What does the future of road racing look like during a pandemic?

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What does the future of road racing look like during a pandemic?

Step, step, step.

Sara Hall could distinctly hear her feet making contact with the road — every single time — like somebody had attached a mic to them.

It was the first mile of the 2020 London Marathon on Oct. 4, and Hall, 37, had a lonely realization: Silence was going to be the only constant during this race. No fans to scream encouragement at her when she felt sorry for herself, no landscapes to keep her company when she felt lonely on the course. Just her, the 10 other elite runners, and the 1.34-mile (2.15-kilometer) loop that had been cleared for the marathon.

Her husband and coach, Ryan Hall, the only other person in her running bubble, stood by the beginning of the loop, and she looked forward to seeing his face every time she did a lap. When she was seconds away from making her personal best — the sixth-fastest time in U.S. history — he yelled out, “You have it, 40 seconds for the last mile!”

And like some energy force had suddenly taken over her, she grunted and pushed one last time, sprinting the last 150 meters — and 20 seconds — all the way to the finish line. She finished second to Kenya’s Brigid Kosgei, running a 2-hour, 22-minute marathon.

“I would get to this mindset where I’d feel so sorry for myself — like why am I here running this one-mile loop — and then I’d constantly talk to myself: ‘You should be so thankful that you get to participate in a marathon during a global pandemic,’ and that really kept things in perspective,” Hall said.

The coronavirus pandemic has already changed road racing, maybe irrecoverably. It’s a sport that brings together tens of thousands of everyday athletes in tandem with elite runners — on a single course, often for the duration of a day. So while just about every major sport has been able to return to more-or-less similar settings compared to those before a COVID-19 world, it still seems unthinkable to organize a marathon while keeping thousands of people safe. Plus, mass cancellations of races means millions of dollars lost in registration fees and in race-day earnings for organizers, small businesses and the city where the race is held.

After a seven-month hiatus, the London Marathon was the first world major marathon to take place during the coronavirus pandemic. The race was restricted to elite athletes who were put in bubbles, in an athlete-only hotel surrounded by 40 acres for the runners to train for a week before the race. Rapid testing was conducted twice upon arrival and twice during the week of the bubble. The runners and their coaches were given a contact tracing band that turned colors if the runners moved to within six feet of another person.

The race itself was a loop around St. James Park in London, closed to spectators. To prepare, Hall changed her entire training method back home in Arizona, and instead of picking routes that mirrored the typical hills and plateaus of the London course, she trained on looped roads. During the race, Hall was given her own portable bathroom to use. “Imagine that in a pre-COVID race — one has to stave off competition to pee on time,” she said with a laugh afterward.

And for the thousands of non-elite runners? The London Marathon opened up reservations to run virtual races at the same time as the elite athletes — 47,000 spots from 109 countries — and within weeks, it was sold out.

“The marathon-running community really wants this. They want something to hold on to while going through this ordeal,” Hall said.

Virtual racing has been the lifeline of the road racing industry during the pandemic. The New York City Marathon, originally scheduled for Nov. 1, is a virtual race this year, and 27,000 runners will select a course of their choice to complete between Oct. 17 and Nov. 1. Their race will be monitored through live location-sharing technology. While there won’t be a crowned winner with a trophy or prize money, there is a leaderboard that tracks everyone’s virtual results.

Though it’s very different from the road racing experience, people still love sharing their progress and pumping each other up through the process, said Jim Heim, race director for the New York Road Runners.

There has also been more conversation between the elite (or semi-elite) runners and the everyday runners during the pandemic. American long distance runner Stephanie Bruce has been posting videos and photos of her training schedule every week on Instagram to get runners to train with her and to feel connected.

Bruce, who is running the NYC Marathon virtually on Sunday, has picked a three-mile loop in her hometown in Flagstaff, Arizona, and, because she knows the New York race route so well, she has spent time visualizing parts of the three-mile loop as some of the hills and dips that she would have encountered had she run the race through the five boroughs.

“Regardless of how the race went or the result, you get stronger and you learn more about yourself with every training cycle, so with every cycle, you’re building momentum for your own running — that’s how I view the past few months of virtual racing,” Bruce said.

And as small, in-person races are starting to make a comeback — the NYRR organized a pilot race in Central Park with 200 runners at the end of September — the future of road racing will probably look smaller, socially distanced and with a hybrid virtual component, Heim said.

“In marathon running, we just congregate and run together, but how people are organized is changing. Three to four runners per batch, allowing time for runners to get a head start before letting the next batch of runners get to the finish line — it’s very different from what we’ve done historically, but if that’s what we need to do to make a race happen, then that’s what we will do,” Heim said. “Starting small and learning and growing is where we are as a running community.”

But in the meantime, the financial hit to the industry is substantial. Marathon organizers get the vast majority of their revenue from registration fees, and bigger marathons bring in millions of dollars to the cities where they are held. In 2019, 17.6 millions runners registered for a U.S. road race, according to trade group Running USA. The NYRR estimates that the NYC Marathon’s economic impact is more than $400 million a year.

On Wednesday, it was announced that the 2021 Boston Marathon, originally scheduled to take place in April, has been postponed to the fall — which also postpones the ability for the organizers and the city of Boston to make hundreds of millions of dollars. (In 2018, the estimated economic impact to the Boston region was $201 million, according to the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau.)

It will take awhile for race organizers and local economies to dig themselves out of this hole, Heim said.

“We had to take the elevator down, but we’re going to have to take the stairs back up,” Heim said, adding that this saying became the cornerstone of their approach toward the future of road racing.

Despite the complicated future that lies ahead, both amateur runners and elite runners seem to agree on one thing: They’ll do anything in their power to keep doing their sport. If that means virtual races for the time being, or running more than 19 laps of a one-mile loop to finish a race, then that’s what they’re going to do.

“I am going to picture myself running through Queens. I am going to picture First Avenue [being] so loud, like the fans are there to cheer me on, because I know I will come back one day … and just imagine how sweet that feeling is going to be when we can actually line up in Staten Island and take off from there,” Bruce, 36, said. “After everything we’d have been through this year with the virtual marathon, that will make it sweeter when we can get back to the course one day.”

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