This post was published on March 24, 2021
It has been over a year since our lives were dramatically changed by COVID-19. Thanks to the emergence of vaccines and growing immunity among the population, we are slowly finding our way to the other side of this pandemic. Hope has risen dramatically in recent weeks with news from the Biden administration that there will be enough vaccines for every American adult by the end of May. Does this mean that our 2021 racing season will return to normal?
Nothing in this article is a promise, but there are some very positive signs that (some sort of) racing will be a go in 2021. The following information is based on a review of existing news and research reports, and discussions with race directors. Given the fluidity of the situation, some of this may fall out of date before you can read it. However, I hope this provides general expectations of how you can race in 2021 and do so safely.
Open Starting Lines, Smaller Racing Groups
There are plenty of hopeful signs that racing will happen, and already is happening, in 2021.
Lance Panigutti of Without Limits Productions, for example, offers a series of cycling and multi-sport events in Colorado, with their first event scheduled for mid-April. This road cycling event will include 350-500 participants who will race in smaller groups of approximately 25 at a time over the course of an 8+ hour day. Without Limits was able to successfully use this format to put on five cyclocross races in the fall of 2020. They anticipate their first triathlon to be a go in early June, with a 250-person capacity. But this cap may change should local Boulder-area restrictions loosen further.
In order to account for changing restrictions in outdoor gatherings, Without Limits, as well as some other race outlets, are using a waitlist function for their registration. This allows the race to dynamically respond as circumstances change. The goal for events is to serve as many athletes as possible due to the growing demand that stems from widespread cancellations in 2020. We’ve seen clear evidence of this as event after event, both large and small, are quickly selling out. It is clear that race directors are more than ready to serve this demand once they are granted approval to do so.
Greg Hawkins of Kinetic Multisport said, “We are full speed ahead for racing this year. Early season races will have more mitigation procedures in place, such as masking, temperature checks, hand sanitizer, social distancing, grab-and-go meals, and no awards ceremonies. But, as more people are vaccinated and the case counts drop, we’ll be able to roll these back in line with health department guidance.” Kinetic has a lineup of 21 events, from sprint to half-distance triathlon, across Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
Stephen del Monte of DelmoSports echoed this sentiment. “We are a go for 2021,” he said. The first in the DelmoSports lineup will be the 1400-person Mudhen Race Series, which features a 10-mile, 5-mile, and 5k run. The starting line will be open all day long (with a second day added due to demand) from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Twenty athletes will start their race every 10 minutes. In this manner, the race adheres to restrictions on the size of outdoor gatherings, while accommodating the field size. While limits on gatherings will be opening up in NJ prior to the race, they are keeping the waves at 20 to ensure the safety and comfort of athletes.
When asked about what he thought of the other races in his line-up, which include a series of eight triathlons and running events, del Monte said: “I’m thinking great. The weather will be warm. Education about the virus is up. Vaccinations are up. Case counts are way down.”
- Events will likely be sub-divided into smaller racing groups so that the starting line remains open.
- Sign up for a wait-list if a race you want to attend is sold out.
- Expect early-season races to enforce existing COVID guidelines, like masking, social distancing, etc.
IRONMAN Races Look to be a Go
Ironman has presented some timelines for their race schedule, indicating that the second quarter of the year looks more promising than the first, but this is dependent on restrictions in different locations. They have posted a listing of updates for races here.
Del Monte, who is Race Director for Ironman Atlantic City in September, said, “I am highly confident that Ironman Atlantic City is going to take place based on the current trends in vaccination and declining virus numbers. We have 140 acres of space at Bader Field. It is more than enough room to make it safe and fun.” He went on to say that Ironman as a company has the wherewithal in terms of resources and commitment to make their races happen, provided local jurisdictions give the approvals.
While some early season Ironman races were canceled or postponed, it seems that spring races like Ironman 70.3 Texas and Ironman 70.3 Florida will happen. Upcoming international Ironman races seem to be a go as well, such as 70.3 Dubai and 70.3 New Zealand (which was rescheduled to March 27th from its original date due to the virus).
International Racing is Still in the Grey Zone
The racing season has already started in some international locales. Jeff Morris of Hervey Bay 100 Triathlon in Queensland, Australia has run an ultra triathlon, with plans of having another event in Australia. He did note, however, that travel and quarantine restrictions kept the starting line limited. Races requiring international travel will likely continue to be tricky for athletes who need to cross borders. For example, some travel in England and the European Union is restricted to those who can show their completed COVID vaccination record. If you are planning on traveling for an international race, you will want to research the host country’s COVID protocols.
Additionally, health officials continue to strongly discourage unnecessary travel, as travel can amplify the spread of the virus and its variants. Some race directors predict that this will support local grassroots races, allowing for a resurgence of smaller events.
Size and Location Matters
If and how a race proceeds will be largely dependent upon the size and location of the event.
Countries, states, counties, and cities all have different limits on gathering sizes which vary widely. While restrictions have been lifting, race directors anticipate ongoing gathering restrictions. As a consequence, there will inevitably be modifications to the race experience. Race directors are planning for stringent demands in order to gain approval from authorities, but if those demands are loosened, it will be comparatively easy to recalibrate for a larger event.
For example, in Pennsylvania, Lowell Ladd of 2L Race Services said loosening restrictions on outdoor gatherings will allow him to put a cap on the Gettysburg Festival of Races at 1,500 participants, which would include a marathon, a half marathon, and a 5k. In contrast, some counties in Colorado are limiting outdoor gatherings to 250 participants or less.
Sean Perazzelli of DQ Events, which puts on multi-sport events in Southern New Jersey, indicated that they plan to put on events safely with caps in the 200-300 participant range. “Our first consideration is to put on safe events that people feel comfortable racing,” said Perazzelli. Of their 27 events, 14 of the DQ races are available for registration (as of this article’s writing). Other races in the DQ series are awaiting approval before opening registration.
An added complication comes for events that plan to use state or national park land. In this case, several states are not granting permits for the use of state parks at all — Perazelli indicated this was the case in New Jersey. Ladd noted a similar issue with park permits, but the issue wasn’t entirely COVID-related.
Events that exceed 2,000 participants are faced with more stringent permitting challenges, given the challenges that events of this size pose for adhering to social distancing restrictions. Panigutti indicated that permitting agencies are likely to look at events of 1,000 participants or less with a different level of scrutiny. Similarly, Ladd sees races under 2,000 participants having an easier go of adhering to state and CDC guidelines. Del Monte predicts that events in the low thousands will be able to get approvals in time for summer races.
Very large events with tens of thousands of participants are likely to have a much harder time meeting permit requirements. We’ve already seen some of the larger events, such as the Boston Marathon, shift their dates to the fall, with the added option to race virtually. Given how quickly things can change, there is no way to know at this point if these large events will be a go in the fall, or if they may be pushed back even further.
- Event sizes will depend on local guidelines.
- Virtual races are an added option in some of the bigger events, like the Boston Marathon.
What to Expect: The New Way of Racing
If anything, COVID-19 has taught us all how quickly things can change, and there’s every reason to think that circumstances will continue to be fluid throughout 2021. This will impact how all in-person events are permitted to ensue, not just endurance races. Panigutti sums up what all of the race directors I spoke with said, “The question from 2020 of Should we put on races? has shifted to How do we put on races? in 2021.”
These adaptations of how we race will require athletes to remain flexible, adaptable, and open to new ways of racing. This flexibility will include (but isn’t limited to):
- Wearing a mask and maintaining social distancing prior to and following the race. Every race director I spoke with sees this as a practice that is here to stay for the totality of 2021, and some think it will continue into 2022.
- Adjusting to time trial or wave starts. This means that when you race, you will want to get used to racing without always knowing where your competition is. Perazelli called this a “tradeoff in the spirit of competition,” but one that is necessary if races are going to happen at all. Another consequence of staggered starts means that you may not be able to race with your friends or team, so you want to be prepared for solo time on courses (especially since spectators are going to be discouraged in many cases).
- Foregoing post-race ceremonies, food buffets, and gatherings. Race directors express a deep concern to keep their athletes safe, and while this can be relatively easily accomplished on the course, it is more challenging after races. Expect race directors to institute policies that will encourage you to move along after the race.
- Waiting longer for final results. Given the staggered starts, it won’t be possible to know results right away, and sometimes not even the same day of the race.
Additional changes to the race-day experience will likely include modified aid stations, scheduled times for packet pick-up, designated spots in transition (for triathlon), randomized wave starts (rather than age group), and limited contact points that will require racers to be more self-sufficient. In this manner, quite a bit of 2020’s protocols will remain in effect in 2021.
The Glass City Marathon is the only race that I could find that is making vaccination or a COVID test a requirement to sign up. It does not seem that this will be a route that many race directors choose to take.
Race directors have different policies about when and how they will choose to cancel. Some are transparent about those policies and stay in regular contact with participants. Sign up for the race newsletter and follow the official social media profiles of the various races you plan to do, as these tend to be the primary ways that race directors are working to share updates.
Playing Your Part
Bringing back safe racing relies on more than quality race directing. It asks athletes to be responsible and supportive of an industry that was badly hit by the economic consequences of the pandemic. Some things that you can do as an athlete and endurance sport supporter include:
- Volunteer! Race directors are struggling more than ever to find people to help with races. Give back to the community and all of the wonderful volunteers who support you by becoming a volunteer yourself.
- Be respectful of the modifications and know that race directors are dealing with a lot of competing demands and logistics. It was pretty clear in my conversations with race directors that they are absolutely doing their best to figure this out. Your safety is their #1 priority and, in most cases, they are beholden to state and local guidelines. Be patient and compassionate.
- At the ski mountains in Colorado, where I live, there are signs everywhere that read SOS: Save Our Season. And so it goes with our beloved endurance sports — SOS by wearing a mask, social distancing, and respecting the rules.
I am optimistic that racing will make a consistent return in 2021, albeit in a fluid and changed form. It will rely on each of us to do our part. Train hard this spring because chances are that you will be racing again this year!