The Good and the Bad of Races in the Era of COVID-19

Running has changed a lot in the past year. As gyms closed and opportunities for exercise shrank, hundreds of thousands of Americans turned to running – one of the simplest, most accessible forms of recreation. But with a new crop of runners came a new breed of race experience. While some races have pledged to have in-person events in 2021, many are still relying on remote participation, only offering on-course spots to elite and professional runners.

There are benefits and drawbacks of this new running world. Mistakes have been made, but bridges have been forged. We wanted to reflect a bit on what has been good and bad in the past year of racing. And, while we hope things return to normal soon, we think the past year has moved our sport into a brave new direction.

The Bad

While remote racing has allowed more folks to participate in events, some race directors have taken this as an opportunity to shirk responsibility. Many smaller events are hosting both in-person and remote events, but the latter can produce a truly terrible race experience. From confusing online sign-ups to poorly thought-out training and race materials, some runners are better off saving their money for future in-person events.

And the gear. The gear! So much of racing comes down to bringing home a well-designed t-shirt, jacket, and medal. The events hosting both in-person and remote races have, overwhelmingly, done a bad job at distributing gear to remote participants. We know that this could be an issue of supply and demand. Many of these races partner with independent marketing firms to create and produce t-shirts, and with more participants than before, this might just be a case of not having enough to go around. But if you can’t guarantee a good remote race experiment, why offer it in the first place?

The Good

The lack of in-person races has done a lot to expand race accessibility. Folks from around the country are now able to “run” some of the coolest races in the world. Of course, these runners won’t get to experience the courses themselves. But, to us, running has always felt like an experience of community. Running the Chicago Marathon from Utah might feel a little silly at first, but knowing there are thousands of others out there running the same distance at the same time? That’s pretty special.

Some races have also expanded eligibility, eliminating qualifying times to participate in remote events. Because of this, for the first time ever, Boston Marathon medals will be available to anyone who signs up for the remote event. Previously, only folks with truly incredible race times – a 3:30 maximum for the women’s 18-24 age group – were able to participate. While we might not get the thrill of racing down Boylston Street, we can all now have the pleasure of displaying a finisher medal in our homes.

The Verdict

While remote and socially distanced racing may have eliminated some of our favorite running experiences, it’s opened the door to many new runners. With this sustained enthusiasm, we’ll grow bigger, better, and stronger running communities.

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