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State of Racing in 2021

As I sit here looking through my crystal ball… Oh, wait, nobody has a crystal ball! Although we can’t know for sure what will happen with racing this year, there’s great hope and evidence that races will return to a more normal level than 2020. Are we living with a strange mix of both optimism and denial? Here are some factors to consider for your race this year.

Breakdown by time of year

Breaking the year into quarters, there’s very little racing going on here in the US during the first quarter. The only triathlons happening are in countries with little to no COVID such as Australia, New Zealand, and Vietnam. And, they’re pretty strict about who travels to those countries.

Here in Denver, there have been a number of small running races happening since November 2021. They’ve been hugely successful (based on 2020 norms) and very safe. They utilize a cycling style race format where you have an assigned time slot for your start time beginning at 8 am, ending at about noon. The groups are smaller; from the small start group, racers are sent off in groups of 3 or 4 – an elongated rolling start. The race feel is quite different. This format works well on closed course locations or where road closures are minimal. And, race numbers are still fairly small, 300-400 total runners in this example. In my opinion, any racing is a great thing these days, especially where we can all feel safe and still have a fun race experience.

Races in the second quarter of 2021 are more “on the bubble”. Some may happen, some may not. Springtime races may be more of a matter of location. Many large spring races are already moving their dates to the fall.

Coming into the summer months, June to August, races are more likely to happen across the country. Rocky Harris, CEO of USA Triathlon, in his state of the sport address at the Endurance Exchange in January, said that summer races look more normal and by fall getting back to fully normal racing. Andrew Messick, CEO of World Triathlon Corporation (Ironman), stated similar views.

Location: rural or urban

The next factor that comes into play is if the race is in a large metropolitan area or a more rural location. Races that are more rural are more likely to happen, as COVID numbers are generally lower with less population density. Urban areas are more sensitive to the possibility of races being potential “spreader” events. The decision to hold a race will come down to a state by state determination based on that state’s stance on risks to public health. A race may be more likely to happen in St. George, UT, Florida, or Texas than California.

It will also come down to community support and ultimately local health authorities and current COVID hospitalizations. One of the articles I read to compile this update, Dan Empfield of used this example: If the hospitals are at or over capacity in the city you’re racing in, would you be able to get medical treatment if you needed it for, say, a bike crash or other non-COVID related issue?

Ironman races continue to forge ahead as if all early season races will happen regardless of location. One example, 70.3 Utah in St. George on May 1 has a strong chance of taking place. St. George is more rural and the local community is very supportive of having the race.

Historic race size – really big races like urban marathons

As in 2020, the size of the race will also make a difference. Small, regional races of 100-200 people have a higher probability of happening than races in the 10,000 plus range mega-event size – think big urban marathons like Chicago, Boston, etc. Ironman races and USAT national level races of 2000+ participants fall somewhere between these two examples.

Confidence in the probability of these races happening largely hinges on these 2 factors: local/regional outbreaks affecting hospital and medical resources and rollout of the vaccine. As the vaccinations pick up momentum and we get more people vaccinated faster, the faster we’ll all be able to get back to a more normal level of racing. Confidence in all areas of society are growing as more and more people get vaccinated.

Race directors are figuring it out

As of this writing, Challenge Miami in March is on. Challenge Daytona in December 2020 was a huge success. Race directors and organizations around the world are figuring out how to produce safe, fun races during the pandemic. For more guidance on safe return to racing: USA Triathlon Safe Return to Multisport, Ironman’s Safe Return to Racing Guidelines.

As an example of some of the above factors, Challenge Miami in March is confirmed and highly likely to happen. Here’s why: it will be located on a mostly closed course on the Homestead Miami Speedway that is 40 miles from downtown Miami; Challenge Family has a proven track record of a fun, safe event conducted at Daytona in December 2020; this location can accommodate thousands of racers in multiple races spread over a 2-day weekend; keeping athletes safe and healthy through social distancing is more feasible on such a large, enclosed property.

Travel – where in the world?

How far are you willing to travel to your race? Driving to the local race is a fairly simple decision. Flying across the country or to a foreign country requires a little more thought and personal risk. Getting all the proper testing completed before and after international travel is complicated and still currently restricted in many countries. Everyone’s comfort level with risk around COVID is different.

To sign up or not sign up?

Most are taking a “wait and see” approach to sign-ups. Ironman is boasting that most of their 70.3 and full Ironman races are already full. Much of this is based on deferrals from 2020. When deciding to sign up, wait as long as possible. Or, if you do sign up early, for most races, you will have options to race another date or do a virtual event if it is postponed or canceled. Be comfortable with the money you’re spending. Don’t sign up if there’s any potential financial hardship. Get the insurance if they offer it (always!). Be ready to give your entry fee as a donation to the sport and to the race organizers to support future events.

In my business, I’m already seeing a big uptick in athletes wanting to go after a new, big goal. It’s exciting to see so many coming out to tackle huge, reaching goals in 2021.

We’re all eager to get back to racing.

Benefits of having a race to look forward to are real

2021 will be another year that tests our patience, dedication, and fortitude. Having that goal race on the calendar, working towards it, anticipating it, is necessary and important to us all. The benefits of pre-race anticipation are very real, even if the race gets called off. Always plan to go on with your training as if the race is going to happen. This gives us more motivation to train and a fundamental sense of purpose to keeping up our training and healthy lifestyle.

What better way to celebrate the end of the pandemic than to do a big race?!

We all want to see these events happen and get back to racing. Embrace all that comes at you and be grateful for the opportunities. With continued flexibility and persistence, you will come out of all of this fitter, stronger, faster and smarter than when the pandemic started. I am seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.

References & Resources

Empfield, Dan. Update on the 2021 Race Season. January 2021
Hambleton, Brittany. Runner at The Marathon Project tests positive for COVID-19. December 2020
Huber, Martin Fritz. Will Major Marathons Actually Come Back This Fall? February 2021
Hutchinson, Alex. How to Harness Pre-run Anticipation. January 2019
Hambleton, Brittany. Runner at The Marathon Project tests positive for COVID-19. December 2020
USA Triathlon 2021 Endurance Exchange. January 2021