The 50th New York City Marathon was scheduled to take place on Nov. 1. On Wednesday, it was canceled. On the one hand, of course the largest marathon in the world, with more than 50,000 runners, slated to take place in the former national epicenter of the pandemic during the season in which the virus might surge, was canceled. On the other hand, aren’t the outdoors, where marathons happen … sort of a safe place to be?
As someone who had spent a lot of time and money gaining entry to the marathon through New York Road Runners’ entry process, the possible-OK-ness of large outdoor group events is certainly something I had been holding onto! Though, also, as a full-time coronavirus reporter and former host of a podcast about running, I really knew better than to think that the largest marathon in the world could be held safely this November. Still, just in case, I had been sorting through training plan options. I was secretly picturing a race with, say, staggered start times, socially distanced water stations, and people with whistles to blow in case anyone got too close to one another. It was just too appealing to not consider. But the fact that Wednesday’s cancellation underscores is: Gigantic outdoor sporting events of any kind involve a massive amount of interaction beyond the gigantic outdoor sporting event itself.
The marathon basically involves turning New York City into a stadium, of sorts, as conversations that I had both before the coronavirus and Wednesday with the race’s director, Jim Heim, made clear. Around 20 miles of streets, plus five bridges, shut down for runners; only the last little bit of the race happens in a park. The marathon is preceded by an all-night scramble to set up barricades, aid stations where runners can grab water and food, and the start village where runners congregate before heading to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in “corrals.” Before runners even start the race, they might use one of hundreds and hundreds of port-a-potties; while these don’t flush and therefore are less capable of flinging possibly coronavirus-laden poop particles into the air … breathing and excreting in a tiny plastic box that, seconds after you leave, someone else will hurry into doesn’t sound ideal. Oh, and before all that, runners have to get to Staten Island where the race starts, via the ferry and then one of 800 buses.
All of this helps explain why a safe version of the race would be impossible to pull off—the regular race is already quite difficult to pull off. Heim speculated, for instance, that they’d have to quadruple transportation to get everyone to the start while also distancing them. And he noted that during the race, there are hundreds of medical workers plus 50 private ambulances standing by. Not only would first aid care due to running injuries force people to break social distancing, but that’s a lot of resources to borrow during an unpredictable pandemic, he noted. Then, there’s the dense crowds of spectators. Also, most of the runners running are not actually from New York, which would mean dealing with a moving target of travel and quarantine restrictions.
Part of what fueled my personal delusion that the NYC Marathon might happen is the fact that there are some races going on right now. Vacation Races has started doing a few in-person “small group” races, involving modified courses and unstaffed aid stations. They primarily take place in the dead of night. There are no spectators, and so that they may socially distance, runners don’t start all at once, but in groups of 50. Apparently it takes an awful lot of modifications to make an outdoor activity safe, including removing many of the aspects like competition and after-parties that made running a destination race so appealing in the first place.
It’s comical to imagine a lot of those modifications at the largest marathon in the world. If the NYC Marathon implemented staggered starts of very small groups, “we’d be starting runners for a week or so to get them all across the line,” says Heim. But even smaller races are struggling to think through how a modified race could make sense for them. “How do we maintain the spirit of the race while having the event safely?” asks my colleague Meg Wiegand. She’s the volunteer coordinator of Devil Dog, a series of ultramarathons that is currently “penciled in” for this December, while Wiegand and others try to solve small-scale versions of what the New York City Marathon couldn’t solve. “I rationally know it’s going to be tough to have a race this year,” says Wiegand, “but I keep hoping that if we just beat this puzzle piece into submission, all the pieces will fall into place.”
The ongoing cancellation of races from the NYC Marathon to ones held in the woods bursts a very specific delusion for me, as someone who finds running so important: I thought we might be making enough progress with the virus that we could get back the events we were forced to give up. As we learn things about the virus, we are bending our actions, our setups, our traditions, to accommodate a new standard of safety; I keep hoping that we’ll be able to do that while also not mutating them to the point that they’re no longer recognizable (the marathon, now, will be virtual, which—not the same). In New York, we’re in a phase of reopening where we once again have barber shops and restaurants, albeit modified; it’s comforting to muse that things might progress linearly from here, and to think about the plans I could start making if they did. I know from watching other states’ spikes in coronavirus cases as things reopen that progress will invariably stall (and reopening could very well slide back, as New York’s governor has already threatened). I know that some things are, for now, simply too full of logistics, that instances of normalcy in the next year will be exceedingly hard-won (or highly paid-for) exceptions. But it is still very hard to feel it, particularly when it comes to holding out hope for things I love.