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Small Races Are Happening, But Should You Participate?

BY Dr. Jeff Sankoff

For many athletes the question is no longer "Can I race?" but rather "Should I race?" Emergency Room Doctor Jeff Sankoff weighs the benefits and the risks.

Depending on where you are when you read this, the Pandemic attributable to the novel Coronavirus COVID-19 may be in any one of several phases. In Asia, Europe, Canada and Australia, the curve has flattened, infections continue but at a manageable pace and society has cautiously opened up again but with governments ever watchful and reacting swiftly to even the smallest outbreaks. In New Zealand, the disease has been practically eradicated while in the United States there has been almost no coordinated effort to contain the virus at all and consequently the disease is out of control.

No matter where you are though, races may be happening. Not large events like those that are the hallmark of the 70.3 and Ironman branded events which are almost certainly off the table for the rest of 2020, but potentially local events with smaller fields. Even when larger events eventually do return, the questions that coaches need to consider will be the same when it comes to deciding when it is really safe for an athlete to return to racing.

There are no fool-proof answers that will satisfy everyone, but I will try to address the most important factors that go into this decision.

First and foremost, it is critical for coaches to recognize that athletes will likely not be able to approach this decision with any sense of objectivity. After six months of what can only be described as grief and loss, athletes will consider any opportunity to get to a start line without giving much thought to the larger implications for themselves and others. They can hardly be blamed for this. As coaches, we can go a long way towards lending the kind of dispassionate objectivity needed for this kind of decision.

Local Factors to Consider

Some of the first things to consider when assessing if a race is going to be safe are factors related to the Pandemic wherever the race is being held. How have case numbers been trending in that area? Did local and regional governments do well with mitigating community risks by carefully re-opening and advocating or mandating the wearing of masks? 

Local and regional public health websites are an excellent resource in this regard. For example, when athletes were asking me about whether or not I thought Lubbock 70.3 was going to happen and if it was going to be safe, I used the county public health site to learn that in fact case numbers were spiking dramatically as were hospitalizations in that city and as a result I knew the race would be canceled before many did.

Race Factors

Before signing up or agreeing to do a race, athletes should know exactly what measures are put in place to protect them from infection. I covered a lot of the suggested changes that USAT made for a safe return to racing in a previous article but of those the major things to consider are:

  • Will contactless registration and packet pick up be offered? 
  • How will transition be managed? 
  • Will the field size be reduced?
  • How will they manage the swim start to reduce congestion?
  • Will masks be mandated and if so, at what parts of the race venue/course?
  • Will aid stations be available and how will they be managed?
  • Will spectators be allowed?

Discourage athletes from traveling to any race unless it is under very specific conditions; the distance is one that can be driven, they will be able to stay by themselves in a rental property of some kind and they won’t eat in any restaurants.

Athlete Factors

The final few important things to consider relate to the athlete themselves because, at the end of the day, the cost-benefit affects them and those around them the most. We know that COVID-19 causes significantly higher morbidity and mortality for people who have pre-existing illnesses like diabetes, previous cancers or even high blood pressure. In addition, the severity of illness increases with age. For that reason, older athletes or those who have a history of other illnesses need to be extremely cautious about returning to races. Even with the most stringent safety measures, there will still be more risk than if they did not participate.

That being said, those risks will not just affect them personally. Athletes who have immediate family members with any high-risk conditions should also carefully consider the cost-benefit of participating. While the risk of catching COVID-19 may be personally less, if they were to contract the virus at a race and then infect a high-risk family member, the outcome could be catastrophic.

Undoubtedly, there is a lot that goes into this decision. It is a tough choice as it pits the emotional draw competition against the dangerous reality we all face. This is why it’s so essential that coaches work with their athlete(s) to ensure that rationality is well represented in the argument.

If you have questions about COVID-19 and how to manage athletes in this time of a pandemic, please feel free to email me at tri_doc@icloud.com

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About Dr. Jeff Sankoff

Jeff Sankoff is an Emergency Physician, long time triathlete and USAT/IRONMAN University Certified coach. He has completed 6 IRONMAN races (including Kona) and more than fifty races at the 70.3 distance including 5 World Championships. He produces the TriDoc Podcast that can be found on most popular podcast platforms and iWork’s with LifeSport Coaching. You can learn more about him at his website: TriDoc Coaching.