Spring races share best practices so races nationwide can continue resuming and scaling up

By Leah Etling

The moment we’ve all been waiting for has been happening in some cities across the country this spring: Running events are back. Often at reduced capacity, and with varying COVID-19 safety protocols, but from the perspective of runners and race directors alike, returning to live racing brings a huge sigh of relief. For the running industry, this is what normal looks like.

“Runners want to do what they want to do. They’re not any different than bowlers or golfers. But we could have told them that they all had to wear jeans while running and they still would have come out to race,” joked Todd Oliver, president and race director of the Carmel Marathon in Carmel, Indiana. After being forced to cancel its 2020 event, the Carmel Marathon resumed on April 3, 2021 with reduced capacity, social distancing, masks and other safety protocols in place.

Around 3,300 runners turned out for the Carmel Marathon’s marathon, half marathon, 10K and 5K. And make no mistake, they came to RUN. The average finish time for the marathon, which had over 1,000 finishers, was under 4 hours. (For those unfamiliar with the running universe, that’s an impressively fast average.)

“When’s the last time a non-downhill marathon had an average finish time under 4 hours?” Oliver asked. “Everyone ran really hard. After training with no races for a year, they came to race.”

When we chatted for this article shortly after the April event, Oliver was busy preparing for his next event, the Whitefish Marathon in Whitefish, Montana on May 22. A tiny event in a beautiful setting, this year the Whitefish event had already doubled its registered participants more than a month prior to race day. It was a clear example of the pent-up runner demand that is likely to explode as events continue.

“There’s nothing like the feel of a finish line,” said Oliver. “For us, that was probably the most commented on thing by runners. We sent a thank you email to all our participants and people wrote back in droves. All of the feedback was extremely positive.”

Unlike many event management professionals, he believes that there are no nationwide policies or procedures that can effectively cover all U.S. events. Every state – and in some states every county or city – is looking for different requirements. However, there are best practices that can cover resuming events wherever you work and live.

“Take a pause and think through your own events instead of what someone’s doing in Denver, Chicago, Los Angeles or Minneapolis. It’s great that people have come up with so many different solutions, but if we had tried to do a 30-second interval staggered start for four people at a time, the city would have said no,” Oliver said. “They didn’t want the roads closed for that long.” Carmel began with a socially distanced start that involved a far larger start line area than in previous years.

In advance of the April 3 event, he met with local officials who were most excited about bringing out-of-town visitors to Carmel for hotel, retail and restaurant revenue. Because of that enthusiasm the full marathon was the one distance that remained at full capacity for the 2021 event – historically, it has attracted the most out of state participants, and this year was no different. 2021 was one of the largest full marathon field sizes ever for Carmel. The entire weekend was reduced capacity by 25 percent.

One surprise that might be easily replicated at other events this season was the degree of emotion participants had when crossing the finish line.

“It was even more emotional than normal. And because of hands-off protocols, the volunteers weren’t able to provide that hug or a celebratory medal over the neck,” Oliver said. While contactless volunteer rules worked well elsewhere on the course, especially at water stops and food stations, he was struck by the emotion of the 2021 finishers.

“We know historically that 40 percent of runners are ‘running for a reason,’” he explained, including charity athletes but also motivations such as honoring late family members or personal goals. “This year it was very clear there were even more.”

Jumping Through Hoops in Baton Rouge

The 2021 Louisiana Marathon took place on Sunday, March 7 in Baton Rouge. The two-day event attracted around 3500 finishers across multiple race distances.

Co-founder Craig Sweeney was upfront about the challenges that his team faced during what he hopes will be a single less than perfect year for event production. Louisiana was able to hold its 2020 event on January 19 of that year, which is its normally scheduled time. For 2022, it will return on January 15.

After being postponed from its usual date in 2021 due to spiking coronavirus cases, the Louisiana team was forced by the city to reapply for the event permit. They found that process came along with unprecedented hurdles they’d never faced before, such as going to the fire marshal for permission to run. Typically, the fire department is not involved in permitting an outdoor event.

 “They made us jump through all sorts of hoops we didn’t have in the past. We didn’t get the (new) permit until a couple weeks before the event. It felt like they really didn’t want to give it to us,” Sweeney recalled. In a normal year, the race is highly supported by the city and the mayor is out at the start line on race day. That was not the case in 2021, which seemed to be tied to a fear of potential public backlash.

Louisiana was unable to hold its expo, which is typically indoors, and abandoned its typically festive post-race celebration for a grab and go food box. But despite all the changes and additional permitting, some sponsors were still not comfortable supporting the 2021 event. “Their concern was the optics and public perception. The public seemed to think this could be a super spreader event.”

Despite those planning difficulties, race day went off perfectly. Louisiana used a start line system that resembles precision Spartan Army units headed into battle. Corrals are lined up with six feet separation between participants (spots were designated by a schoolyard traffic cone) for multiple blocks around the downtown start. As one corral runs off, the next one moves up into place. That was one change that Louisiana will likely keep.

“We will have a corral system in the future, but hopefully next year we won’t have to be six feet apart,” Sweeney said. “I have no concerns about next year.”

Scaling Up, with Timing’s Help

In Wisconsin, Race Day Events (RDE) was able to produce a series of small trail runs, with field sizes between 75-125 participants, beginning in May of 2020. Those events provided the baseline for a return to larger ones this year. The 1500-person Lake Monona 20K/5K set for May 1 was half of normal capacity, but the largest event of the season to date.

“We had a touch free check in and a much wider start line. So we’re slowly phasing back up but with a focus on being 100 percent safe,” said Ryan Griessmeyer, president of the Fitchburg, Wisconsin based production company. “We’ve been able to take the trail run plans and expand on them almost 100 times.”

RDE also works as a timing and operations contractor for events nationwide, including the Salisbury Marathon, which was held in Salisbury, Maryland on April 3. Like the Carmel Marathon, Salisbury also had a very fast field: nearly 25 percent of the full marathon finishers ran Boston Marathon qualifying times. There were 328 full marathon finishers.

One phenomenon events are now getting used to is an on-site presence from permitting authorities. In Salisbury, that included the police and the health department.

“I was starting the race and overseeing the timing and operations side, and they put some pressure on me,” Griessmeyer said. “At one point, race director Jason Chance (who is also a police officer) grabbed the microphone from the announcer and told the runners: If you don’t spread out right now, the police are going to close this race down.” Runners complied and the race went on, but the ability to communicate protocols clearly and quickly to participants has never been more important.

As a timer in addition to an event producer, RDE has found innovative ways to use data to document exactly how much overlap runners have on course. Especially with the smaller events, it’s not much.

“Our timing team did a great job with compiling exact data on how many passes we had on the course. We knew to a T how much interaction we had, and we could include that in our reports to the city and the parks department, who complimented us on how safe and clean we kept it. When we submitted our next proposal, their response was great job, keep that up. We haven’t had a single report of any COVID transmission at any of our events this year.”

By adding additional timing mats or chip readers, even small races can enhance typical results and use that data to show officials how many other runners a participant comes in contact with.

“Timers can be a great help in giving you the data you need for your municipalities,” said Griessmeyer. “Depending on the length and size of the race, your timing company can break it into split points and determine how many people were between each of those areas at any given time.”

A Return to Running in Austin

The Ascension Seton Austin Half Marathon, produced by High Five Events, reduced its event size by over 50 percent, and successfully held an in-person half marathon and 5K in Austin, Texas on April 25. Around 4230 runners completed both events (total includes a few hundred virtual participants). Neither the full marathon nor the Manzano Mile was held in 2021. For all four events, there were 13,000 finishers in 2018.

COVID mitigation and participant health and safety were the clear priority for 2021, said William Dyson, communications manager for High Five Events. Host of numerous major events each year, Austin is known as a city where running is extremely popular, and the half marathon was marketed spiritedly as “Austin’s Return to Running.” But it also attracted participants from as far afield as New York City and Mexico, demonstrating that runners are willing to travel for the chance to race in person again.

“We were very proud of this event. It shows that large scale endurance events can be held with strategic planning, a dedicated team, willing partners, effective measures and extensive communication. Secondly, participants want to return to large scale, outdoor endurance events. That couldn’t have been any more evident by the chatter on race day, at packet pickup, and on social media. They were extremely grateful for the experience. There’s only so many times you can cross the same virtual finish line in your own neighborhood,” Dyson said.

Volume, clarity, and variety of communications methods were a key part of Austin’s success. In addition to traditional email, web, and social media communications to runners, they utilized app and text message (SMS) functionality to make sure that participants had all the information they would need to be successful, safe and informed on race day.

“Don’t underestimate the power of overcommunicating and the need for constant and continuous engagement,” Dyson said. “Sometimes that can be overwhelming for participants, but when you’re putting out information that’s important to their well-being, as well as the well-being of staff, partners and volunteers, it’s critical. We did a staggered start, so communicating those start times was very important.”

Participant feedback from the event was overwhelmingly positive.

“The Austin Half was my first race in 12 years and I couldn’t have asked for a better event to bring me back into running,” said Jack McBee, a finisher of the half marathon in 2:06:32. “The energy was incredible — clearly everyone was ready to get back to running Austin!”

High Five Events will now take their lessons learned to the production of an in-person triathlon set for Memorial Day weekend.

“We really hope this blazes a path forward for other large endurance events,” Dyson said. “This shows that it can be done. You just have to put in a lot of work, change some of your expectations, and put it back towards the community.”