The first time I made the turn from Hereford on to Boylston in the Boston marathon I nearly fell over in astonishment.
People were stacked upon people rows and rows deep on either side of the road. Boston’s finest stood along the barriers holding the cheering fans at bay. I think if the barriers weren’t there, the finish line fans would have scooped us all up and whisked us to the finish. Their mighty cheers and good will gave strength to exhausted, aching bodies and inspired us to kick that last .2 miles to the finish. It is the single most amazing finish line I have experienced bar none.
Some of my Ironman friends may argue that the finish at a race such as Ironman Lake Placid is even more intense. The best description I’ve heard is “Tribal”. Being along the Olympic speed skating oval in Lake Placid,NY at midnight is an intimate, guttural experience not to be missed as either a competitor or a spectator. Every athlete is willed across the line, the spectators urging them on to beat the midnight cutoff.
The finish line at any race is an amazing place to be. At even the smallest races, there is always a core of great people to cheer tired athletes to the end. Once across the finish line, the racer’s reward is the post-race festivities. This is when we spend time with friends old and new including some made on the course that very day. There is food, drink, and merriment. Sometimes there is an awards ceremony where we enjoy some time in the spotlight or applaud those that had a better day. At least that is the way things were.
By now, unless you were living on the moon, you know what COVID-19 has done to the world. We simply don’t do the things we used to. As COVID-19 rampages across America again, people have fallen in to the blame game. It’s Trumps fault. It’s the Democrats fault. It’s the fault of the people who won’t wear masks. It’s the fault of the people at the beach, or the protestors. We aren’t going to play that game here. COVID-19 is a highly contagious virus. Whether we are home, wearing masks, socially distant or out partying with friends it is out there and it isn’t going away anytime soon. Blaming politics or voters for a virus is like blaming the weather man for the rain. There is no easy fix for this other than time and patience. It isn’t clear yet whether there can or will be a vaccine. Some hopeful people say “We’ll have a vaccine within a year and then we’ll all be good”. I would love for that to be the case but science and history show us that vaccines aren’t always possible and certainly aren’t developed and proven in a year.
Yesterday, the city of Philadelphia announced that all city-sponsored events of greater than 50 people have been cancelled until at least February 2021. Parades, festivals, fairs . . and races. This includes the postponed 2020 Love Run, and Broad Street Run (both rescheduled from spring to October), and the 2020 Philadelphia Marathon among other races.
Likewise events large and small across the country have been cancelled. The Chicago and New York Marathons, New York City Triathlon, and a list of other major and minor races too long to type have been cancelled. Many have been,optimistically, postponed into the fall but cancellations for these are sure to follow. Obviously COVID-19 has had a far greater impact on life than the first-world problem of running and triathlon events being cancelled but in my little protected bubble of life that is currently the greatest impact.
A news reporter from channel 6 in Philadelphia posted the breaking story about the city’s decision to cancel events through February. Being a runner, he called out the cities popular races affected by the order including the Love Run, Broad Street, and the Philadelphia Marathon. The ensuing discussion reflected disappointment and an overwhelmingly optimistic tone that we’ll all be there next year doing those events. As much as I’d love to share that optimism I think it is highly unlikely we’ll see any sort of major gatherings anywhere for the next few years until COVID-19 either sorts itself out or we are successful in developing a vaccine. As mentioned, that’s probably going to be a while.
As an endurance athlete, the question becomes, what are the chances of survival of COVID-19? No, not my chances but rather the chances of traditional races big and small surviving. Among the racing community it seems to be a given that once this is all clear, the races will be back. But will they? What sort of financial hit are race directors and organizations taking? As noted in the linked articles below, small race organizations rely on entry fees for 95% of their expenses including their employees. What sort of financial hit are athletes taking? Not all races can or will be able to afford refunds. Race fees are spent weeks to months before events occur so refunds come out of pocket. How many athletes will sour on future participation when forced to take a deferral to a future year, race a different race, race virtually, or simply get nothing at all? There is great concern about the future across the gamut of endurance sports. It is worth taking the time to read through the articles linked here:
- What will endurance races look like when they come back?
- Some marathons may not survive COVID-19
- The corona virus pandemic has crippled the sports industry
With few exceptions things like races are usually run on the backs of a few very hard-working and dedicated people. Often the motivation to keep hosting an event lies in its tradition. The Chicago Marathon has been run for 42 years and other races like Boston for three times that long. Nobody likes to see a streak end but when it does, sometimes that is when those few, dedicated individuals step away. If nobody steps in to take their place events won’t happen. I think most athletes would be alarmed to know how close many of their favorite events have come to going away and we continue to see local races disappear off the calendar year after year.
As for athletes, signing up for races is habit forming and addictive. We love to challenge ourselves and motivate ourselves to get up in the morning and go for a run, jump into a cold swimming pool, or sweat our way up hills on a bicycle. Suddenly, the fear of underperforming in our goal race is cancelled indefinitely. The need to run a sub-3:25 marathon to be able to race in Boston is gone. Worries about the podium at the local triathlon? Nope. Oh and look! I suddenly have a bunch of extra dollars in my pocket from unspent race fees and related expenses. It is said that a habit is formed in 21 days. I used to go to a local convenience store every morning for a cup of coffee. Every day. I haven’t set foot in a convenience store for months at this point. I’m not missing it. Will I feel the same in a few years when a triathlon or other race suddenly pops up on my social media feed again? Will I sign up again or fondly remember finish lines from days of yore?
The other wild card in the future of racing (and really any sort of big gathering) is the interest that communities have for bringing them back. It is always amazing to me when I hear townspeople complain about something like a race. A few years ago, the bike course at Ironman Chattanooga was sprinkled with tacks and oil flattening tires and endangering lives. Some bitter soul annoyed about the closure of his or her road for a few hours sabotaged a bunch of people who had spent six months of their lives training for an incredibly difficult event. It’s not like Ironman events attract homeless people with no money. Triathletes as a group (especially Ironman athletes) tend to have a pretty good amount of disposable cash. These are people who will spend beaucoup dinero on ultra-lightweight carbon fiber doohickeys to keep their bike weight as light as possible sometimes despite the rather saggy mid-sections on the competitors themselves. As such, it is usually in a communities best interest to attract 2500 or so of these people and their families to town for a couple days. In fact, Chattanooga reports financial benefits upwards of $13 million. But people don’t like to be inconvenienced. If hosting a race means Bubba can’t easily get out of his driveway to drive to town for coffee and cigarettes than Bubba doesn’t want all those MAMILs invading his space. And Karen has to to get her kids to soccer camp. And if anyone’s package from Chewy.com gets delayed because of a race Fido is gonna be pretty pissed! No, communities don’t always like having such events no matter how lucrative they are. I’ll finish this topic with this thought: Imagine if the Boston Marathon never existed and in 2020 someone suggested closing 26 miles of a major artery into the city on a holiday weekend. Think it would happen?
“Come on Pete. Many of these events have survived past pandemics, wars, and other major historical events. Why so gloom and doom?” Fair question. Remember one thing has come along that all those past historically traumatic events didn’t have: The internet. We live in a virtual world now. The positives are we can reach out and live virtually with family and friends we otherwise don’t get to see. We stay in touch with current events. We have the data we need to live our best life instantly at our fingertips at all times. We also have cat videos, emojis, silly text discussions, mindless games, and virtual races. Like everything else, the endurance world has embraced the virtual world we are currently living in. There have been varied measures of success. Services like Zwift and the Peloton were ahead of the curve. In fact, the biggest segment of the recreational cycling market behind e-bikes has been the indoor training segment with smart trainers and virtual events dominating cycling news and sales over the last 12-18 months. COVID-19 or no, the smart trainer/indoor cycling trend is solidly entrenched especially as long as the northern hemisphere experiences cold winters and drivers continue to play Candy Crush and send emojis as they are driving and mowing down all in their path without legal consequence.
But what about virtual running races? As the real-life race world has closed down, organizations have scrambled to answer the demand for competition in the form of virtual, socially-distant races. There are virtual 5 and 10Ks, virtual races across insert-state-here, and even the Boston Marathon and other major events have announced that their races can be completed virtually. Brilliant right? We are working from home, shopping from home, and dining at home. Why not race at home? It’s the same thing! Well, maybe. Except for the adrenaline of starting in the pack, the cheers of spectators, and the thrill of chasing down a competitor at the finish . . yeah otherwise it’s just like the real thing. Oh and it all depends on the accuracy of results and honesty of people which can be nefarious at best even at in-person races. So far I have done one virtual running event. I’m not even going to link it here because it was so terribly done I don’t want to give them any publicity. The website was terrible, results were disorganized and make no sense, and there is no accountability when someone enters clearly erroneous data. They couldn’t even assemble their finisher’s medals correctly. Obviously the goal of the organization was to extract money from race-hungry participants and move on as quickly as possible. (Authors Note: Zwift and other companies do offer a treadmill-based experience similar to their smart trainer cycling product but usage is limited to those with a compatible treadmill.)
I consider myself very privileged to have been able to run the Boston Marathon and to complete Ironman Lake Placid among the many other races. If events like that never return, at least I have the memories and I truly feel bad for those that have dreamed of such events but may never get the chance. Otherwise, It is way too early to knock virtual or socially-distanced events altogether. I think there are enough smart people out there to put together some great ideas and some good events. Like a COVID-19 vaccine, good solutions aren’t going to be thrown together overnight like many of the attempts so far have shown. I do think good virtual races can happen and, hopefully history proves me wrong about traditional race formats. I do think virtual and socially distanced events will probably become the new normal for endurance sports as COVID-19 and future viruses forever change the landscape of human interaction.