Race director Jack Afarian has designed a plan for the October event in accordance with state of Massachusetts’ pandemic protocols

 By Leah Etling

Jack Afarian knows his quest is a longshot.

But in his third year as the race director for the Cape Cod Marathon Weekend Event, which includes a Half Marathon and Full Marathonhe’s already faced down a race day Nor’easter (2018) and a pre-race storm that destroyed a solid portion of the event’s oceanside course less than two weeks prior to race day (2019).

The event made it through those challenges. And now, 2020 is here. We probably don’t have to summarize this year’s roadblocks for you – there hasn’t been a major running event held in the U.S. since the LA Marathon on March 8. Everything else has been cancelled due to precautions around the coronavirus. The running industry as we know it is effectively shut down with no end in sight, save perhaps a COVID-19 vaccine.

But the Cape Cod Marathon and Half are small events, with around 1500 runners for each in a good year. And Jack Afarian is a problem solver with a career background in project management. So he’s created a comprehensive Operations Plan for the two-day race weekend in the (fairly unlikely) event it’s allowed to move forward October 24 and 25. By Sept. 7, he and his collaborators in Falmouth will know whether they can keep planning for race day or go virtual like so many others.

I believe the odds are against us, but as long as we put our best foot forward, that’s OK. The Governor and Governor’s task force would have to say ‘alright, you’ve convinced us it’s safe to put on this event.’ If they end up saying no, that’s fine. But we have to give it our best effort,” said Afarian by phone from his home in Falmouth last week.

We talked in depth about the 21-page proposal (take a look at the PDF) he created to present to the Town of Falmouth and the Massachusetts’ Governor’s office in the hopes that the race could move forward. It incorporates many similar best practices to those proposed by Creigh Kelley and Andrea Dowdy in Colorado, who worked with their state officials on guidelines for resuming live events there. You can read more about that process and plan here.

“I think runners want to race so badly that if they did get an opportunity to run, they would be glad to mask up and stay socially distant,” said Afarian about his motivations for pursuing a 2020 live event. “And I think runners definitely want this race to succeed, in the hopes that if it happens, we could get more racing going everywhere again.”

When we spoke on Aug. 4, registrations were trending far below the 2019 Cape Cod marathon and half numbers – which was no surprise to Afarian. But he said he’s had voluminous inquiries from athletes wondering if the 2020 event will take place, and promising to commit as soon as they learned it could.

To keep them safe, his Operations Plan involves many modifications to traditional event setup and procedure. You can read about them in-depth in the plan, but a few of the most significant are summarized below:

  • Eliminating the event expo, relay and kids run. The relay was deemed too tough to enforce social distancing at the handoff locations.
  • Discouraging participants from bringing spectators with them to the event venue.
  • Runners must wear masks and socially distance at all times at the event, the only exception (to mask wearing) being while they are running the course.
  • No post-race festivities; runners will be given a grab-and-go bag with their medal, swag, hydration and nutrition.
  • There will be a “Trickle Start” which will allow the start to be socially distanced and take place in start corrals (pictured via diagrams on pages 18 and 20 of the PDF). The marathon will take about 20 minutes for 1,200 participants to start and the half marathon will take about 30 minutes for 1,500 participants.
  • When runners finish the event, they will be encouraged to move along and leave the area relatively quickly.

Massachusetts is now in stage three of its reopening plan, but according to the current guidelines, road races aren’t allowed to resume until stage four – which requires a vaccine to be in place.

So, the odds aren’t great.

“Safety has always been our top priority and that is what we are stressing in our Operations Plan.  We are continuing to work with our local and state health and safety officials to gain approval for this year’s event,” he summarized. A key town meeting will take place Monday.

He also knows one final truth, given his last two years of challenging weather: “If we are not able to have the race, we will have the most perfect running weather ever on that weekend,” he laughed. Sounds like the wisdom (and wit) of a seasoned race director.