What could races look like in the future when they return after COVID-19?

two girls running in masks coronavirus

It’s hard to imagine when we might get back to going to races in the UK. At the time of writing, we’re on the cusp of the relaxation of some lockdown restrictions due to coronavirus (COVID-19). However, when we still can’t gather in large groups or hug our loved ones, it seems impossible to predict when we can join hundreds of our fellow runners on a start line again. 

And many major races obviously feel the same. The Royal Parks Half Marathon, due to run on Sunday 11th October 2020, has been moved to April 2021. The New York Marathon has been cancelled on its 1st November 2020 date. The Berlin Marathon, which was rescheduled for September 2020, has also been moved. And that’s not to mention the countless number of local races all over the UK and the world, causing a huge impact on race organisers and event companies.

While many race companies are turning to virtual options to help recoup loses and sustain businesses, there is a lot going on behind the scenes to try and get a grip on what a return to physical races might involve.

Hamburg Marathon hopes to go ahead

One race that has not cancelled is the Hamburg Marathon – already postponed from April. In fact, organisers remain confident the 13th September mass event will be going ahead. Although not quite as planned. They have released detailed plans on keeping runners, and volunteers, safe.

And yet, only last week, Angela Merkel banned large events in Germany until at least the end of October – but only where contact tracing and distancing were not possible. Organisers of the Hamburg Marathon set out a comprehensive hygiene policy at a press conference that they hope will enable the event to take place.

Under the guidelines, they hope to be able to welcome 10,000 marathon runners and 4,000 half-marathon runners. If it goes ahead, it would most likely be the first significant international marathon to take place since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. And should the event happen, other major event organisers will be watching to see how it plays out.

“We are optimistic that the Haspa Hamburg Marathon will be started on 13th September. We have the plans and the infrastructure required. We will now make detailed plans together with the city to realise the race,“ said chief organiser Frank Thaleiser.

How does Hamburg plan to do it?

So what have Hamburg actually said in their race plans? Well, first the elite field will be reduced to just 30 athletes, who would start together. They would have to undergo testing before the race.

Participants in both the elite field and the masses would only be drawn from certain countries. This is to allow for certain travel restrictions, and to limit runners to only those from countries with a lower risk of coronavirus. It’s not yet clear which countries would and wouldn’t be included.

The half-marathon and marathon runners would be separated, with different start and finish lines, and different start times. Runners would be sent off in batches of no more than 1,000 runners. These batches would be maintained before the race too, meeting in different halls of the main Expo building to allow for social distancing. Only runners and race officials will be allowed in the building – there are no spectators allowed in these halls. Disinfection stations would be frequently placed in the event halls and on the course.

All runners will be given a special tubular scarf with a breathing filter. They must wear these in the start and finish areas. Runners will be able to take them off while running, but must put them on again after they cross the finish line. Therefore, they must have the means to carry them throughout.

Things like massages, showers, relay races and children’s races, usually part of the event, will not be available.

“The organisational and hygiene policy should demonstrate that a running event with up to 14,000 participants within a city environment can be carried out responsibly while respecting the restrictions on contact and current hygiene guidelines since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Frank Thaleiser.

Setting a post-COVID race plan

So the stage is set, but it remains to be seen whether Hamburg’s plans will be approved and allowed to go ahead. The running world, particularly race organisers, will surely be keeping a close eye on developments.

For smaller race companies, there is a lot to think about. They already have limited resources and funds, so how will they go ahead in the future? As runners, we will have to play our part. Wearing face coverings at race start and finish areas is likely. Cupless races, which were already starting to happen in the fight against single-use plastics, may advance further. Aid stations will have to be tightly managed to get runners in and out as quick as possible, with minimum interaction.

Start lines are likely to be staggered, with waves of runners going off in intervals, as well as social distancing measures at start lines. Finish lines won’t have customary hugs from friendly volunteers, and medals won’t be hung around your neck.

But in truth, no one really knows yet. Races will look very different, but in what ways and under what restrictions remains to be seen.

Main image by Mircea Iancu from Pixabay