Massachusetts Ultrarunning Groups Adjust as COVID-19 Situation Evolves

Since its first documented cases in November 2019, the novel coronavirus — known as COVID-19 — has spread from China to the rest of the world. During that time, it has brought business, sporting events and many other aspects of everyday life to a halt.

New England has not been immune to the impacts of COVID-19, or its spread. Cases have been identified throughout the region, including 123 cases here in Massachusetts as of today, up from 15 on Thursday, most of them linked to a conference held by biotechnology company Biogen Inc. in downtown Boston. On Tuesday, March 10, Governor Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency in Massachusetts in response to COVID-19. A day later, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic, having infected more than 115,000 people worldwide, more than 4,200 of those cases resulting in death. Since then, both numbers have continued to swell.

Much of the sports world has been brought to a standstill with the National Basketball Association, National Hockey League and Major League Soccer suspending their seasons, the NCAA cancelling its postseason basketball tournaments, the cancellation of the New York City half marathon, and the delay of Major League Baseball’s Opening Day in response to COVID-19. This morning, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh and the Boston Athletic Association announced that the 124th Boston Marathon will be postponed from April 20 to Sept. 14, delaying the massive race that brings around 30,000 runners from around the world to the area and more than $200 million into the local economy.

“We’ve shown before that no matter the challenge to our marathon and our city, we are Boston Strong,” Walsh said in announcing that the road race will go on, albeit at a later date.

Ultrarunning Impacted by COVID-19

Meanwhile, the trail- and ultrarunning community is feeling the impacts of COVID-19, too. Large international races such as the Ultra-Trail Mt. Fuji and the Madeira Island Ultra-Trail have been canceled due to COVID-19, as have some other international ultras and a few in the United States. On Thursday, March 12, the Traprock 50K/17K in Connecticut was canceled by Race Director Brian Roccapriore following an executive order by Governor Ned Lamont banning gatherings of more than 250 people. Traprock had 263 entrants between the two distances.

Many organizations have not canceled races, although some are changing race-day practices to provide more sanitary conditions in a sport that is known for snot-rockets, sweat, heavy breathing, and the sharing of communal food and drink. Notably, Rainshadow Running in Washington announced on March 4 that it had no plans to cancel or reschedule any of its races but would introduce some race-day changes to improve sanitary conditions.

Policies and procedures include things such as required use of hand sanitizer at aid stations, food handling changes such as using tongs and spoons in all food bowls, personal protection equipment like gloves for volunteers, policy changes like requiring runners to open their own water bottles to refill at aid stations, and a reinforcement of our cupless policy, where we will no longer have any reusable or disposable cups at aid stations. Additionally, our race equipment will be fully sanitized before and after each race by staff, and we will be providing hand washing stations at the start/finish area for participants, volunteers, and families,” Rainshadow Running announced.

Massachusetts Race Directors, Organizations are Responding to COVID-19

The ultrarunning calendar is about to heat up in Massachusetts, but COVID-19 is already making an impact. The Trail Animals Running Club (TARC) was prepared to host the To Hale and Back 6-Hour Ultra on March 22 in Westwood, but that race was canceled today after Race Director Josh Katzman spoke with the Westwood Board of Health.

April is slated to be the busiest month of the year for ultras in the Bay State, with Beast Coast Trail Running’s Mt. Toby 50K on April 11; the Davis Square Runners’ 6-Hour Fatass Ultra and the inaugural Plymouth’s Long, Hard and Dirty Ultra on April 18; the Cape Cod Trail Race 50K and the TARC ‘Don’t Run Boston’ 50-mile/50K on April 19; and the TARC Spring Classic 50K on April 25. As of this writing (Friday, March 13), those April events will still take place.

The largest trail-running club in New England, TARC was slated to play host to 10 ultramarathon events in 2020. To Hale and Back was to be its second of the year, with the next two following closely in April. That being the case, preparation for all of those events has ramped up in recent weeks. That preparation has included how to address risks associated with COVID-19.

“We have been looking at other races’ ideas for sure,” Katzman said. “The first one we saw was Rainshadow Running from Washington State. That informed a lot of my thinking about adjustments to our aid station. In a situation like this, where I certainly don’t have the knowledge to understand it in great detail, one thing that I am looking for by learning from other RDs is any general themes/attitudes. My one concern with that, though, is confirmation bias and defaulting to my own prejudice of ‘We will be okay/the race must go on/trail- and ultrarunners are hardcore.’”

Several TARC race directors and volunteers contributed ideas that could be implemented to make race-day conditions safer and more sanitary for participants, volunteers and spectators. Some ideas built upon those of other race organizations while others were new. Many of those ideas were going to be implemented at To Hale and Back, Katzman said. Among them were the following:

  • Asking runners to stay home if they feel ill, even if it’s “just a cold.”
  • Requiring runners to use a hand-washing station prior to accessing the aid station.
  • Using compostable cups to provide water, Tailwind, and soda to be pre-distributed by volunteers into the cups, and having volunteers fill runners’ bottles and bladders from these cups, keeping runners’ hands off of the cups to prevent possible contamination.
  • Requiring runners to remove the caps of their water bottles/bladders and hold them while volunteers fill them from the compostable cups.
  • Using small, compostable cups to distribute all aid station food to prevent runners from reaching into communal bowls of snacks.
  • Requiring volunteers to use non-latex gloves for all food-handling and preparation.
  • Asking runners to bring pre-filled water bottles to the race to minimize the use of cups.
  • Encouraging runners who don’t want to abide by these practices or be slowed down to bring their own fuel and put it in a drop-bag.
  • Altering the TARC standard practice of each runner bringing a communal food or drink item to reduce the number of hands touching an item. Instead, TARC will provide all aid station supplies, and runners are asked to make a donation to their local food pantries.

Regarding the last item, Katzman said the Trail Animals asked runners to make a donation to their local food pantries if possible “as a sign of gratitude for our ability to be able to do incredible things like running in the woods or being able to do little things to help others.” Though the race has been canceled, those donations may be needed even more as COVID-19 disrupts more lives in the days and weeks ahead.

It is likely that many of the items noted above will be implemented at future TARC races; other new ideas may also arise between now and then, some dictated by venue or number of participants.

To Hale and Back had around 150 runners entered, making it far smaller than the large road races and professional and college sporting events that would have packed thousands of people into indoor spaces, increasing the risk of transmitting COVID-19 from person to person had they not been canceled. Local ultramarathons are typically a more intimate environment, ranging from a few dozen people to a few hundred spread out over several miles of trail. That can make the decision for how to proceed less clear-cut.

While To Hale and Back was the first ultramarathon in Massachusetts to be canceled due to COVID-19, others may or may not follow suit. Race directors are monitoring the rapidly changing situation closely, studying actions taken by other organizations such as Rainshadow Running and TARC, communicating with local officials, having internal discussions, and either implementing or preparing to deploy procedural changes on race day.

The Davis Square Runners haven’t canceled their race or group runs which typically draw between a dozen and 35 people, but they notified members that they are following the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s guidelines for public gatherings and also are asking anyone who has cold or flu symptoms to stay home.

South Shore Race Management, which is putting on the inaugural Plymouth’s Long, Hard and Dirty Ultra at Myles Standish State Forest, issued a statement today saying that all state parks are currently closed and it’s too early to say if the race will be canceled. “They MAY not be closed come race day. But, as everyone knows we can not tell for certain what will happen,” the statement said. “As of right now, we ARE planning on Long, Hard, & Dirty to still take place April 18, 2020. As time goes on we will send out updates with as much advance notice as we can.”

Race Director Amy Rusiecki’s Mt. Toby 50Kin April and Chesterfield Gorge Ultra in late May are intimate events, and as of today those races will still take place. She’s not taking COVID-19 lightly, though.

“My events are small, much smaller scale than some of the races/events that are currently cancelling,” Rusiecki noted. “I am staying up to speed on the subject, listening to local, state, and federal guidance, and coordinating with folks in the medical field as well as other RDs (as we can all learn from each other!).

“I’ve been watching other races closely, and have been chatting with many RDs also. I think we can all do better by watching how folks are increasing safety through getting creative.”

While Rusiecki is still studying procedural changes to implement, she said she is preparing for the impact COVID-19 might have on volunteer recruitment.

“I am considering that this current situation may reduce the number of volunteers,” Rusiecki said. “My volunteer coordinators are in the loop, and have been told to not feel concerned if they don’t get as many volunteers as the events need. We may end up in a situation where there are limited volunteers and runners need to be a bit more self-sufficient … we’ll communicate with runners if that’s what ultimately happens.”

‘Additional Time to Plan’

The Berkshire Ultra Running Community for Service (BURCS) will put on six trail ultramarathons this year. Unlike many other organizations who have races rapidly approaching, the BURCS have a bit more time to wait with their first taking place May 30 at Alford Springs. That timetable allows the organization extra time to monitor the COVID-19 situation, learn from other organizations, and implement possible changes.

“We are still planning to hold races as scheduled. Preparations are already under way,” said Benn Griffin, RD for several BURCS events. “Given the gravity of the circumstances, runner safety comes first. Unfortunately, some costs cannot be reabsorbed if postponing to next year. I think given the fact that our races for the most part don’t start until May that will allow us some additional planning time.

“If the outbreak is still widespread, it might impact the ability to hold the races, but right now I am planning on doing the following: hand washing stations at all races, extra hand sanitizer (and) sanitary gloves for all volunteers.”

Thinking Outside the Box

For all of the organizations putting on ultras this year, how to adjust in response to COVID-19 is going to be a day-by-day decision as more information is learned and the situation changes. That might mean more races are canceled, or it might not.

In the meantime, RDs are thinking creatively about how best to handle the situation. For Griffin, that means rethinking the concept of a race entirely.

“One thing that I have seen a few races doing is going to virtual races to limit the amount of people in one place and still allowing people to run,” he said. “I joked about the possibility of all races being able to be completed on Satan’s Sidewalk in preparation for the 66.6-hour (treadmill race) in 2021. But it is appearing that might actually be a reality.”


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