Feature13 Dec 2021

The road to racing's return


Runners in the 2021 Virgin Money London Marathon (© Getty Images)

Athletes have hit the ground running when it comes to the return of mass road race action, but what has it taken to stage some of the world’s most prestigious events in the current climate?

A total of 10 top-tier World Athletics Elite Platinum Label road races – including marathons in Berlin, London, Chicago, Boston, Amsterdam, New York and Valencia – have taken place in 2021, with many of the world’s leading athletes joined on the city streets by significant mass fields.

In addition, around 30 World Athletics Elite Label and 50 World Athletics Label races will have been held around the world, with many protocols and procedures in place to ensure the health and safety of participants.

The start of the 2021 Bank of America Chicago Marathon (© Getty Images)

While some measures, such as Covid testing and reduced or more spread-out fields, were obvious, huge work was also done behind the scenes by organisers to allow these races to return.

“We were asking a lot from our participants this year, in order for us to be sure we could get the event on, come what may,” said London Marathon communications director Penny Dain. “We put protocols in place that we had never done before, to make the event Covid safe. We went out to our participants outlining these in our Six Steps to the Start Line campaign, and asking for their help, support and understanding that yes, it is different, but by helping us do this, it means we can be sure the event goes ahead.

“It was genuinely a truly special day,” added Dain, with the traditional April event having taken place as an elite-only race in 2020 before a second consecutive October running this year, featuring 35,000 mass race finishers. “It had been 889 days since we had last delivered the London Marathon and to have that back – to see the joy, the emotion, the crowds – it was special.

“We are working together to encourage people back. It’s all about the importance of mass participation events and parkrun in terms of what regular exercise does for physical and, almost more importantly, mental health.”

Six Steps to the Start Line

Among the earlier steps taken by London Marathon organisers was to ask participants to update their predicted finishing times to enable the effective organisation of the many waves. On race day, organisers started people over 90 minutes in waves of 1000, meaning the density of the runners on the course was spaced out because of the seeding.

Official kit bags were sent to runners to drop off at the Running Show in advance, removing the need for baggage trucks at the start areas – reducing dwell time and crowding at the start – as well as a lot of the infrastructure at the finish.

Runners drop off their kit bags at the 2021 Virgin Money London Marathon Running Show (© Virgin Money London Marathon)

A negative lateral flow test was required in order to drop off kit bags and collect bib numbers in the days leading up to the race and random additional checks for further negative results were also done at the start on race day. Participants were asked to bring only one supporter to reduce crowds and the mass race did not feature any pacers.

The London Marathon is far from alone in having protocols such as these in place, and many more procedures were undertaken for both the elite and mass events.

“Generally, the optimism and determination was always there to make it happen, but always in combination with knowing that it had to happen safely,” added Dain. “We were always very attuned to what was going on in the world.

“It had to be the right thing for London, for the UK, for society. That decision to go for the October date is what made it possible. Clearly if we had stuck to our April date, it wouldn’t have happened.”

Ten-week thriller

As a result, seven major international races were held in a thrilling 10-week period between September and December – starting with the BMW Berlin Marathon on 26 September through to the Maraton Valencia Trinidad Alfonso EDP on 5 December. Just before that, the Vienna City Marathon – a World Athletics Label road race – took place on 12 September as the first major city marathon in Europe since the beginning of the pandemic.

“A tailor-made prevention concept combined with the very high vaccination rate of 93% of participants made the event possible,” said organisers of the two-day event, which featured 18,118 runners from 125 nations overall. “More than a week after the event, the Health Service of the City of Vienna confirmed that no infections with Covid-19 were recorded in connection with the event.”

The 2021 Vienna City Marathon (© VCM / Jenia Symonds)

“Runners gave us overwhelmingly positive feedback. They were happy that the race took place and felt safe in terms of Covid prevention,” organisers added.

“Elite racing and mass racing belong together and are deeply connected with each other. It’s one of the unique features of road running, that fun runners and Olympic champions can take part together at the same time and the same place in the same event. If we lose this, the world of running will be a different one, certainly not a better one.”

Organisers had previously arranged nine small races in Vienna under strict Covid rules, with a maximum of 200 participants, in order to give the running community some motivation and to learn as an organiser how to handle the measures. The prevention concept for the Vienna City Marathon included the requirement of a current negative Covid test to collect start numbers, a reduced limit of 28,000 registered runners and enlarged start and finish areas.

“It (the return of the event) is a contribution to society in terms of public health, both mental and physical, a step on the return to normality, a welcome boost for the economy and tourism,” added organisers.

Around 10 Label road races are scheduled for the remainder of this year, with the 2022 calendar to be announced this week.

So runners can sign up, lace up and enjoy road racing’s return, with the knowledge that Label road race organisers are doing all they can for the safe hosting of events.

World Athletics

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