From the Editor’s Desk: Race Coverage During Pandemic a Weird, Welcome Experience

The Midstate Massive Ultra-Trail was the last race I expected to take place during this COVID-19 pandemic-ravaged year, if I’m being honest.

The race takes runners into four states, including a full north-south crossing of Massachusetts on the Midstate Trail. The course crosses numerous sections of public and private lands, requiring a complex web of permits and landowner approvals. For this reason alone, it seemed the Midstate Massive would join 23 other ultramarathon events in Massachusetts this year to be canceled by the pandemic, yet race directors Andy Marx and Rich Mazzola and their team found a way to make it happen. They gained the necessary approvals; put several safety precautions in place, including staggered starts and mandatory mask-wearing at the starting line, finish line, and aid stations; and ultimately beat the odds by having a race.

In doing so, they provided a much-needed moment of near-normalcy after seven months of quiet chaos. The pandemic shutdowns began in mid-March and altered everything in our lives from if/how we work, to childcare and schooling, to travel, trail-racing and so much more. Regardless of our personal situations, we no longer have “normal” days. For many of us, running is supposed to be an outlet to escape the stress of the day, but even that has been hijacked by the pandemic as elements of running have even been stripped from us, whether it be the cancellation of group runs, the cancellation of races, or needing to wear a mask while running.

As a former newspaper sportswriter and editor, reporting on the local trail/ultra community provides me with a feeling of normalcy nearly equal to running. When the pandemic took hold here and wiped out several months of races, that “normal” was altered, too. Sure, I could still write – and I firmly believe some of the best stories I’ve had the opportunity to tell at MassUltra have been written during the pandemic – but the lack of in-person contact with the community has been difficult as the months have gone by without a race to cover.

When I launched MassUltra nearly five years ago in January 2016, I did so in part to scratch the reporting itch that led me to a 12-year career in the newspapers, as well as to get to know better the New England trail/ultra community after moving to Massachusetts from the only state I’d ever lived in, Kansas.

The motivation went deeper than that, though, which I’ve come to realize as the years have gone by. What I discovered on my first group trail run in Kansas back in 2010 remains the same today in Massachusetts: a shared love of running through the woods, up and down mountains, through mud puddles and across creeks and rivers creates a powerful bond that unites our community, regardless of one’s background, language, gender, or political beliefs.

That bond fuels my running, as well as my reporting.

That bond is why I look forward to spending hours on the side of the trail, notepad in one hand and camera in the other, documenting as many races as I can. It’s why I spend so much time scrolling through results of out-of-state ultras just in case you were there – so our community can celebrate your successes. It’s why I’ve spent much of the pandemic working the phones and exchanging emails to tell stories about what members of our community have been doing to make a difference during this difficult time. Your stories matter, and they help keep us connected when we can’t be together.

Phone calls and emails can fill the void for a little while, but there’s something about gathering on race day that is irreplaceable. I know I’ve missed that feeling as the past several months have gone by.

Restoring that feeling is why it was important to me to provide some in-person coverage of the Midstate Massive, even if the way that coverage happened had to change a bit to ensure social distancing and safety took top priority.

It felt weird to wear a mask from the moment I exited my car at the starting line at the Windblown Cross Country Ski Area until the moment I returned to it and shut the door. It felt odd to only wave from a distance to runners like Dane LeBlanc and Norm Sheppard rather than walk right up to them, say “hello,” and wish them luck before they began their journeys. I missed the conversations with volunteers and aid station workers that are such an enjoyable way to pass the time while waiting for runners to arrive further along the course, but social distancing meant that couldn’t happen. It was disheartening to feel the need to avoid the finish line completely in order to give runners extra space as a COVID-19 safety precaution, rather than capturing their final strides on camera and then asking them questions for an article, but that’s what the moment called for.

There will be a time – hopefully sometime in 2021, or 2022 at the latest – when the safety measures won’t be necessary; when I can return to my normal reporting routine and we can all return to our normal race-day routines. As unusual and at times uncomfortable as it was, however, it felt great to be back among the ultra community for a weekend. It was great to see your faces, even if obstructed by masks; to hear your voices, even if somewhat muffled by those masks; and to be together once again on the trails, in the woods, among the mountains, in our happy place where our community’s bond is strongest.

I did not expect the Midstate Massive to actually take place this year, but thank goodness it did. I’ve missed you all. Stay safe out there. I hope to see you on the trails again soon.

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