On Feb. 17, 2020, the Tokyo Marathon announced its race would be limited to elite runners due to confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Tokyo. Although few realized it at the time, that decision struck a warning bell to race directors around the world that 2020 would be a year of tough decisions.
In the ensuing months, the pandemic has taken down some of the most storied races in the marathon world, including Boston, Berlin, Chicago, and New York. And the spread of COVID-19 has forced race directors to either radically reimagine their events, or join the ranks of the countless canceled races.
Among the races determined to stick it out is the Pikes Peak Marathon — now poised to become the oldest continuously-held marathon in the US after Boston had to cancel.
Local Tradition and Outdoor Spirit
In 1956, Dr. Arne Suominen wanted to organize a challenge between smokers and non-smokers to prove that smoking hurt physical endurance. The challenge? Run to the top of Pikes Peak and back down. And so, the Pikes Peak Marathon was born.
In the decades since, the Pikes Peak Marathon has grown to be a premier mountain running race and been part of the Salomon Golden Trail World Series since 2018. Despite its international fame, though, the race is still largely a local affair — over half of the runners registered for the 2020 race are from Colorado.
That combination of history, local pride, and the marathon’s status as the second-oldest continuously held marathon in the US (to Boston) made finding a way to make the race happen a priority according to Ron Ilgen, the race director for the Pikes Peak Marathon.
As the spring wore on and it became clear that COVID-19 would be a factor in any race plans for 2020, Ilgen made the decision to cancel the first two races of the Garden to Peak Series (a three race series run by Pikes Peak Marathon Inc. which culminates in the Pikes Peak Marathon and its sister race, the Pikes Peak Ascent). “We decided to cancel those because of the uncertainty at the time and the lack of guidance on health procedures,” says Ilgen. “But we didn’t pull the plug on the marathon.”
Despite Ilgen’s best intentions to push ahead with the race, actually getting to the start line was far from a certainty, though. “We had to wait and see where things would go, and see what the requirements [to hold the race] would be,” says Ilgen.
When it came to getting approval to hold a marathon during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Pikes Peak Marathon had two big factors working in its favor.
The first is that Colorado has been less impacted by COVID-19 than many other states. As of Aug. 11, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ranked Colorado 38th out of 50 states for cases per 100,000 people. As a result, race organizers would be contending with fewer restrictions on travel and group event size than many races in other states.
The second is the outdoor spirit embedded in the Colorado psyche. As the state moved out of its “level one” COVID-19 response in late spring, Governor Jared Polis dubbed the “level two” response “Safer at Home and in the Vast, Great Outdoors.” The executive order announcing the new protocols for outdoor activity included a stipulation that races could be approved as long as six-foot distancing and limitations on group size could be maintained.
That executive order, and its emphasis on outdoor activity, made it feasible for the Pikes Peak Marathon to move forward, according to Keri Hardin, the project manager tasked with taking the lead role in COVID-19 issues for the race. “They really reiterated that for Coloradans, getting outdoors is an important part of our lives, and how we could do that safely,” she says.
Planning From the Ground Up
Despite favorable conditions with the virus and a state supportive of holding endurance races, getting the race ready to meet those stipulations would still take a monumental effort.
Like most well-established races, the Pikes Peak Marathon largely follows the same blueprint from year to year, according to Ilgen. Not so in 2020. “It’s like we’re planning a whole new race,” he says. “The course stays the same, but everything else is different.”
That planning was made more difficult by the inability to meet in person with his staff. Ilgen says normally the race committee works through problems in large committee meetings (occasionally aided by a few beers). “Doing this all on Zoom has been a challenge,” he says.
Still the committee saw their plans begin to take shape in consultation with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) and the city of Manitou Springs, site of the race’s start and finish lines.
It became clear that the most important of the changes would be maintaining distance between participants before, after, and at the start of the race. In addition to being an emphasis of Governor Polis’s executive order, it is also a main factor that decreases the risk to participants in group activities, according to the CDC.
This requirement led organizers to cancel the Pikes Peak Ascent, given the field size of 1800 runners and the logistics of getting runners down off the top of Pikes Peak in a socially-distanced way. The marathon’s 800 runner limit, however, meant that start waves could be easily limited to 100 runners, all spaced six feet apart.
Hardin says all runners will have to pass temperature checks and a COVID-19 screening in order to receive their bib and to receive a separate wrist band to indicate they’ve passed the screening. Anyone who fails the screening will have the opportunity to defer their entry to next year at no cost to try and reduce any incentive to hide symptoms during the screening.
Anyone not adhering to the new protocols and procedures will be disqualified from the race and banned from all races in the Garden to Peak Series in the future — a stiff punishment for a race series that still largely draws a local crowd.
The plans were approved by the local and state health departments, and on June 19th, the announcement was made that the Pikes Peak Marathon would be held as scheduled.
The Scientific Perspective
Despite the planning and precautions, questions remain whether the protocols are enough and how much risk is acceptable to participants.
Pia MacDonald, Ph.D., an infectious disease epidemiologist at RTI International, says that she believes that races can be held safely — but only if race directors are willing to drastically change how races have been put on in the past.
“We have to get to innovative ways of doing this,” she emphasizes. “It’s not going to look the same. It is going to look very, very different than what we’re used to.”
MacDonald says that sufficient spacing and COVID-19 screening for participants is the absolute minimum for putting on a safe race and thinks it’s essential that race directors change pre-race and post-race festivities to reduce social interaction (both of which were addressed in the Pikes Peak Marathon’s plan that was approved by CDPHE).
Marty Hoffman M.D., the former Director of Research for the Western States Endurance Run, says he wouldn’t advise participating in races yet. But he does say that smaller races with staggered starts of small waves is a key feature he would look for in any race before considering participating in it.
Both MacDonald and Hoffman agree that races that only allow runners from the local area have the best chance to limit potential spread — both to participants and volunteers, but also to the community hosting the race.
Citing people’s desire to get back to racing, MacDonald says, “The athletic community should be out to prove they can put on races safely.”
In the case of the Pikes Peak Marathon, it’s clear that the demand is still there. Ilgen says that only about 30% of runners originally registered for the race (which sold out in late January) decided not to run, despite being offered either a full refund or a deferral to next year’s race. The spots that opened from deferrals were quickly filled with runners from the waitlist.
One of the runners who decided not to run due to concerns around COVID-19 is Tom Gleason. The 33 year-old from Denver deferred despite the fact that he says he felt the organizers did a good job of mitigating risks as much as possible. “It just seemed too risky for me to be around all of those people breathing hard in the current climate,” he says.
Hardin says, “The runners are excited to have an in-person race in a place that can’t be duplicated in a virtual run. And I think there is a lot of excitement that we have a really good plan in place to do it in a safe way.”
Making History … Again
Time will tell if events like the Pikes Peak Marathon will become a blueprint of how races can move forward during the COVID-19 pandemic.
MacDonald is encouraged by the Pikes Peak Marathon’s approach of rethinking the race from the ground up. “If race directors are taking a cavalier approach, there will be bad outcomes,” according to MacDonald. “We need new paradigms, not modifications.”
That willingness to change and adapt may well be the key to preserving the history of our sport. If so, it seems appropriate that a race like the Pikes Peak Marathon is once again an early adopter, looking to make history.
“The Pikes Peak Marathon was started by the descendants of the pioneers of the gold rush. We have that feel about it, that we will persevere and move on,” says Ilgen.