Ultra Racing during Covid
As things stand, we are currently entering the darkest time in this pandemic. Numbers have drastically spiked in the US and it may be awhile before things return to normal. During this time, we have all had to find ways to stay motivated and continue training. This is not always the easiest thing to do with such continued uncertainty. I was lucky enough to be registered for a race that was postponed and was eventually permitted to happen in September, when the positive infection rate was at its lowest. This provided an nice carrot to keep me motivated. I wanted to take a little time to discuss my thoughts on racing during this crazy time and what I experienced. I do not think we will see the likes of a major marathon run in this country for a while, but it is possible that trail and ultra-races may continue.
I’d say the key factors in running a race successfully and safely are to: minimize contact, keep the numbers low and spread out, reduce the risks of cross contamination, and practice approved and proven safety practices. In my opinion the race directors (Redpoint Productions) at Laurel Highlands 70.5 mile Ultra Marathon did an outstanding job of this.
How they kept people spread out: A race day that typically consists of 4 different races was split into two days, 70 miler and relay day 1, 50k and relay day 2. The packet pickup window was small. The pre-race meeting was live streamed and recorded days before the race and the traditional pre-race meal was canceled. All forms were sent out in advance and requested to be filled out ahead of time. Assigned windows for packet pickup were assigned morning of the race. The start times were staggered by several minutes sending groups of 4 – 6 off at a time. Finally, post-race festivities were kept to a minimum, (couple photos and a quick snack grab.
How they kept contact down: The race directors decided that there would be no crew support on the course. Originally, they had decided that no pacers would be allowed but later allowed pacers erring on the side of on trail safety. Aid Stations would be minimal, and everything would be individually packaged. Aid station volunteers all wore gloves and masks and frequently changed gloves.
How they kept cross contamination down: As stated above volunteers wore gloves and foods were individually packaged. Long gone were the days of plates of PB&J squares and bowls of M&M’s; welcome Uncrustables and Halloween candy. Volunteers filled bottles from pitchers and maintained control over them and the water jugs. Racers were allowed to provide their own support as drop bags were allowed at almost every aid station.
How they used proven safety practices: I think many of the previous changes fall into this category, but in addition to those other measures were taken. Masks were worn at all times by volunteers and race staff. Masks were required by racers when in groups and/or in and out of aid stations but not while running on the trail. Hand sanitizer was located at each aid station. Last minute deferrals and refunds were allowed for COVID exposure concerns. Temperature checks were taken at check-in.
What are the pluses and minuses of these changes? The big losses are easy to spot, first we lost a lot of the comradery that we are all very accustom to within our trail running community. Second, we generated a heck of a lot of waste with things being individually packed and all the additional PPE. Third, runners had no personal support at aid stations and the racers became very reliant on heavily taxed volunteers. Lastly, the diversity of foods at aid stations was certainly lacking when compared to races in previous years. There were benefits too; first off, back of the packers were allotted more time as they started in earlier groups. Likewise, front or middle pack runners got continuous motivation bumps as they passed runners throughout the length of the course. Second big benefit is the increased number of drop bags. As a racer that runs solo a lot this was a huge benefit to me during this race.
What did I make of the entire experience? I was very grateful to be able to safely run a race during these crazy times. I do honestly feel that the race directors did an excellent job of creating the safest possible environment to race in. However, I did miss the tribal aspect of our crazy community though I didn’t feel completely disconnected from it as I was able to share some socially distanced miles with several runners along the course. When it comes to running a race I think we as athletes need to understand the risks, precautions being taken, and local and state regulations in play. I think we also need to weigh the reward and to understand what experience will be lost under these conditions. It’s then that we can make an informed decision on whether to run or not. I also deferred a race this year that was happening near the same time frame because the exposure risk for me was too high and the experience I was looking for was going to be too diminished. The choice to race is ultimately a personal one and shouldn’t be judged by anyone.
Sean Meehan EFT
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