11 July 2021, 7am
Given what road race organisers have faced over the past year and a half optimism is a rare commodity – but in many countries there is gathering momentum towards getting races back on the road.
Favourable signs are appearing: dropping infection rates; rising vaccination levels; knowledge of which preventative measures are most effective; and evidence indicating vanishingly low transmission rates at open air events.
But what races are being held at the moment, or likely to be held in the near future?
There has been a drip-feed of competitions for elite runners over the last year for them to test their form and to post qualifying times for the Olympic Marathon. These ‘Covid resistant’ races were much easier to accommodate with small fields running on a short lap often at a privately-owned venue where it is relatively easy to restrict entry to spectators.
Big races have been held in some countries, but have come and gone with each wave of the virus. The Nagoya Marathon was run with 5000 runners before a new state of emergency was called. Turkey also held socially-distanced races of up to 4000 runners both in autumn and in spring but coronavirus is still crippling events there. In the US swift action in mounting a vaccination programme has rescued New York from the consequences of infection seen a year ago such that although infections remained high well into the vaccination campaign there were vastly fewer hospitalisations and deaths. New York Road Runners Club edged up numbers in their races to a few thousand and then announced that The New York City Marathon – held in 2019 with 54,000 runners – will return in November at 60% capacity with 33,000 runners. Registrations opened on 8 June.
The announcement came from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and was astonishingly bold compared to the stance of European authorities.
The organisers of the Hans Christian Andersen Marathon in Denmark asked the basic question: As an event organiser how do you prepare when you have no idea of what restrictions you will have to fulfil to satisfy the Government, local authorities – and most importantly the participants?”
It’s quite likely that runners so long denied the pleasure of participating in running events will be grateful for whatever organisers can offer them. But mass races still seem a long way off despite the improvement in indicators. Is there a way forward, out of the tight restrictions on the size of the field? This itself is a crude measure when starts are staggered throughout the day, location or self-containment of venue is carefully considered and distancing measures put in place.
In the UK there are nearly 600 ‘Parkruns’ held every week – but not since the coronavirus first hit. The organisers complained that:
“Despite legal permission to return and support from Government, Public Health England and Sport England, a combination of obstacles including misunderstanding the Government’s Roadmap, reluctance, hesitation and unnecessary red tape threatens to delay the return of parkrun indefinitely.
“With all other sports returning, alongside the reopening of indoor dining and hospitality, further roadblocks to parkrun’s return feel unreasonable, with non-response, red tape and internal administrative processes standing in the way of the inclusive, community physical activity.”
Up to 300,000 people take part in the runs across England on every Saturday morning but Parkrun has to ensure no single event becomes overcrowded after a 14-month break during the pandemic.
In May Parkrun claimed that: Hundreds of private and local council landowners were reluctant to hold the events over confusion about the Covid-19 restrictions. Parkrun has been legally permitted since the end of March.
So what do races need to do to get back on the roads? They need to get permission from public authorities – but it is not at all clear how they can do that even when the general indicators are favourable.