Steven Rojas was ready. He had already started the program of long runs, track workouts, and tempo efforts prescribed by Brooklyn Track Club in anticipation of running the 2020 New York Marathon.
Then the novel coronavirus hit. Organizers cancelled the 26.2-mile (42.1-kilometer) race that famously winds through all five New York boroughs; later they announced it would be held on Nov. 7, 2021, a date that will mark its 50th running. But uncertainty still hangs for the 30,000-plus runners entered to participate this year; in an email, a spokesperson from New York Road Runners Club — the entity that organizes the marathon — said that those chosen for a bib will be announced later this year.
“We had more than 30,000 runners registered for the 2020 TCS New York City Marathon,” said Trina Singian. “This reflects the runners registered prior to the cancellation in June 2020. Since it was canceled mid-year, many runners including charity runners, international runners, etc., had yet to register. The 30,000-plus runners have been given the option to run either 2021, or 2022, or 2023 or choose a refund.”
That’s if this year’s event escapes cancellation in the event of a unanticipated wave of coronavirus cases this fall. Rojas will be ready, whether or not the race happens officially.
“In my own mind, I’m acting like it’s going to happen,” says the native New Yorker and avid trail runner. He runs three days a week with the 400-member-strong club that works out in Manhattan’s East River Park and Brooklyn’s McCarren Park. “Let’s say it doesn’t happen — I will still get up and run it. If they cancel, I will just get up and run it myself, alone, somewhere in the streets.”
Rojas is far from the only running enthusiast preparing for an uncertain marathon season. Race organizers from Hawaii to Maine have responded variously to the rollout of vaccines and uncertain tempo of COVID-19 cases: The Cleveland Marathon, normally held in May, has been pushed to an as-yet unscheduled date this fall; the Salt Lake City Marathon and Oregon’s Eugene Marathon both went virtual, along with many other races. The Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati might happen virtually, but “may change to in-person” if COVID-19 cases there diminish.
Boston’s prestigious and historic marathon was postponed from spring to fall, with a field limited to 20,000; race organizers in Chicago have tentatively scheduled the marathon for October, with updates to come in early June. Planners for the Vermont City Marathon in Burlington, Vermont, have paused registration altogether.
In New York, the 60-year-old Road Runners Club has released an extensive list of safety procedures, including health screenings, time trial-style starts, and the cancellation of award ceremonies.
And those are just domestic races. In Paris, the marathon is scheduled for October with “100% money-back guarantee if the race is canceled due to COVID-19” emblazoned prominently across the home page of the race website. Entry to the London race, also in October, is currently closed except for virtual participants and raffle winners. The Tokyo Marathon will cap its number of marathon runners at 25,000, down from the traditional 38,000, and offer a virtual portion in addition to a real-life race, which will now run in October after originally being set for March.
The Berlin Marathon, site of the world’s record men’s time, is scheduled to offer its $1 million prize purse in September; the lottery for entry has long since closed.
Many Ironman Marathon races across North America and Europe remain scheduled and even sold out, although organizers say that’s no guarantee they will take place.
Planning to run, no matter what
In downtown Los Angeles, Craig Mitchell — the Los Angeles Superior Court judge chronicled in the documentary film “Skid Row Marathon” — says the members of his Skid Row Running Club are indeed training for an international marathon this year, in addition to the LA Marathon they hope to run in November. They’re just not sure which one.
“We had picked [a marathon in coup-ridden] Myanmar,” Mitchell says with a laugh. The running club is notable for its close connection to the Midnight Mission nonprofit; some participants use the running to help them overcome addiction and homelessness. In past years it has taken runners to marathons in Israel, Ghana, and Vietnam. “[Myanmar] probably isn’t going to happen, so we are looking at perhaps one in India, or in the southern part of Africa.”
“Nobody really knows what’s going to happen — there’s a lot of uncertainty,” agrees Joe Holder, an international private trainer who coaches influencers and fashion royalty such as designer Dao-Yi Chow and style consultant Eugene Tong for marathons. “I think people want to be part of races; the difficulty with the bigger races is about liability — it’s a personal liability risk” of catching or spreading the coronavirus.
While the status of some marathons remains in the balance, the camaraderie-and numbers-at many local running clubs have never been stronger. Tuesday morning workouts with Brooklyn Track Club regularly pull at least 30 runners; long runs on Sundays draw as many as 50. Both figures are up by double digits from recent years. Jes Woods, a Nike running coach who leads the Brooklyn Track Club, said that by the end of 2021 she expects club membership to surpass the 2020 numbers by 100 people.
“Once we hit September, there are 12 marathons in 10 weekends, which — if they all happen — it’s going to be rapid-fire marathon every weekend, and there will be a ton of people who trained for spring marathons that were delayed,” says Woods. She also coaches at an indoor treadmill studio called Mile High Run Club, which saw multiple sold-out classes on the weekend following its April 5 reopening and has since grown even busier.
“It wasn’t a gradual buildup,” Woods says. “It was just boom! We’re back. Everybody is running again.” Running with masks is required, and high-fives and hugs are discouraged.
Down on skid row in LA, Mitchell says attendance on the thrice-weekly group runs is “considerably” higher than ever-even on the Saturday long run. “The running program provides a sense of community,” he says. “People feel extra isolated during the pandemic, and for people to be able to come out three times a week and in a socially responsible way maintain distance, wear masks and know you’re still with good people-it has been vital.”
Meanwhile, Joe Arencibia, who coaches the Colorado Harriers running club, says he has seen “big turnouts” at workouts along running paths and on forest trails since the club started running together again in March.
“With gyms and other formal exercise options closed, everyone took up running,” Arencibia says. “We’ve had a lot of new runners come out-and more importantly, they keep coming back.”
That’s whether or not they have a marathon to look forward to, he says. “There’s a lot of pent-up energy.”
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