By Lyle Anderson, RD
Like most of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic hit us hard. We mean this as people, as a company and as members of the racing industry. Our outlook going into 2020 was certain and bright, and within months that outlook was changed drastically. As the shelter-in-place orders continued, we realized that waiting this out wasn’t an option. Like many companies, we tried to pivot to virtual races. For a while this was a great success, but as the pandemic persisted, runners became less interested in this idea and we realized this was only a temporary solution.
So when the state of Utah (where many of our events are held) released a solid plan with threat levels and what would be allowed under those levels, we jumped on the chance to see if there was a way to hold races during the pandemic while also keeping our runners and staff safe. The Bryce Ultras at the end of May was our first opportunity to give it a try.
First, we internally discussed what changes we could put in place to comply with the guidelines laid out by the state of Utah. Once we had a good plan, we presented it to the Forest Service and county officials to make sure the local authorities were also happy with the plan to hold the Bryce Ultras. They told us that we were good as long as we followed the pandemic guidelines. With that, we moved forward with plans for this event.
One of the first things we knew would need to change was race check-in and bib pickup. Normally, we would have these events as part of a racing expo where runners would be encouraged to stay and congregate. We nixed the expo altogether and set up a drive-thru bib pick-up and drop bag drop-off. This allowed us to maintain enough distance between runners, as well as staff. Runners never had to leave their cars, and we eliminated any potential congregating. We used this same setup before the start of the race to allow for race day check-in.
The next challenge we faced was how to keep the start lines free of crowding. Our solution was an hour-long rolling start for each distance. We assigned a timeframe for each distance and runners were allowed to start at any time during that hour. Something we learned quickly, is that most runners preferred to start at the top of the hour. We adjusted as needed to maintain social distancing but realized that this would need to be addressed at future events. Our runners were very supportive and cooperative, even when we needed to adjust things during the event.
Because of the rolling starts and the nature of ultrarunning, we knew crowding on the course wouldn’t be an issue, but what about aid stations? This is another are we knew we would need to take measures to ensure not only social distancing, but hygiene as well. From start to finish, all staff and volunteers were required to wear a face mask and gloves. We also made sure each aid station had a healthy stash of hand sanitizer. Another issue would be, of course, the distribution of food and water. What we decided was to provide pre-packaged food for runners to collect at the aid stations and then eat at their leisure, whether at the aid station or on the course. We also installed a foot pedal system on all of our water jugs so runners could fill their containers completely hands-free. The pre-packaged food was met with disappointment from runners, but they largely agreed that this was the most sanitary option.
We also took extra precautions when it came to crew and pacers. Our solution was to limit the number of crew and pacers that could be with the runner at any given time. Runners were given one pacer bib and one crew member bib. They were allowed one pacer on the course at a time, and one crew member at the aid stations. With cooperation from our runners, this system went smoothly and made social distancing manageable.
Finally, possibly our biggest challenge, was the finish line. We knew we wouldn’t be able to allow for the usual congregating of recovering runners and spectators, and expected this was going to make a very anticlimactic finish. And it did. We did our best to welcome runners in with enthusiasm. Once they crossed the finish line, they were escorted from one station to another to pick up their finisher awards, recovery food and drink, and drop bags. After that, they were encouraged to complete their recovery at their hotel, home or campsite.
Overall, we were very happy with how the event went and learned a lot from the experience. Of course, we are eager to put on another race, but only if we can do it responsibly. What we’ve discovered is that it can be done. It takes quite a bit more work and we can’t provide all the accommodations we usually do, like a big expo or a fun, crowded finish line, but runners can come and complete a race after months and months of training. This might have been the most rewarding part.
Like always, there is room for improvement. As we move forward in this year of upheaval, we look to our future events with confidence knowing that we can safely host a race. We still have a lot to learn, but we finally feel we can move forward and that, right now, is pretty invaluable.