a marathon runner, health economist and infectious disease mathematical modeler. She’s been working with the Boston and Chicago Marathon as both of North America’s premiere events announced a return to in-person races this October. This week, as many Canadians shared their Boston acceptance letters, Dr. Nichols also released her white paper on the safety of races and determined, largely due to the vaccination rates in the United States and the minimal risk of COVID-19 transmission outdoors, that in-person racing held minimal risk. iRun editor Ben Kaplan reached Dr. Nichols to discuss her findings and better assess our current racing environment.  

Ben Kaplan: Tell us exactly what you do.  

Dr. Brooke Nichols: I’m an infectious disease modeller and have been working exclusively in global policy around the coronavirus for the past year.

BK: And you’re familiar with the flow of large-scale running races? 

BN: I do them all the time, so the intersection of racing and pandemics are really a marriage of my passions, unfortunately.

BK: Where do we currently stand with regards to our return to racing? 

BN: Boston’s coming in October. 27,000 participants are running Los Angeles in November and the Chicago Marathon is scheduled on Sunday, October 10. 

BK: Are these events going to be like the races we’ve run before? 

BN: Not exactly. The approach we’re taking is to prioritize all the touch points of a race to determine what matters and what doesn’t.  

BK: What doesn’t? 

BN: There’s two subsets when we talk about races: the big ones, where people come from everywhere into a community, and the small local events that are mostly run by members of the local community. People congregating impacts the local community, but it’s also about who’s coming into the community and how it affects local transmission. That’s one of the big things organizers need to look at regarding the Olympics.

BK: Right, and the Olympics are scheduled for this July. So how do we safely run a race? What’s going to happen with Boston? 

BN: First, ensure that people don’t arrive sick. Athletes are notoriously stubborn. I ran Comrades 90K sick, not good. Now, however, I think people are aware with the coronavirus that if you’re sick and don’t feel well, don’t race. Boston and the bigger races might have more trouble with that then the local events because if you’ve trained forever for a goal race, it’s hard not to show up. 

BK: How do races make sure runners aren’t racing sick? 

BN: Allow mechanisms for refunds or compensatory measures. We don’t want to incentivize people to show up sick.  

BK: What about testing?

BN: That’s going to be hard for smaller races, at least right now. Later, when we start seeing home self-tests for like $3, when that starts to happen, that will change the calculus of things. Boston, for instance, is now suggesting that two negative COVID tests are required before race day, even if athletes have had two doses of a vaccine. 

BK: Boston has also eliminated their staging area in Hopkinton and will release athletes in a rolling start. What else should we expect at in-person events this fall? 

BN: At the starting line and finish lines, we recommend that runners wear masks.

BK: So not when you’re racing? 

BN: Not when you’re racing, no. And we want to allow for two metres of spacing in the starting pen. We know that racers are going to crowd at the front, so that’s why, when distancing is hard, we want people in masks.

BK: Then you start your race, put your mask in your pocket and then throw it on after you cross the line? 

BN: Basically. Though we are allowing people to breathe for a second at the end before they put the masks on. We don’t want people to congregate, but we understand people are a mess at the finish line and I don’t want to recommend immediately putting on a mask. I know how it feels to finish a race. 

BK: I miss racing so much. 

BN: We know so many of us do. And things will change as more people get the vaccine but for now, for instance, we’d want runners to put their masks back on before a volunteer gives them their medal.  

BK: What other unique precautions will be taken? 

BN: Waves of runners released in staggers over times. 

BK: What precautions won’t be taken? 

BN: Pre-packaged food or water. That’s not how coronavirus is transmitted. Sometimes we’ve gone over the top on the wrong things. I don’t want people to over-sanitize everything. It doesn’t matter for coronavirus transmission.  

BK: There will be volunteers? 

BN: Volunteers can be handing out water in masks, or manning water tables—but there may need to be more tables required than before to ensure people don’t congregate around a small aid station. 

BK: Races have already been happening. What have we learned from the events that have been held? 

BN: There’s been races of 4,000, 5,000 and 6,000 people in the U.S. and there’s not been a documented case of runners getting the coronavirus. I will say, however, that’s a difficult metric to determine, but a big outbreak we’d certainly hear about. 

BK: And there was a 5,000 person event held recently in Japan. 

BN: That’s right. It was reported publicly and again, there wasn’t a single case of COVID-19. 

BK: So the news for a return to running seems broadly good. 

BN: I think so. There’s more and more data about the spread of COVID outdoors being minimal and during the race itself, the most vulnerable people are the staff members or volunteers working together all day.

BK: Do you think it’s safe to run an in-person event?

BN: I think the risk of transmission at an outdoor event, especially when you run and zigzag through a course and don’t run in a pack or arrive on a bus together, are safe, yes. I think races returning look really good in the United States for the fall.