Melancholy long runs, lonely tempos, and solo hill workouts have runners across the country fed up with social distancing. With Belgian soccer leagues proposing games in masks and empty stadiums, the Chinese Basketball Association targeting a July start date, and golf courses opening in B.C., runners are beginning to question when in-person races will start up again. Prince Edward Island is lifting restrictions on May 1 and Germany is opening schools beginning May 4, although the Berlin Marathon, scheduled for September 27, has been cancelled, adding doubt to the racing calendar throughout the fall.
Alison Thompson, an associate professor with the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, says large gatherings, such as running races, won’t be possible until “we have some kind of way of tricking people’s bodies into mounting immune responses, either through vaccination or through antibody transfusions from people who have antibodies or have already been exposed to [the virus] and manufactured antibodies themselves.”
The virus jumps from host-to-host, spread through respiratory droplets or aerosolized particles, particularly common during running. “We’re starting to see some evidence that for social distancing, it needs to be even wider than six feet if you’re running because of the force with which you exhale,” Thompson says.
There’s also concern that if large events are re-introduced too soon, there could be a resurgence of the virus. Thompson points to Hokkaido, Japan as an example. “They were totally on top of the outbreak. They beat it down,” she says. “Then they started to open up again and now they’re right back to square one.”
Prolonging the virus through a resurgence is a concern, but it hasn’t stopped race directors from holding onto their fall dates with optimism. As of right now, the Canada Army Run is still slated to go on September 20. “No decision regarding cancelling the event has yet been made,” Major Lesley Quinlan, race director, wrote in an email.
The Manitoba Marathon, which was planned for June 21, has announced that it will be rescheduling later in the year, and the Edmonton Marathon, set for August 15-16, says it is monitoring the situation closely and will publish a plan by the end of April.
Ian Fraser, race director for the Scotiabank Ottawa Marathon, which was scheduled for May 24 but has since been cancelled, is a little more reserved with his estimate. “We may see racing back in this country by the end of October.” That isn’t to say he doesn’t believe smaller, local races might emerge sooner—a 10-person race in July, maybe? “But are we going to be able to put on something with 20,000 people in September, I highly doubt that,” he says. “What it comes down to is: How far should we be pushing the envelope of public safety and where is that balance point around bigger gatherings?”
Canadian Marathon Champion Dayna Pidhoresky is in agreeance. “If you have to have a race and go about it that way,” she says, referring to the idea of a 10-person race in July, “it’s definitely too soon.”
Pidhoresky was planning on racing a marathon in the fall, but isn’t counting on it now.
“I still feel like the Boxing Day 10-Miler is going to be the first race, which is pretty sad to think.”
Similar to Fraser, Pidhoresky does predict that local races will be the first to reemerge. Although, she says international races will likely be off the table for a while. “Maybe some of those big races will not allow any internationals to come in for that race,” she says. “Like in terms of [the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon (STWM)] maybe it’s just a Canadian-only race?”
While this is a possibility, it is not the kind of race Charlotte Brookes, race director for Canada Running Series (CRS), predicted for this year’s STWM. In her mind, this was going to be the best year for running ever. “All of our numbers were up,” she says. “Everyone was so excited. This year was going to mean we were investing more in events, we were investing more in our team, and expanding.”
But as late February hit, Brookes watched COVID-19 skip from country-to-country, disrupting the biggest races in the world. The Tokyo Marathon limited its race to elites only, the Boston Marathon postponed until September 14, and the New York City Half Marathon cancelled entirely.
These were all prescient signs of the kind of disruption COVID-19 would soon wreak on Canadian road races. Rather than waiting to see what would happen, CRS took action. By the second week of March they were in conversation with the city of Montreal negotiating a fall date for the Banque Scotia 21K de Montreal, and looking at permits with the city of Toronto as they shifted the Spring Run-Off in High Park to early November.
“We were able to secure September 26 and 27 for Montreal, and November 7 for Spring Run-Off,” Brookes says. “But at that point, we didn’t know what the future held. Was this going to be a one-month thing?”
Rescheduling appears to have been the right move as the virus has yet to reach its peak in Canada. But that doesn’t mean the postponement hasn’t come without consequences. “When we had to go and cancel,” Brookes says, “we have cancellation insurance, but like many insurance providers, they do not cover COVID-19. So, our cancellation insurance did not cover any of this.”
Community response to the decision has been 95 per cent positive, Brookes says, but there is a small group of registrants having a hard time wrapping their heads around not receiving a refund. As a result, CRS announced on April 17 that they would be issuing race refunds. “We get it,” Brookes says. “People are going through so much right now, financially as well, that they are just in a position where they need that money back.”
Entry fees, however, are a main source of revenue for race organizers. It’s what allows them to continue hosting races year-after-year. “There’s no doubt in my mind,” says Kirsten Fleming, executive director for Run Calgary, “there will be collateral damage and some of our favourite races will not be there at the end of this year.”
The Scotiabank Calgary Marathon, Run Calgary’s marquee event, was slotted to take place on May 31 but has since been postponed until the fall. The specific day has been selected, but Fleming is tentative about its release.
“We’re not saying it publicly quite yet because we want to make sure that we have a little bit more certainty before we reopen registration.”
The hesitation comes from Fleming’s understanding that a race is unlike any other event. “People are training 16 to 18 weeks out or longer,” she says. “It’s not good for festivals either…but it’s a little bit different because people can just show up and plop their butt down on a blanket and watch a concert, whereas our people require some timeline.”
This made it all the more difficult when Run Calgary was forced to cancel the Sport Chek Mother’s Day Run two months out from race day after the city of Calgary made it clear rescheduling all events would not be possible. Tim Hopkins, race director for the Vancouver Sun Run, received a similar message from the city of Vancouver—that there was no space in the fall to reschedule.
“We have 40,000 t-shirts sitting in a warehouse in Burnaby,” Hopkins says. “We’ve got 2,000 volunteer shirts in our office. We have street banners up all over downtown Vancouver. Our cash outlay is significant.”
Hopkins and his team made the decision to cancel on March 12, half an hour before the province banned gatherings of more than 250 people. As a one-off event, the Vancouver Sun Run is unable to offer a credit to other races, so they’re offering registrants a t-shirt, a major discount on next year’s run (registrants this year only have to pay $15 in 2021), and a virtual run.
“The challenge right now is when would it be responsible to put 33,000 people out trying to do a virtual run on their own time?”
This is an issue many race directors offering virtual runs are facing. Sportstats, a results software company and the owners of iRun, may have the answer. It has built a platform that allows race directors to host virtual races. “Everybody that was registered in the event automatically gets an entry into the virtual race,” says Marc Roy, the company’s CEO. All participants have to do is upload their results to the Sportstats platform using the GPS file from their watch, Strava, or any other device.
To dissuade mass groups of participants from performing their virtual run all on the same day, Roy says the platform gives the option to extend the period of time in which results can be uploaded. “With the Ottawa Marathon, [participants] will have almost three months. So, people can actually go in starting May 15.”
While virtual races are an innovative approach to social distancing, race directors are still crossing their fingers for a fall restart to the Canadian racing scene. This optimism, however, is laced with pandemic anxieties, something Charlotte Brookes sensed. Once CRS’s races had been sorted, she took it upon herself to reach out to other race directors across Canada.
On top of connecting with Canadian race directors, Brookes and Kirsten Fleming have both been in touch with race directors for the Chicago and Boston marathons, gleaning tips on how they’re handling the situation. Running USA has been facilitating weekly webinars for race directors, tackling topics on how to deal with the current situation, as well as what future races may look like: How to handle water tables, bib pickup, medical staff, start lines, and more. Upwards of 400 race directors have tuned in for each webinar with Fleming leading the first two.
It’s evident that the devastating blow dealt by COVID-19 has been felt by running communities around the world, but race directors are not waiting around complacently. They are working diligently for the time when large-scale races can once again resume. Whether that’s August in Edmonton, September in Ottawa, October in Toronto, or later, is hard to say. “The next few months are going to be really telling on how things go for the fall,” Brookes says.