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Will we ever race again?

My answer to that question is a resounding YES! With all the cancellations of the past few months, it seems like races may never happen again. I’m very confident that races will return. We may not know exactly when that will be or what will happen in different parts of the country. Or what races will look like in the future. Race season planning is showing strong signs of life again.

Triathlon is a resilient sport supported by resilient people and athletes

All sports have been negatively impacted by the coronavirus pandemic from the biggest national sports to the smallest kids’ events. Postponing the Olympics or canceling the NBA season are not everyday occurrences.

Larger event organizations may weather this storm better than smaller ones. The sad fact is that some events may never return. When events do return, they will look different. One way we can all help some of our smaller, local events is to think of them as a local business we all want to support. “There’s this huge push of ‘support your local business’ or support your corner pizza shop where you normally would get pizza. I think there needs to be this element of seeing the race, your local fundraising charity event, as that local business that needs just as much support now – maybe more now than ever – for the long term good of the community, so they can come back and open their doors and open their starting lines to runners when this thing is cleared up, “ J.T. Service of Soul Focus Sports in CA.

Guidance from the top of our sport. Beginning with the leaders in our sport: ITU & USAT

USA Triathlon (our national governing body – NGB – for the sport of triathlon) and the ITU (International Triathlon Union – the international governing body for the sport of triathlon) have both recently released detailed guidelines for race directors to follow in the transition to a post-coronavirus world. They are working on further guidelines for racers and officials. The phases mirror both CDC and WHO guidelines for gradually reopening society. Racing will come back in phases. Right now, we’re still in phase one, no races and gatherings of 10 people or fewer.
Phase two, allowing for gatherings of up to 50 people, can technically only be reached once a region has had two consecutive 14-day periods of downward trajectory in new COVID-19 cases. Phase two would allow some restrictions to be lifted and phase three would allow more. Also, there will be flexibility within protocols for variations between states.

First, state and local authorities will go through a decision-making process to allow a race or not. With the strong guidelines from USAT and the ITU, race directors can then present a safe racing plan. Neither USAT, ITU nor Ironman are in the business of determining when restrictions should be lifted. They will follow federal, state, and local public health guidelines.

All the leaders in the sport of triathlon are preparing for both the best- and worst-case scenarios for 2020. Best case: some races return in July and more and more take place in various regions as restrictions are lifted.

It’s possible that we may not see any races over 1000 people this year. It’s a moving target to determine exactly what constitutes putting on a safe race in each venue. All race directors and racers want to avoid a scenario where an event comes back too soon and causes an outbreak. California is banning large groups until after a vaccine has been developed.

Ironman, although a leader in endurance events, is a corporation. (One possible reason it’s hard to get a refund for a canceled or postponed event). Ironman says they just want to give everyone the chance to participate in an event. They will follow the guidelines outlined by the local NGBs and authorities. All races are at the mercy of local organizers and government. Ironman and USA Triathlon guidelines are essentially the same.

Virtual races: duathlon, run, and bike

You can still race this weekend! Virtual racing is an option for most everyone everywhere. It’s an opportunity to stay focused on your race goals, test your current fitness, stay engaged in the sport of triathlon, and support race organizers, especially the small, local ones. This is a win-win for both racers and organizers.

Since March, nearly 100, 000 athletes have signed up to complete virtual Ironman events demonstrating how important the structure of regular training and racing is for people, especially in a time that feels chaotic and out of control.

Race directors are getting creative to help us stay engaged. For example, at the Hartford Marathon, they organized runners to log miles to complete a run around the state of Connecticut: “We understand how important it is for us to provide our running community with encouragement to keep active and maintain a healthy outlet to help manage stress during this unprecedented time. While we can’t hold events and gather together, we’re committed to providing ways for people to experience some of the enjoyment of racing through virtual events and challenges,” HMF CEO Beth Shluger.

Smaller, local races will return sooner: 200 vs 30,000 participants

As of the writing of this article, most of us are under orders to keep gatherings under 10 people. The Boston and London marathons have been postponed from spring to fall. The Berlin marathon with 65,000 runners, scheduled for October has already been canceled. Any event that is considered a mass gathering is expected to be the last to return in the US and the world over. Race logistics increase in complexity as the event gets bigger.

Although smaller races will be more likely to return this year, smaller race organizers are under more financial stress than the big organizers. Triathletes will always be drawn to the IM branded races, but it’s the smaller race organizers who are under the most difficulty. Will they be able to put on local races in the future?

Get comfortable with not knowing what will happen and be flexible all along the way

We are living in a time of uncertainty. Almost all of the triathlons in 2020 have been canceled, postponed, or deferred to 2021. Know that race organizers are doing their best to accommodate all participants under difficult circumstances. They want to put the races on as much as we want to do them. The bottom line is that for the races that do return in 2020, we will all be subject to more rules and guidelines put in place to make the event safe for everyone.

What will racing look like in the new normal?

Safety first. This will be the utmost priority for all events. Safety for racers, spectators, volunteers, race organizers and the local population.

Races may be limited to local or regional athletes only. We may see restrictions on spectator numbers.

There needs to be education and information about new processes such as distancing guidelines so we all know what to do at the race site. Bottlenecks need to be opened up: meaning decreasing the number of people at any given point with longer start periods, wider chutes, waiting areas, larger transition areas, etc.

Races will be focused on limiting interactions: limiting in-person registration and expos, holding virtual briefings, limiting volunteers handing out food, water, or medals. Body marking done at home (easy to do with decals). Here’s a tough one: athlete self-reliance. You may be asked to carry/provide all your own food and nutrition on the course.

Fortunately, triathlon has always had a wave and rolling starts, so not much difference here.

Race logistics may determine if a race can happen this year. Can we load athletes on a bus to get them to the start? If the race is on trails, will people be able to stay spaced out? Is there enough room at the start to space people out enough? (Popular Mechanics did a calculation for the LA Marathon. With 19,000 runners properly spaced out, it would require 3.7 miles of road for people to line up before they hit the start line.) Rules of social distancing will help determine the size and type of races that can take place.

What has your training been like recently? Motivated? Lethargic?

With so much tragedy and hardship going on in the world, it is certainly understandable when our enthusiasm and motivation for a triathlon is decreased. The endless suffering saps our motivation. We may also be perceived as selfish for wanting to train and race. It can be tough to train, train, train, and have no idea when you will actually race. We get a sense of urgency with a race only weeks away.

Here’s where virtual racing can help fill a void.

It looks like races may come back sooner in Australia and Europe, but be restricted to local/regional athletes only, no international travelers.

In the end, whether or not you go to a race or not is your decision based on what you feel is safe for you.

See the opportunities

There is always an opportunity; keep looking.

Sport helped bring us back from the shock and tragedy of 9/11. Sport can help bring us back from this pandemic.

Continue to prepare like your race IS going to happen. The fitness you gain in preparation will ONLY help you for future races. Training also helps you maintain your insanity in a world that, at times, seems to be going insane.

Here’s an opportunity to work on some of your weaknesses since you have more time to prepare.

Triathletes want to race and when it’s safe to race, we’ll all be eager to get back out there.

One change comes from the perspective of injured athletes. They know how having something taken away from them can make them appreciate it more. Any opportunity to race now or in the near future sounds amazing!

Here’s our opportunity to see what triathlon really means to us and where we want it to go.

References & Resources

Cohen, Kelly. ESPN Olympic Sports online. Running on Empty: Corona virus has changed the course for races big and small. May 6, 2020.
Douglas, Scott. Runner’s World Online. When Might Racing Return, and what will it look like? April 24, 2020.
Futterman, Matthew. The New York Times. How Ironman Triathlons Plan to Endure. May 4, 2020.
Futterman, Matthew. The New York Times. What will endurance races look like when they come back? April 21, 2020.
O’Mara, Kelly. Triathlete Magazine. Will Triathlons come back this year? What will they look like? April 29, 2020.
USA Triathlon Safe Return to Multisport Guidelines. USAT website.
World Triathlon COVID-19 Prevention Guidelines. ITU website.