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Will Major Marathons Actually Come Back This Fall?

Signing up for a race right now is a weird mix of optimism and being in denial

From the grim vantage point of our COVID winter, it seems like a strange time to be contemplating the return of such mega-events. (Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty)
2016 Bank of America Chicago Marathon

Last month, I did Dry January for the first time. My extended sobriety might have impaired my judgment, however, because I ended up submitting an application for the 2021 Chicago Marathon. In case you were distracted by more consequential matters, the window for prospective entries in Chicago opened on January 12 and the race is slated for October 10. Meanwhile, the Boston Athletic Association just announced that the 2021 Boston Marathon is tentatively scheduled for October 11. Not to be outdone, London Marathon race director Hugh Brasher announced that he hopes to see 50,000 people running through the streets of the British capital this fall. If this does end up happening, it would be the largest London Marathon in history. 

From the grim vantage point of our COVID winter, it seems like a strange time to be contemplating the return of such mega-events. (The day after I filled out my Chicago application, the United States recorded its highest single-day death total of the pandemic. In the U.K., things aren’t exactly great either.) Of course, the organizers of major marathons don’t have the luxury of sitting back and waiting. When I interviewed Peter Ciaccia in 2018, while he was still the race director of the NYC Marathon, he told me that the planning for next year’s marathon begins as soon as this year’s marathon ends. The people who put on these behemoth races have to commit early or not at all. 

It’s a little harder to rationalize my own desire to jump the gun. Last March, after several of the big spring marathons were initially postponed until fall, I was surprised at how confident people seemed to be that these races would actually happen. Running Twitter was rife with concerns about managing the heat in a September edition of the Boston Marathon. It all seemed a little naive to me. Wasn’t anyone reading the news? Less than a year later, I’m the first lemming off the cliff. 40,000 people in Grant Park? By October? Sign me up. 

I suspect there’s a double-denialism going on here. My refusal to acknowledge the slim chances of a semi-normal fall marathon season in 2021 is compounded by an unwillingness to accept that, yes, my stupid hobby is actually kind of important to me and not having a race on the calendar leaves me agitated and unmoored. One of the telltale signs of being an addict is the (false) conviction that you can quit at any time. 

Last April, I spoke to Northern Arizona Elite coach Ben Rosario for an article about training during the pandemic and how to approach workouts when you don’t know when you’ll be racing again. Back then, it was still uncertain whether fall marathons would be canceled. Rosario’s advice was that one should always proceed as if future races will, in fact, happen, if only to “get what you need out of them now,” by which he meant not only the motivation to train, but also a more fundamental sense of purpose. I’ve generally believed that the real “value” of races comes from their afterglow, from the opportunity to one day get to bore your grandchildren with a detailed account of ripping down Boylston in your glorious youth. But, as Rosario points out, the psychological benefits of pre-race anticipation are also very real, even if the race itself gets called off. 

Applying for a fall marathon at the moment feels like doubling down on a risky bet, where the initial wager is your fragile hope that the current mass vaccination efforts will have crushed the curve by summer. (For what it’s worth, in 2020, Chicago wasn’t canceled until mid-July, several weeks after the New York City and the already-once-postponed Boston Marathons were called off.) In the press release for the 2021 London Marathon, Brasher also references Britain’s national vaccination program as a grounds for optimism. He suggests that putting on a humongous road race is the perfect way to celebrate our deliverance from the plague.

I agree, but then of course I do. As I’ve said before, I’m a total sucker for these big-city marathons, despite all the valid criticisms about their increasingly prohibitive entry fees and oceanic levels of crappy merchandise. At their best, road races can still provide the in-person communal experience that was already on the wane before the pandemic accelerated the forces of alienation and digital cocooning. It may sound blithe to admit that one of the reasons I am rooting for the end of worldwide catastrophe is that I will get to resume a recreational indulgence, but I’m hopeful that the return of road races will have a restorative effect on our collective psyche. 

Still, it’s hard to be overly optimistic. As the positive COVID case in the wake of last December’s elites-only Marathon Project revealed, even a small event with mandatory PCR testing on a closed course is not going to be 100 percent airtight. When it comes to a mass-participation event, you have to contend with thousands of people traveling to and from the race, not to mention the inevitable clusters of spectators along the route. 

In the end however, the likelihood of there being a large-scale 2021 Chicago Marathon is far more contingent on a dramatic decline in infection rates than on any amount of organizational savvy. There’s a strange, fatalistic comfort in that, just as it’s comforting to have a fall marathon on the horizon—even when it’s just a castle in the air.

Filed To: MarathonCoronavirusEventsRacing
Lead Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty