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After a year of physical distancing and race cancellations, many triathletes are eager to get back into the racing scene in 2021. But even with an approved vaccine, experts warn it may be a while before things really get back to normal–especially when it comes to mass participation events like races. Though vaccination is underway in the United States, supply is limited and it’s possible that herd immunity—the point at which the vast majority of the population is vaccinated, lowering the amount of viral spread—may not be achieved until summer or autumn of 2021.
Until then, it’s possible–even likely–outbreaks will occur and events will be canceled, just as they were in 2020. Yet, many races are planning to move forward, albeit tentatively, and athletes are left wondering if it’s worth registering for a race for 2021. Some have already signed up for a full calendar of racing, while others are taking a wait-and-see approach. Should you sign up for a 2021 race? Here are a few factors to consider before you sign up.
Even if you’re vaccinated, you can still potentially spread COVID-19.
It’s important to note that experts are not yet sure if the the vaccine blocks infection and spread entirely. What they know definitively at this point is only that it makes serious illness less likely; you may still be able to spread COVID-19 even with the vaccine. And even if you are vaccinated, not everyone else around you will be, either because they don’t have access to it yet or because they refuse to get it.
Vaccination isn’t an immediate fix.
Don’t expect to be able to hop into a race with bulletproof immunity the weekend after getting your injection. The Centers for Disease Control also says it takes a few weeks after vaccination is completed for the body to build immunity. For best results, hold off on racing until three weeks after you have completed all rounds of your vaccination (most of the approved COVID vaccines require more than one shot, spaced 21 to 28 days apart, for effectiveness).
Outbreaks might still happen for a while.
Herd immunity might be slower in some areas than others, whether due to supply shortages or a population’s resistance to getting vaccinated. In those areas, large gatherings like races could become superspreader events, where a single infected individual can infect an unusually high number of secondary cases. Though outdoor events are thought to carry less risk than those held indoors, several superspreader incidents have been linked back to events held outside.
There are recommendations, but not regulations, for safer events.
Earlier this year, USA Triathlon launched their Safe Return to Multisport Initiative, which included recommendations for race directors to work toward safely re-launching events. These guidelines include physical distancing protocols, sanitation guidelines, and virtual options for pre-race meetings. However, these are recommendations, and not all races will follow such guidelines. Additionally, some cities or municipalities may not require these guidelines to be followed, or may require additional rules to be put in place. Visit the race’s website to review the safety measures your race is taking; if none are posted, contact the race director.
Some elements of race day are riskier than others.
Consider all elements of the race day experience. Will you be required to board a shuttle for a point-to-point race, and if so, will safety procedures, like masks and open windows, be followed? What about the start line? A race with a limited number of participants, enforced physical distancing, and staggered starts will likely be safer than a larger event with a crowded mass start.
You might not get the full race experience.
Logistical changes might alter fundamental elements of the race experience: the route, the start time, availability of aid stations, and even whether spectators are allowed on the course. These changes may be outlined well in advance of the race, or changed at the last minute. If these changes could affect your ability to race well or enjoy the experience, you may want to reconsider your race plans.
If your race is canceled, will you get your money back?
In 2020, race cancellations and refunds caused many a headache for race directors and athletes. As a result, some races have adopted generous refund policies for 2021 events, guaranteeing a full return of race fees. Others will apply a partial refund, while some will only allow athletes to defer to the following year. A few:
Ironman: Registered athletes for events that are cancelled due to COVID-19 are automatically deferred to the same race the following year.
Rock’n’Roll Marathon Series: Athletes can defer to a different 2021 race in another city or the same race for 2022.
Challenge Family: Full refunds for canceled races.
HITS: Participants given the option of receiving a refund of their registration fee or transferring to a later HITS race.
New York Road Runners: Athletes will have the option to choose a full refund for entry fee or defer entry to the 2022 event.
If you get sick, will you get your money back?
Unless your race offers a registration insurance policy and you opt in to this policy (usually by paying an additional fee at registration), it’s likely you won’t get a refund or deferral if you have to withdraw from the race due to COVID infection or long-term effects.
Can you rearrange your plans if a race is postponed?
If your employer requires lengthy advance notice for time off, consider whether you have the flexibility to participate in a race on a different weekend. As we saw in 2020, events in the spring could be pushed back to summer or fall at the last minute.
A local event might be better than a destination race.
Just because a race says it’s going to happen on a certain date doesn’t mean it will actually happen. In October 2020, Ironman hosted a successful 70.3 race in Tempe, Arizona, only to cancel the full Ironman in November. Community spread dictates whether cities approve permits for an event, and those can be pulled in the days (and sometimes, even hours) before an event. This makes a compelling case for racing locally to avoid sunk costs on flights, hotel reservations, and bike transport. Additionally, travel adds an extra level of risk and potential community spread. Most athletes right now feel more comfortable participating in a race they can drive to than getting on a plane and adding all the protocols that come with that.
Should you sign up for a 2021 race? The bottom line.
If we had a crystal ball, we’d be able to confidently say when everyone could feel safe racing again. Then again, if we had a crystal ball, we also would have avoided signing up for races in 2020. The future is uncertain, to say the least, but there are reasons to be optimistic about the racing calendar for 2021. If you’re thinking about signing up for a 2021 race, review the details provided on the website, including safety protocols, and cancellation policies—if this information isn’t provided, contact the race via e-mail or telephone with your questions. If you want to hedge your bets, opt for a race with a clear COVID cancellation policy and full refunds. Consider registration insurance, if it’s offered. And above all, be flexible—races in 2021 may not look exactly as they did before the pandemic, but it’s surely better than no racing at all.