2020 was a weird year. As the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the globe, many athletes simply threw in the towel on racing or turned to the virtual world. But, while the pandemic is far from over, there ended up being a few opportunities towards the end of 2020 to actually race—in person.
After months spent developing return to racing guidelines, Ironman kicked off with Ironman 70.3 Arizona in October followed by Ironman Florida and Ironman Cozumel. As expected, the number of triathletes willing to race during a pandemic was far less than a typical field. Both Arizona and Florida hosted less than half of their normal finishers, which didn’t surprise organizers, and the self-selection actually made it easier to distance people and test protocols—though there were no additional limits placed on field size by Ironman. “We recognize that there are athletes who want to race, and there are athletes who are not comfortable yet—which is why we set up the virtual platform so we have other means for people to participate,” said Keats McGonigal, Ironman’s head of operations for North America.
With the right protocols in place, would it be possible to safely pull off a triathlon? And what can we learn for races in 2021?
What Does a “Safe” Race Look Like?
When COVID-19 hit the U.S., Ironman gathered its operations team and global medical board along with local city partners to brainstorm how to manage specific issues at its events. “It was a very collaborative approach,” McGonigal said, “and it’s still evolving—it’s not like, ‘Here’s the plan, away we go.’ We’re continuing to learn things that we then implement as we move through the season.”
The approach, which utilizes mass participation standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO), started with a revamp of pre-race registration. Race briefings were done online and athletes were given a specific time slot to pick up their packets, using touch-free QR codes to access their information. Tem- peratures were taken and volunteers were separated by plexiglass. “The first couple hours of check-in we’d typically see 150 people in line, with lots of people gathering,” McGonigal said of the pre-COVID era. “This [new] process makes it easier because we’re ready for the exact number of athletes, and we can move them through quickly.”
On race morning, mask-wearing athletes entered corrals based on their anticipated swim times, then waited six feet apart for their individual starts. The bike and run went off mostly as normal other than with volunteers wearing masks and gloves at feed stations. At the finish line, athletes picked up their own medals, took off their timing chips, and put a mask on before exiting the area. In Arizona, spectators donned masks (a Tempe directive), but because Florida didn’t have a mask mandate, Ironman decided against allowing finish-line spectators in Panama City Beach.
Pandemic Racing From an Athlete’s Perspective
For some participants, the altered approach actually enhanced the race experience. “The swim start was a more enjoyable process compared to a normal year,” said Mat Hunnicutt, an age-grouper from Bend, Oregon, who raced 70.3 Arizona. “And having more space in transition isn’t something any athlete would complain about. I thought it was a really well-done event focused on just getting back to racing, which was my whole goal.”
Professional triathlete Skye Moench was also eager to race. She finished second at Ironman Florida. “I still feel like I’m developing as an athlete and doing an Ironman is really helpful because you learn something every time,” she said. “Plus, it gave me the opportunity to earn money, represent my sponsors, and to feel like an athlete again.” Leading into Florida, Moench admitted she felt slightly weird about racing, but once the gun went off, everything seemed surprisingly normal. “I felt extremely, extremely safe and I would absolutely race again,” she said. “Ironman really went above and beyond.”