Culture

How Your Race Experience Will Change in the Near Future

Tomorrow's races are getting an old-school makeover.

The race director’s job has never been an easy one, but it’s about to get much more complicated in a plague-ridden world. From the expo to the corrals, to volunteers and the post-race party, putting on an event for hundreds to thousands of runners will take far more thought and planning than ever before. In short, once they resume, the races of tomorrow will look radically different than the races of the past.

Running USA recently held a virtual gathering of event organizers to go over the many areas of race organizing that must change, and how. Race directors came to the table with questions, thoughts, and suggestions, and left with ideas and potential solutions for moving forward safely. 

Underlying everything, says Rich Harshbarger, CEO of Running USA, will be specific national, state, and local guidelines on events. “There’s so much disparity from one community to the next and events will have to follow the rules set out by their local governments,” he says. “There’s also the issue of runners traveling into one area from another for an event, and determining if that’s okay and what that will look like.”

The race organizers agreed that ensuring everyone comes into an event and leaves it 100 percent healthy is likely not going to be possible. But they also agreed that they can do their part to minimize potential infection.

Baseline changes

Before a race even starts, organizers are likely going to require that everyone involved, from runners to volunteers and sponsors, wear masks. In addition, most races will likely require some sort of self-reported screening ahead of the event. This could come in the form of an email to all participants two weeks out that asks for runners to disclose any symptoms. The organizers will then ask ill runners to run virtually, defer to another year, or potentially receive a refund. Once there is a vaccine, this might become proof of inoculation.

There are obvious holes in this approach that the race directors acknowledged: Many coronavirus carriers are asymptomatic or not yet symptomatic, so runners may unwittingly be untruthful on their surveys. But until there is a vaccine, race directors will have to depend on the honest self-reports of runners.

Volunteers

Drinks station at a running marathon.
Photo: Getty Images

This is another tricky minefield to navigate, agreed the race organizers. At the moment, the medical community is completely tapped out and likely will be for some time. Finding medical volunteers to handle race-day emergencies will be tricky until the numbers of COVID patients declines drastically.

As to the volunteers who serve as course marshals, hand out water, manage the finish line, and more—race directors face many dilemmas. Will groups like student organizations or scouts still want to help out? And, if so, how can race directors mitigate the potential danger to those volunteers? Most of the attendees agreed that in the future, races will have to get by with fewer volunteers. 

“For race directors, safety is the number one priority for participants, volunteers and spectators,” says Harshbarger. “We have to figure out what that will look like.”

Expos

This is another part of the race experience that will have to change. Some meeting attendees suggested holding the expo outdoors if possible; others put forward the idea of extending expo hours and limiting the number of people permitted into a building at any given time. As with retail of the future, social distancing rules will likely be required in an expo setting. In some cases, organizers may simply mail bibs and swag to participants ahead of time.

Hard hit in these scenarios, of course, are the brands that sponsor and/or sell products at an expo. Solutions there might include online sales of race merchandise and other products in advance of, or after, the race. “This is an area where we’re going to have to get creative as a community,” says Harshbarger.

On the Course

Photo: Shutterstock

In the case of big races with corrals, event organizers are looking at how to safely accomplish lining up. Spreading out the number of runners permitted into one corral at a time, spreading out start times, and enforcing safe distancing within corrals are all options being considered.

On the course, runners may no longer see traditional water stops. Instead, they may need to bring their own hydration system, or organizers may provide all participants with a collapsible cup to carry. Water stations might then include speed valves on coolers for refilling, and/or volunteers with pitchers for fast refilling. Gels and other give-away nutrition products may be up to the runners to carry.

Gear checks are another sticking point. Organizers may look to other sports like triathlon, where participants drop off their gear in advance so that no one has to touch checked bags more than once. Or dropping gear may not always be an option in the future.

Finish lines will likely change as well. Tables lined with food, beer gardens, bands and other celebratory markers may not be part of a safe event, at least for the time being.  

Old School is New School

There was a time when races were much more low key, devoid of all the extra perks and swag. An accurate course and timing system were all runners expected. For the foreseeable future, everything old may be new again.

Harshbarger trusts that runners will understand. “Everyone can appreciate the situation we are in and how it will change things, at least until there’s a vaccine,” he says. “Core runners will still want the experience of a race, even if it looks different.”