Like tiny flower buds in early spring, we are seeing the signs of a racing season getting ready to emerge. COVID-19 racing guidelines have been published by most of the main endurance sport organizations; race directors are finding creative ways to make in-person racing safe; and athletes are joining in groups once again.
Some running races returned as early as May, and several of our No Limits Athletes have raced in-person events. But before we get too excited and press our best race kits, we need to prepare for a new normal of racing. These early glimmers have demonstrated that the 2020 season will look significantly different than anything we’ve experienced.
In recent years many of us have gotten used to racing with modern conveniences like aid stations; volunteers to guide us through the course; crews to feed us; and neutral gear support. Unfortunately, social distancing measures will make many of these amenities impossible—let alone the socializing before and after an event.
It’s easy to focus on what we’re missing, but the new reality does afford opportunities that we wouldn’t have otherwise. Races will be simpler, harkening back to the roots of endurance sport, and helping us develop a new appreciation for the early racers who took on these challenges, often alone. The 2020 season is your opportunity to step off the theme park ride for a season, and enter the wild west of endurance sport! Let’s be pioneers together!
This article focuses on tips for returning to endurance racing, plus additional resources, so each of us can prepare in training for the changes ahead. The tips below are necessarily general, as the unique circumstances of your particular race will depend upon:
Safety precautions and gathering size differs from state to state, and sometimes from city to city.
Size of the event
Smaller events are going to find it more manageable to execute safety guidelines.
Type of event
There will be variations based on triathlon, road running, trail running, or cycling.
Duration of the event
From 5k to 200 miles, there will be different considerations about how you will need to be prepared.
It’s not possible for a single article to account for the unique circumstances for all the varied races we do. So, see this as the start of thinking about the details for your preparation.
How to Be Your Own Aid Station
We’ve gotten used to “niceties” when we race, but now it’s time to strip down to the raw essentials. Whether you’re heading out for a PR by yourself or participating in a race with others, you’ll want to consider what you need, and how you’ll pack it.
- Enough calories, hydration and electrolytes (plus a bit more for “emergency”) to sustain your energy throughout the event
- anti-chafe, foot care, and sunscreen
- For cycling or triathlon: tools and flat kit. I strongly recommend at least 2 tubes and 3 CO2, especially for longer races. Bring a bike tool in case you need to tighten or adjust things. Remember: races may not have any SAG. You need to prepare for multiple issues with your equipment.
- Hand sanitizer or wipes
- Mask or buff (not necessarily to wear during the race, but you will very likely be asked to wear it before and after)
- Eye protection
- Basic first aid kit
- In Case Sh*t Happens Bag. This is a bag of stuff you may need if things go off the rails a bit. I like to bring tums, extra contacts, additional electrolytes, and a caffeine supply.
- For trail or races in more isolated terrain, you need an emergency blanket or bivvy.
- For races that will last all day and into the night, you may need warmer clothing options (pending weather).
- Water filter
Given the logistics of your race, you will likely add to or subtract from this list, but I hope it gets you thinking about what is needed versus what is not. For example, some of these items may not be necessary for shorter races, such as a 5k or a sprint triathlon. But for long course triathlon or trail ultramarathon, you will likely want some variation of most of the things on this list.
KISS – Keep It Simple and Store
Once you determine what you absolutely must have, you can work on simplifying it and storing it.
For example, if you normally like to get your calories from a wide variety of sources, try to streamline that. A concentrated bottle of calories can be super easy to make and store, and can be especially useful for triathletes and cyclists. (Not sure how to make a concentrated bottle? Here’s a video for you.)
A hydration vest can be a great solution to store everything I listed in #2 – plus some. You might also consider having two hydration vests, bladders, or multiple bottles, so you can easily swap them out at transition or crew/drop bag stations.
For example, in triathlon, you could use one vest on the bike and another for the run, fully or partially freezing the second one so that the water is cooler by the time you get to it. You can also easily separate out the nutrition you need for the bike and the run. For running (road or trail), you could do something similar if there are crew/drop bag stations along the route.
Note that if you opt to freeze a second bladder for your vest, MAKE SURE to practice in training, so you know about how long the vest needs to thaw. Otherwise, you won’t be able to get fluid through the straw! You can also use multiple bottles, and freeze the bottles you plan to use later in the race, leaving them in transition (triathlon) or at crew/drop bag stations (trail/running).
If you aren’t the type of person who usually reads the race guidelines, now is most definitely the time to start. There will be NEW approaches to almost all facets of pre-race activities. The following list includes the patterns I’m observing for the races that have happened thus far, discussions among race directors, and guidelines from various organizations (such as USA Triathlon, USA Cycling and RRCA):
Bib pickup: The larger the event, the more likely this will be spaced across several days. Some races may have specific times for check-in based on wave, bib number, alphabet, etc. But, don’t expect to be able to pick up a packet on race morning. Even in smaller races, race directors are requiring packet pickup at least the day before.
Bring your own pen to pick up in case you need to sign something, as well as hand sanitizers or wipes, and a mask.
Body marking (triathlon)
You may be asked to do your own body marking. Go old school and get a sharpie. You can personalize an epic smiley face for your calf.
Expect pre-race meetings to go online.
There will be efforts in place to maximize social distancing. Respect these efforts, as social distancing is still our #1 preventative measure.
You will likely be required to wear a mask during pre-race preparation, in the transition area, at the start line, and after the race. From what I’ve seen, masks likely won’t be required during races. However, the athlete guide will be the final word on that.
Depending on the size and resources of the race, some races may institute temperature checks and pre-race questionnaires about your health symptoms within the past 24-72 hours, as well as any risk of exposure you’ve had within the past 14 days.
Most likely, races will not offer a morning clothes drop, so develop a plan to bring only that which you truly need.
How a race executes the start line will differ depending on the size and type of race. For the run races I’ve seen, they are using a mix of staggered starts with social distancing.
The start of the Fort Yargo Ultra grouped racers into packs of 10, with social distancing done in pairs and then rows. The waves each started five minutes apart from each other. Triathlons will likely feature time-trial starts, having athletes distanced at the start, entering the water in groups of 2 or 3 (depending on how long the start line is).
The larger the race, the more challenging the start line becomes. For triathlon, the added challenge will be the transition area. This may mean limited fields, or significantly larger transition areas. In this case, you should expect to have to go further to get through transition.
Some races are proposing staggered start times for multiple waves. For example, Ironman Maryland and Eagleman, which will be on the same day/course, may have different start times for the 140.6 and the 70.3. Please note: this is not yet an official change, but a possible solution to limit the number of people at the start. I offer it as an example of changes you might expect.
Once the race begins, athletes will need to be prepared to be self-sufficient for much of our needs. Many races are instituting limits in the number and type of aid stations and volunteers to minimize touchpoints. It is also quite likely that most larger races will limit spectators, at least at the “bottlenecks” on course like transition, aid stations, and the finish line. Expect that any and all personal contact will be eliminated between volunteers and racers, and among racers. Expect self-service aid stations, no wetsuit strippers, no changing tents, and the like.
Aid Stations will likely be self-service. For example, Bryce Canyon 100 miler, which happened on May 30-31, had their usual number of aid stations. However, they were all self-service. Consider how you will handle the logistics and refill your water. Because every athlete will be coming through the stations touching, snotting, and coughing, you should most certainly use hand sanitizer and wipes, which may require you to bring some in a Ziploc bag.
For triathlon, self-service aid stations on the bike will require that you get off and refill your bottles. So, depending on the length of your race, you may want to game out whether it is better to try to bring a vest with all your hydration, or take the time to stop and refill. Flatter courses may be more conducive to the former solution, while hillier courses may be more conducive to the latter (to cut the weight you carry as you climb). The hotter the race, the more you will want to plan to stop.
It is never a good solution to restrict hydration or calories, which are definitely need-to-have, not nice-to-have.
For bathrooms, be sure to have hand sanitizers and wipes. You may also want to wear a mask in bathrooms or port-o-potties.
Be mindful when passing other athletes. Most race guidelines are advising athletes to maintain social distancing during passes, while some are advising to have a mask to wear in cases when social distancing cannot be maintained during a pass (or close starting corral). If you typically spit or blow snot rockets, you should restrict this behavior completely and bring a handkerchief or similar for this purpose.
Don’t expect any fanfare after the race. Embrace the fact that the race will be stripped to its raw elements! Bring your own post-race food so you can refuel as soon as possible after finish, as most races (if not all) will drop the post-race food table. Some races, however, are offering vouchers to get food in town, so check your athlete guide for this information.
You will very likely be expected to wear a mask after the race—bring one! If you wore a buff or bandana during the race, this might mean you need to pack a clean one for afterwards. You should also be prepared to pack out your own trash, as some facilities may have limited service. Bring a bag for this purpose.
Check the website or Facebook page of your race periodically to see what specific measures they will be taking. As news changes rapidly, I recommend checking about once weekly (and closer as the race nears) to see if there are updates. Adjust the choices you make in training to adapt to what the race logistics will be.
Please note that none of these precautions will make race day risk-free. I have counseled my athletes to consider what their risk tolerance is and make the decision to race – or not – based on what works for them.
As with all race specifics, we can train for these details so we are prepared for what the day will bring. While racing may be different, this offers each of us an opportunity to embrace the key basics of what we love about endurance sport: pushing the limits of our body to learn about life.
Be safe, have fun, and keep on training—and racing—with gratitude!
RRCA Guidelines for Race Directors (of interest here for athletes is the section on “best practices for runners” and section # 7 – real examples of races with social distancing):