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What to Expect as You Return to Races in 2021

Pay attention to emails and communication from the race director.

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With packed fields at Galveston 70.3 and Florida 70.3 the last two weekends, and at Challenge Miami earlier in the spring, it’s official: Racing in the U.S. is back. But, with COVID-19 precautions still in place for the foreseeable future, races will continue to look a little different than they used to.

What can you expect as you return to racing this year?

Both USA Triathlon and Ironman have released guidelines for races, which outline what race directors should do and what athletes can expect:

While the specifics of each race vary by location, because races are governed by the health ordinances and local permitting authorities where they take place, there are a few things you can prepare for and expect at triathlons in the U.S.

  • Masks will likely be required by all spectators and volunteers, and by athletes up to the start and after the finish. Most races are not requiring masks while racing (though in some locations you will need to cover up when approaching an aid station). Expect to wear a mask up to the swim start and dispose of it as you start, and expect to be handed a mask after you finish.
  • Spectators will be limited or, in some cases, not allowed in blocked off areas around transition, start, and finish.
  • Temperature checks and COVID screenings will be implemented for anyone entering those areas around transition, start, and finish.
  • Scheduled times for packet pick-up and gear drop-off will limit the number of athletes gathering at any one time; you can typically choose your time via a race email in advance of race day. Race briefings and expos are likely to be done virtually. Most in-person expos will be either eliminated or heavily limited.
  • Many races will have fewer athletes and caps on how many athletes are permitted. Bike racks and transitions areas will be spaced farther apart, as well as port-a-potties. And (if necessary) shuttle buses will be run at much lower capacity and will require masks.
  • Athletes will start in spaced out rolling starts with limited numbers in increments. (eg. Six athletes going off every 30 seconds.)
  • Aid stations will vary heavily by region and may be severely limited in some places, where athletes are encouraged to be self-supported. In other places, volunteers in gloves and masks will be the only ones allowed to touch food or refill bottles. Much will be pre-packaged or in individual packages. Athletes are encouraged or directed to not gather at aid stations and to space themselves out.
  • Post-race food and festivities will be nearly non-existent for the near future. Athletes are asked not to gather post-finish and to exit the area as quickly as possible. Food will be either pre-packaged or limited.
  • Awards and world championship slots will be done virtually in some cases or you’ll be asked to pick up your award (and claim your championship slot) during a designated time window after the race. Read your email carefully. In order to facilitate the roll down of world championship slots at Ironman events, you likely need to check the box marking that you would like a slot and would choose to take it if you earn it. If athletes do not claim their slots, then the next athlete will be alerted by email.
  • All of this will be true whether you are fully vaccinated or not—at least until some critical mass is hit in the U.S. Race directors have said they do not have the capacity or ability, at this time, to monitor and check vaccination records.

It will be key this year to pay particular attention to the communication from race directors, as things change rapidly, and to exercise patience. As USA Triathlon CEO Rocky Harris noted in the virtual town hall two weeks ago, “Don’t be a jerk” should be the motto for the season.

It’s also key to know that how well these things are implemented will vary by race. While athletes are being asked not to gather at the start, to wait by their transitions until their wave/time is called, and to keep six feet apart, it can become hard to enforce that once everyone starts pushing towards the start line. In some cases, penalties will be given for blatantly disobeying rules. And in all cases these things are simply a matter of risk mitigation, not risk elimination.

RELATED: How Do We Track COVID Spread at Triathlons?

When it comes to the training issues related to returning to racing, coaches have noted concerns about athletes being out of the water for extended periods and a need to practice before diving back into a race situation. Additionally, everyone’s a little rusty—even the pros—so be sure to give yourself a little compassion and flexibility. For more resources, check out:

Triathlete and USA Triathlon hosted a virtual town hall two weeks ago to address some of the questions athletes have about returning to races and what to expect. You can also watch the full video: