This Is What the Future of Road Racing Might Look Like …

Emily Abbate
by Emily Abbate
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This Is What the Future of Road Racing Might Look Like …

Since mid-March, running outside has looked a lot different than it did in years past. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, run groups have disbanded, encouraging their members to log workouts on their own with the proper safety precautions. Miles upon miles have been conquered with masks and hand sanitizer in tow, and of course, most races have been postponed or canceled, including the 2020 Boston Marathon. But, as we’re hoping the worst of the virus is behind us, runners everywhere can’t help but wonder: What does the future of road racing really look like?

That’s a tough question to answer right now, says Scott Abbott, executive director of the Sacramento Running Association, which oversees a slew of races in California including the California International Marathon (CIM) — currently slated for December 3, 2020. “We’ve been talking about this a lot internally as an industry. How can we help our community and best serve them, what are the things that are immediate that we can do, and what will the future hold,” he asks.

One thing is certain: Large crowds are not ideal, says Dr. Barbara Saltzman, an epidemiologist at the University of Toledo. “Large groups are where the virus spreads most easily,” she says. “Governments have been reducing the occurrence of large crowds and keeping people spaced out, and road races are, for sure, no exception.”

As for when races may start, well, that’s widely debated. Race organizers have to take their cues for when racing can resume from local and state governments, including mayor’s offices and parks and recreation departments. Once they’re back, how can races be executed safely? Here’s what it might look like:


More Flexible Race Registration

The last thing race organizers want to do is make someone feel like they’re doing something wrong if they aren’t comfortable showing up for a race they’ve signed up for. Many understand a need for flexibility and are trying to figure out smart ways to accommodate participants. “We instituted something in April called worry-free registration,” says Abbott. “If the event cannot happen for COVID reasons, they will get a free deferral for a three-year window to use as a voucher to come back.”


Virtual Bib Pickup

One of the first questions Abbott asked himself was “how can we cut down on person-to-person interaction while still putting on a race?” The easiest thing to nix: the pre-race expo. Although it can be fun for all, there are plenty of ways to get runners their essentials virtually and via snail mail before a big event.

There are some downsides to taking the bib pickup and expo digital, though, says Phil Stewart, event director of the Credit Union Cherry Blossom 10-mile and publisher of Road Race Management newsletter. “There’s a fair amount of revenue that’s generated by the expo, and once you talk about mailing out the bibs and other items, we’re talking about incurring new expenses and financial considerations. It could be that — when you add it up — it is simply not economically feasible to conduct this event.”


Masks Everywhere

There have been many popular coronavirus questions from the running community. Perhaps the biggest of them all is, “do I have to wear a mask?” Experts agree that if you’re running in a more populated area, it’s smart to wear a mask or buff to cut down on droplets that spread as you breathe during exercise. As you can imagine, a race is a crowded area, so it’s more than likely directors will require masks to be worn when participants are on the course. Perhaps, we’ll see masks issued along with the classic race T-shirt going forward.


Less Out-and-Back Courses

The last thing you want to do is have individuals running past one another when that can be avoided. So, even some of the most popular courses may be reimagined if they involve two-way traffic, rerouting individuals into more of a loop pattern.

For some races, this may prove to be a difficult modification, adds Stewart. “Depending where you are, there are certain streets you can run on versus ones you can’t. Reformatting races means that race officials will have to obtain new permits from various agencies. Is it impossible to do? No, but surely adds another layer of complexity.”


A Different Starting and Finishing Experience

The two most crowded areas of any race are the starting corrals and the finish funnel. In order to cut down on traffic, Abbott expects concepts like a wave start — or starting in different waves throughout the day.

The caveat: Some towns and cities don’t have the bandwidth to shut down streets for an entire day at a time. “The idea of sending off 17 waves of 1,000 runners each, that won’t fly with some permitting authorities,” adds Stewart. “It’s hard to imagine less of a socially distant scenario than a road race, especially at the beginning as runners are lined up in a coral, jammed close together.”

Also: Many races are known for the fun finish experience post-sweat, with bands, beer gardens and other extras. This is another thing that could be shifted going forward, with organizers asking themselves: How can we offer any of the same perks without the risk? “We have to ask ourselves, what are the truly meaningful things that people want to get out of it, and unfortunately trim the fat on some of the events and preserve the core of what people love,” says Abbott.


Spectator and Crowd Control

Spectators are an integral part of the entire experience. Race directors may encourage people who come watch to follow the social distancing protocol, and Abbott expects maybe enforcing some sort of finish line ticketing experience. “The spectators are a big part of what we do, and we want to encourage them to come out to support their friends and family.


Shifting Things to Virtual

Of course, some races may exclusively happen online until there is a dramatic global shift. Sam Tooley, an endurance coach and local race director based in New Jersey, says there are a slew of perks to this method, too.


“Whether or not the race is happening in person, it’s a light at the end of the tunnel and gives individuals something to work toward — even if it is on their own,” he says. Tooley is currently shifting the Westfield Pizza Run and 5K Extravaganza to a virtual race. Upon signing up, participants get a virtual training plan. “You can be proud of yourself and your accomplishment regardless of how it happens. We want to make the best of an unideal situation, and keep the tradition living on.”

Tooley also notes that bringing races virtual allows them to be more inclusive than otherwise possible, as town ordinances or course restrictions are no longer an issue.

The good news? Saltzman doesn’t see this being a forever sort of thing. “Pending a vaccine, just like with other infectious diseases, things can change,” she says. “If one were to come around and 70–80% of the population got vaccinated, we develop a herd immunity, we would be able to go back to something more normal.”

Whether you want to run your first mile or set a PR, having a plan gets you there faster. Go to the MapMyRun app, tap “Training Plans” and set your next goal — you’ll get a schedule and coaching tips to help you crush it.

About the Author

Emily Abbate
Emily Abbate

Emily has written for GQ, Self, Shape and Runner’s World (among others). As a certified personal trainer, run and spin coach, she’s often tackling long runs or lifting heavy things. In addition to that, she’s working on Hurdle, a podcast that talks to badass humans and entrepreneurs who got through a tough time —a hurdle of sorts— by leaning into wellness.


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