Welcome Back to Commercially Produced Races.
IRONMAN 70.3 Lubbock: CANCELLED
IRONMAN 70.3 Muncie: POSTPONED
Battle For Independence 5k: In the books. Done. Complete.
OK. Last Saturday’s 5k was not an IRONMAN or other big triathlon. However, it was a commercially produced race with timing chips, loud music, an announcer, a big finish line and other athletes. AND WE WERE THERE!
If we are going to experience the fanfare and atmosphere of a big race anytime soon, the big boys on the block might just have to learn from the little guys.
Go ahead, IRONMAN. Swallow your pride and take a lesson or two from the locals. Watch them carefully and see how they are doing it. Take note of what they do right and take note of their challenges. It's likely that they will be able to pull this off before you. Oh wait! They did.
Am I excited? Damn right I am.
A public race venue, a national anthem and other athletes makes for a great start to the 244th edition of our beloved Independence Day. And I must say, the singing of our national anthem was beautiful. I don’t know the young woman who performed it (a capela), but it was, just beautiful.
The first reason for my excitement comes from the race itself. I had forgotten what it’s like to run with a large group of other athletes. We may have kept much larger distances than in previous races, but I could still hear dozens of shoes pounding the pavement and the heavy breathing of people all struggling to reach the same goal. It was magic.
The future of racing is my other source of excitement. For the past three months the dark coronavirus cloud has hung over the world. All human life changed and we had to reconcile our desires with the reality of isolation and social distancing. Governments mandated our lives in ways we never expected in our innocent youth of four months ago. As the economy slid toward panic and so many joined ranks of the unemployed, race directors and producers feared for their companies’ existence. And with good reason. Last Saturday’s race might be an indication that not all is lost. It might be an indication of what’s to come. Until we find protection in a vaccine or a scorched earth eradication of COVID-19, future races just might look like this one.
A New Race Environment
Initially, I was operating under the old mentality of racing: get there early so you can be sure to get your race bib and use the Port-O-John two or three times before the start.
The old rules are not necessarily the correct rules today.
We knew we were at the right place, but the parking lot was empty at 6:30 AM. We were early… very early.
The things that made this race different from pre COVID-19 races are mostly what you would expect.
Masks were worn by all race staff.
Masks were required (and available) for athletes in the starting chute and those hanging around the finish line.
Everyone was advised to maintain safe distances from each other.
Hand sanitizer appeared to be used up faster than the drinking water.
The interesting part was the race start. Unlike the mass starts of other races, here we grouped ourselves into waves of expected finish times. Starting times for each wave had been scheduled in advance so we knew when to be ready and each wave assembled in their assigned starting chute a couple minutes prior to their start. The entire field consisted of less than 140 runners so it didn’t take long to send off all the waves. Our wave had a population of about 10. Each starting chute held a maximum of 20 runners. Little orange pieces of tape on the pavement marked where to stand so we could prove to the authorities that we were standing at a safe distance from each other. In my uneducated assessment, it worked quite well.
The starting chute was divided into two sections.
Once the airhorn blasted for each wave, runners doffed the masks and ran just like any other race.
I’m the type who wears a mask around other people in public places; not because I’m concerned about contracting COVID-19. I just don’t want to spread it if I have it.
Instead of handing out cups of water, volunteers stood by a table adorned with neatly aligned water bottles at the halfway point. If a runner wanted water, she had to grab it herself.
The finish line was full of the usual festive music and tired athletes and, because there were so few participants in this race, social distancing could have been easy. I don’t know if everyone maintained distancing guidelines after the race, but it looked like they did. The finish line, just like the start line, offered a dose of hand sanitizer and free masks for those who wanted them.
Now let me tell you about the awards ceremony. There wasn’t one. No ceremony = no crowds.
The Road Ahead
I’m not a race director so I don’t know what lessons were learned from this race, but I imagine the race staff was pleased with the overall experience.
If we are going to have big races, like IRONMAN, in the near future, this is probably a model for how they will do it. Of course, a triathlon has a lot more to consider such as maintaining distances inside the transition area with athlete numbers in the thousands. However, there are plenty of smart people working for race companies so I’m sure solutions will be tested and applied.
Perhaps I’m being too optimistic. After all, this was a very small race and it was easy to maintain a safe distance from other runners. Is it scalable with respect to the number of athletes?
That is not a question I can answer. Like I said before, I’m not a race director. And there is nothing wrong with small races. Maybe small races is the answer. In the early years of endurance sport, races were quite small. The Boston Marathon and IRONMAN started out very small. Back then it was a matter of demand and now it’s a matter of health and regulation. However, I could certainly see those smart race directors coming back small and slowly growing as they navigate the health issues and government mandates.
As far as I know IRONMAN 70.3 Chattanooga is still scheduled to occur on August 23, 2020. Yes, I’m still training for that race.
On August 24 I’ll let you know the outcome. Until next time…