By Shalini Kovach, RD
On May 15 I had a message from the county parks department arrive in my inbox. With a bit of trepidation, I opened the email to find out that I’d officially received the greenlight to host the Dark 2 Dawn Night Trail Race on June 28. My enthusiasm to be able to hold the race was followed by dread. Not because I didn’t want to do it, but simply because of the hefty task that lay ahead: to ensure I could deliver a safe event for runners and volunteers while the pandemic still loomed large over our heads.
Under normal circumstances, Dark 2 Dawn is a big party. We have live music, runners are accompanied by friends and family members, and people camp and hang out overnight. And since the race starts at midnight and runs for six hours until daybreak, it’s usually followed by a big breakfast buffet and awards ceremony. Not this year. After numerous conversations with fellow race directors and runners in the community, I decided to pull my big girl panties up a little higher and make some plans.
My “book of protocols and guidelines” for the race started out by eliminating all of the above. Instead, runners could look forward to the exciting addition of extra waivers, no spectators, staggered starts, socially distanced drop bag accessibility and limited food selection at the aid station, with everything in individual, single-use, biodegradable containers.
Our events have been cupless for the past five years, so that was a plus. I had to change the start/finish location for the race to increase the distance between runners, and we required masks for packet pickup. Social distancing was implemented throughout the event. The post-race breakfast buffet became a simple affair with pre-packaged, grab-and-go bars and fruit, after which runners were expected to head home. And if you aren’t already tired of reading this, you probably don’t want to know how exasperating it felt to make sure all the guidelines were actually put into practice and properly followed.
Why bother? That’s a question I’ve struggled with myself as a race director. But I’m a runner first, and if I know one thing to be true of the ultrarunning community, it’s the fact that we’re a resilient breed of human beings and our faith in racing cannot be deterred by a list of protocols and guidelines. The itch to race is stronger than ever with us!
So, I followed that runner’s instinct and moved ahead with the race. I’m not going to lie: the oddity of the situation hit me hard when I didn’t recognize runners behind their masks and was unable to give them a hug or a high five as they came bounding across the finish line covered in sweat and dirt, elated to have finished the race. But I was still there at the finish line, with my own mask on, cowbells in both hands, cheering as hard as I could and witnessing the glimmer of joy, exhaustion and hope, knowing we are all in this together. Just like that, all the hoops I’d had to jump through — and the uncertainty and second guessing — was absolutely worth it.
The world of ultrarunning will never be the same. We all continue to listen, learn, unlearn and roll with the punches, and as this pandemic continues to evolve, so do we. But one thing is for sure: the sheer joy of that finish line will never change.