Vermonters pride themselves on living in the nation’s “Healthiest State.”
But right now they’re scrambling to pencil in make-up dates for running events after the coronavirus brought things to a standstill.
Organizers announced Friday that the 32nd Vermont City Marathon, originally scheduled for May 24, will now take place Oct. 25. The decision was made one day after the 37th Annual Corporate Cup Challenge and State Agency Race was moved from May 7 to the fall. Hundreds of other high-profile races have also been cancelled or postponed, with Boston Marathon officials switching their April 20 date to Sept. 14.
When Vermont Gov. Phil Scott declared a state of emergency March 13, he prohibited non-essential gatherings of 250 or more people for a month. As a result, RunVermont’s Half Marathon Unplugged was rescheduled from April 11 to the earliest summer date available. RunVermont’s flagship race, the VCM, is far and away the biggest competition in the state. The event starts and finishes in downtown Burlington, drawing roughly 1,500 volunteers, 7,500 runners and 20,000 spectators each years.
RunVermont Executive Director Peter Delany says his non-profit organization is trying to be as accomodating as possible, although they are not offering refunds. Participants can convert the registration fee into a tax-deductible donation, which RunVermont will direct toward its youth programs. This year’s VCM entrants can also compete remotely with the help of social-fitness networks like Garmin or Strava that use GPS data to track runners. A third option is to defer the registration. Relay competitors have the opportunity for a one-year deferral, while marathoners can elect to take part in either 2021 or 2022.
Delaney worked for 28 years at Smuggler’s Notch Resort before spending the last 11 years at RunVermont. He’s faced his share of obstacles, including in 2016 when the VCM was cancelled mid-race because of the heat. But even compared to that, this 2020 situation may take the cake.
Delaney answered a range of questions Friday as he braces for a new world of virtual results and quiet Queen City streets on Memorial Day Weekend:
TA: Can you run through the timetable the last few weeks? I don’t know how long this potential for postponement has been on the radar for you guys.
Delaney: “We were watching the development like everyone else since late February. And as we got into March we began to see some early-March events and having to wrestle with it. And then we’ve followed the developments with the Boston Marathon quite closely and we were talking to a lot of people inside the industry. We consulted with our medical team. There’s just an awful lot of pieces that go into it. So we were busy touching a lot of different bases.”
TA: You’re talking about the U.S, but the international phenomenon must be similar. It seems like these sort of events all across the world are being cancelled or postponed.
Delaney: “Sure. The first ones to roll were the Paris Half-Marathon, the Rome Marathon was cancelled, the London Marathon has been postponed and moved back to October. So it’s not just what we’re looking at in the U.S. Certainly that was most relevant to us. But you could see it coming as the situations were developing overseas. We watched what went on with the Tokyo Marathon and we looked at a lot of options for what would the race look like. I watched the Boston Marathon press conference and all the reporters asked them, ‘Did you consider a race without spectators?’ And I think they responded very appropriately: ‘We did for about three seconds, because that would not be the Boston Marathon.’ And I think that’s probably true of most races.”
TA: Obviously everyone in your shoes hates to completely cancel an event. Was the idea of a cancellation on the table at some point for you guys? Or does it seem as though most marathon organizers are trying to find a suitable rain date or a postponement date?
Delaney: “I think everyone wants to find a postponement date because cancellation for small non-profits organizations like ours has some fairly ominous outcomes. So the ability to postpone and keep rolling is important to us. For races that are coming up still in the June and July timeframe, if they’re not able to go, it’s going to get tougher. Because the fall calendar has already been newly repopulated.”
TA: In terms of the Oct. 25 date, at a quick glance you’ve got the Leaf Peepers Half-Marathon on Oct. 4 and the Green Mountain Marathon is Oct. 18. So Oct. 25 seems like it actually does work pretty well. Weather-wise, usually there’s not a ton of snow at that point.
Delaney: “Hopefully we won’t have to worry about excessive heat on Oct. 25. But there’s a lot more that goes into it besides ‘What are the other races?’ We didn’t want to compete with another race date like New York City Marathon or Philly or Hartford. And obviously with Boston moving to September, there’s going to be a lot of competition for runners in the fall. But just as important, perhaps, is what’s the capacity of our local community? And what’s the availability in hotels and the city venues and all those kind of things? Those are are all pretty important considerations in making the decisions. And we touched bases with the hotel community three weeks ago.”
TA: During your tenure at RunVermont, do you feel like you’ve seen everything but the kitchen sink with excess heat and then you’ve got these localized storms that roll through?
Delaney: “Every time I say that I think I’ve seen everything, I regret the statement. So I avoid that statement in totality now.”
TA: In terms of the people really affected by this, one of the first groups I thought of were the Hall of Fame racers. I forget exactly how many runners that group is at now, but there is quite a dedicated crew that have done this almost every year.
Delaney: “Yeah, there is. I think we have around four who are still actively running and their streak would be 32 years. I anticipate that they’ll be there in October, but we haven’t heard from them yet.”
TA: “With runners in general, it’s sort of the exception to have somebody just sign up for a marathon out of the blue. It seems like the population you’re dealing with is a pretty Type-A, very organized group of participants, right?
Delaney: “I would say there’s a fair number who would fit that category. But we’ve got runners from all over the spectrum. There’s people that will register the day before the race. And there’s people that want to register a year before the race. And obviously in the circumstances that we’re all living in right now, it’s a very dynamic and a very fluid conversation.”
TA: People who are not marathon runners, they may not realize that most of the dedicated runners had already started training for the Vermont City Marathon. This isn’t just a four-week training plan.
Delaney: “The training plan is 18 weeks, so that would have commenced at the end of January.”
TA: Do you get the sense that a lot of those people will just keep on training? Or they’ll find some other events to do?
Delaney: “I’d be better able to answer that question in a week or so when I see what the registrants select for options. But some industry information indicates that an awful lot of people have moved into virtual races where they run where they are on a given date and then submit their results. We’ve tried to offer as many options as possible: A straight move-your-registration to October, which we’ll do automatically. Or they can run a virtual race. And we’ll be determining probably next week what the time window is that we’ll accept virtual race results for. They can defer their race to a subsequent year, and we expanded that to a two-year window for the marathon runners. So we’re trying to be as flexible as we can be, and still be able to provide a race.”
TA: For someone who doesn’t know much about those virtual races, can you essentially go out and map out any 26.2-mile course? Is elevation gain a factor or is there any criteria?
Delaney: “We would typically accept the result. If somebody goes out and runs their course — whatever they select it to be — and have Strava results or Garmin results. They send us a screenshot of that, or however they want to provide that documentation. They submit that to us and we’ll put it into our results file.”
TA: Between Peloton and all these other apps, even before the coronavirus, have virtual races been taking off lately?
Delaney: “Virtual races first came on the scene maybe five years ago. They’ve been gaining a lot of momentum in the last year-and-a-half, two years. And I suspect they may just about explode here with these circumstances.”
TA: This is sort of new territory, but are there a few challenges that stand out with the virtual races? Do you just learn as you go?
Delaney: “I think there are some races that are pretty experienced with it and we’re learning from them. Obviously there’s going to be a learning curve for everybody. The one challenge is if virtual runners are looking to compete for awards, cash prizes, things like that. That’s probably not something that we’re ready to accept yet.”
TA: This is pretty recent news, but how about the reaction? Is there any way to characterize the feedback you’ve heard so far about this?
Delaney: “It’s just a few hours old. But I’d say the vast majority of people that we’re hearing from are just asking questions for clarification. They’re wanting to know details on how to defer or how to engage with the virtual race. I would say that most of the people opened their note to us with, ‘Thank you for keeping us informed and thank you for keeping us safe.’”
TA: Were there some runners who were traveling extreme distances? They’ve probably had to cancel their travel plans, but it was far enough ahead of time that it seems manageable.
Delaney: “Those who may be coming from overseas, that’s only a handful: maybe a dozen or two. So we haven’t really heard from those folks. For domestic travel, the vast majority of our runners are more within the 8-to-10-hour drive time. Certainly there are people who fly in from all over the county. But I think that pushing back will help those folks, especially given what the airlines are doing with some of their practices.”
TA: Late October is usually a nice time to run in Vermont, especially after you’ve run through those hot spells.
Delaney: “Fall races are very popular. The fall calendar has probably got more races than the spring calendar. And certainly people would rather start their training cycle in the summer, targeting a fall race. So we’ll see. Maybe we’ll benefit by the move? But right now we’re hopeful that the entire country — if not the world — is going to settle out sooner rather than later so that we can all at least find a new version normal.”