When will it be safe to race again?

Probably not until we reach herd immunity, but some race directors and runners are (cautiously) trying out small events — plus 7 stunning half marathons in Ireland.

It’s gonna be a little while before we get back to running together like this, an early stretch of the New York City Marathon as runners make their way across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. (Matthew Hutchinson)

Like most runners, Maryland-based Dave Krause, had not participated in a live race since February 2020, when he finally lined up for one a couple of weeks ago.

He had run two virtual races over the past year, but as any runner will tell you, there’s nothing like the real deal. When local event organizer Bullseye Running announced a return of its annual 50K, Krause decided it was time to give racing a go again.

A combination of factors led to his resumption. “Until recently, I haven’t felt comfortable being around people in any type of social or gathering environment,” he says. “Given the small number of people at the event, the fact that participants would have a mask, and that it was outdoors in the woods all helped.”

Additionally, Krause knew there was a nearby competing 10K event that would draw other runners away from this one. Also, there were no areas on the course where runners would be running toward each other, and Krause would be carrying all his own supplies. In addition, he had received one dose of vaccine prior to the race, lowering his COVID risk.

Is it ever safe to return to racing before we’ve reached herd immunity? Not surprisingly, opinions cover a wide spectrum

Krause falls in line with the sentiments of many runners when they consider how and when to get back to racing. A Running USA survey showed that 94 percent of runners were unable to participate in planned races in 2020.

Some 66 percent of survey participants, however, plan to be back in 2021 once a local event is available. Like Krause, an additional 20 percent want a vaccine before they return.

While situations will vary from one location to the next across the country, it’s likely that most communities will have some live racing in 2021.

Every runner is different with what makes them comfortable in returning, but if you’re on the fence, what factors should you consider? Is it ever safe to return to racing before we’ve reached herd immunity? Not surprisingly, opinions cover a wide spectrum.

Race day

Phil Lang is the race director for the Bullseye 50K that Krause participated in. It was the first race he’s executed since last year. One of his first considerations in putting it on was checking with local gathering restrictions.

“The limit for outdoor gatherings in our county increased to 250 a couple of weeks before the race,” Lang explains. “The parks and rec department asked if we wanted to try to hold the event, so we decided to give it a shot.”

In a normal year, the 50K would have involved between 325 and 350 people racing, but Lang put a limit of 200 on this year’s event, a combination of individuals and relay runners.

He staggered the start times and had 75 masked runners begin 30 minutes before the 25 relay team runners. He called runners to the start line just three minutes before go time, and had no post-race activities.

‘Expect that traditional festivities will be heavily limited or non-existent’

All of these steps fall in line with the guidance Running USA has assembled for those considering a return to a new normal of racing. “Expect that traditional festivities will be heavily limited or non-existent,” say the guidelines. In addition, it adds that runners should come prepared to “BYOW” or bring your own water.

Lang drastically changed the food and water protocols for this year’s 50K. “We usually have a smorgasbord at the aid stations but not this year,” he says. “We sent emails warning that runners should bring their own.”

Other recommendations from Running USA include limited packet pick up, having participants sign social contracts agreeing to the rules of the race, such as mask wearing or staying home if sick, and social distancing at the race site.

Is there such thing as safe?

Not everyone agrees that now is the time to try racing again. David Nieman, PhD, biology professor and director of the Human Performance Lab at Appalachian State University, says he would personally not toe a line just yet.

“I consider us in a transition zone right now,” he says. “We’re still quite limited in the number of vaccinations and we’re not even close to herd immunity.”

Nieman says that, to his way of thinking, there’s no real way to mitigate risk in a race environment at the moment.

“I get the pain everyone is feeling from not racing, but this is a high-risk activity in groups,” he says. “If you’re downstream from someone, their high ventilation is coming your way, and if it contains virus, you’re putting yourself at risk.”

When you add in masks, time trial starts and small attendance numbers — as many races getting off the ground again in 2021 are doing — Nieman still shakes his head no.

‘I consider us in a transition zone right now... we’re not even close to herd immunity’

“We know that four out of 10 people with COVID are asymptomatic, and with heavy breathing, the virus is spewing all over the place,” he says. “If you’re running behind someone, it’s just too risky.”

The pandemic has demonstrated that opinions on safe activities are all over the place. At the end of the day, everyone will have a different comfort level when it comes to returning to racing. CDC guidelines, local restrictions and vaccination status should all play a role in your decision making.

After the Bullseye 50K, Lang says that all the social media posts and emails that crossed his path were positive and that everyone paid attention to, and followed, the new protocols.

“It seems to me that those who are not comfortable with events won’t participate, but those who are will follow the rules because they know we can’t continue if they don’t,” he says. “I hope everyone remains cautious and responsible so that other events can take place.”

Krause doesn’t have any other live events planned at the moment, but was pleased with his first return to racing: “I think Bullseye did about as much as they could have done to keep people safe during any type of live event.”


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Races you might love running... in Ireland

Run a race that’s been called “the most scenic half marathon in Ireland” along the Wild Atlantic Way, a place famous for its wind-whipped meadows atop soaring cliffs as well as peaceful, serene beach towns. The banks of the River Moy in County Mayo will be open for the race this May that also includes a stretch through the Belleek Woods. In June, take in the beauty of Portumna Forest Park near Galway, where you can run a full or half marathon as well as a 100K or 50K. In July, run the mountains that overlook Killary Fjord in northern Connemara at the (aptly named) Gaelforce Sky Run. “Breathtaking, amazing, spectacular, friendly and fun” is how organizers describe October’s Galway Bay Run, which unfolds past Claddagh Quay and along the majestic coast road along the bay. And the wild, rugged Céide Coast of County Mayo is the backdrop for a stunning half marathon that runs past the Céide Cliffs overlooking the ocean and the iconic sea-stack at Downpatrick Head. (And in August, you can run where scenes from HBO’s Game of Thrones were filmed at this race along the famed Antrim Coast Road.)

A running read I loved this week

How Covid — and the Nike Run Club app — Turned Me into a Mindful Runner. When her gym closed last March, Rachel Kraus no longer had access to the treadmill workouts she’d grown to love. The pavement was all she had left, so she started listening to the mindfulness coaching sessions on guided runs within Nike’s running app for smartphones — opening up a whole new mindset.

“Running is how I cope with stress and see the world beyond my window. It's a way I can chart progress for myself when it feels like life is standing still. Mostly, it's a way to breathe.”

A newsletter recommendation

If you’re interested at getting better at anything you do — especially when it comes to creativity, time management, or going for goals you’ve put on the back burner — then you might love my friend Josh Spector’s For The Interested.

I’ve learned so much from his newsletter, which pulls from the widest possible range of sources and distills down the most useful advice, every issue. You can give it try here.

Words to run by

“History says don't hope on this side of the grave, but then, once in a lifetime the longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up. And hope and history rhyme. So hope for a great sea change on the far side of revenge. Believe that a further shore is reachable from here.”

— Seamus Heaney