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Will Triathlons Come Back This Year? What Will They Look Like?

As the world tries to limit the spread and fatality rate of the COVID-19 pandemic, race directors grapple with the possibility of no mass events in 2020.

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Let’s get the first thing out of the way: No, there is no definitive word yet on when races will resume as normal or if the big events will happen later this fall.

“Our inability to give concrete answers isn’t because we have concrete answers and won’t tell them,” said Andrew Messick, CEO of Ironman—which he believes triathletes understand in the current situation.

Both Rocky Harris, CEO of USA Triathlon, and Messick say they’re preparing for both the best- and the worst-case scenarios.

The best case? Some racing resumes by July and then they’re able to roll out more races as restrictions are lifted in different regions.

The worst case? There’s no real racing for the rest of 2020.

“Racing, and all activities, will come back in phases,” said Harris.

Now the second thing is: What will those races look like when they come back?

USAT is in the process of developing a set of guidelines for race directors to follow in a post-COVID racing world, said Harris. Those guidelines would essentially establish phases that mirror the federal CDC guidelines for gradually reopening society. Right now, we’re in phase one and there are no races happening. Phase two would allow some restrictions to be lifted and phase three would allow more. Additionally, the idea is to allow some flexibility within the protocols for variation between states.

That may include everything from recommendations on how to clean equipment to informing athletes they have to do body marking at home beforehand.

“Once a state makes a decision, then they can take a safe racing plan to the authorities and say, ‘We’re prepared to have a safe race,’” said Harris. USAT is also putting together resources to help athletes get back to racing safely. For instance, getting ready for a swim when very few triathletes have had pool access.

Ironman has also been preparing its own protocols for how it will run races in the future and what those will look like: smaller fields, longer wave starts, fewer aid stations, more virtual athlete briefings.

Neither USAT nor Ironman are in the business of determining when restrictions should be lifted. Both say their processes will follow federal, state, and local public health guidelines. In most places, that means certain parameters on testing or hospitalizations have to be met before restrictions are lifted on high-risk businesses and gatherings. For example, the above mentioned federal guidelines suggest gatherings of 50 people or more be avoided in phase two and that phase two can only be reached once a region twice has a 14-day period of downward trajectory in new COVID-19 cases.

What USAT and Ironman are attempting to do, though, is preemptively address concerns about their events being high-risk by trying to find a way to have races sooner rather than later within the social distancing era.

“What does a post-COVID race look like? What do we need to be doing?” said Messick.

For Ironman, this comes down to five things:

  • education
  • density reduction
  • minimizing touchpoints
  • athlete self-reliance
  • screening

What those things mean on a practical level is first making sure everyone (athletes, volunteers, race staff) knows the distancing guidelines and best practices via signage and educational materials. Then, it means decreasing the amount of people at any given point with longer start periods and wider chutes, maybe places for people to wait for their start not in a corral.

To get an idea of what this might look like, you can see RunSignUp’s mathematical modeling of bottlenecks at race starts. They anticipate, following social distancing guidelines, it would take about three minutes to clear 100 people through a much larger start area—and then you’d have to fill it again with another 100 people.

Yes, this may simply require smaller race fields. (The thing triathlon has going for it, said Bob Bickel, founder of RunSignUp, is it already uses rolling and wave starts.)

Ironman will then be focused on limiting interactions, so potentially limiting in-person registration and expos or holding briefings virtually, limiting volunteers handing out food or water or medals. That’s where the athlete self-reliance question comes in: If athletes carry everything they need themselves, then it would decrease the need for more people and choke points.

And lastly, Ironman is considering screening of athletes and volunteers, most likely via surveys: Have you been feeling sick or unwell? Stay home.

All of these are also things USA Triathlon is considering as well.

Will it be enough?

The whole point of preparing for potential races in the shadow of COVID-19 is to try to find a way to hold races that are safe enough—i.e. safe enough athletes will be willing to do them and safe enough city, county, and regional officials will be willing to permit them.

“We need to make sure we can convince communities and athletes and partners that it’s safe, so we will do what’s required,” said Messick—whether that’s smaller fields or no aid stations or limited to local athletes only.

The challenge is there are simply so many unknowns still about the virus: who’s had it, how exactly it spreads, and do antibodies prevent you from getting it again? Plus, state, regional, and federal rules all vary, even down to something as simple as who is required to wear a mask and where.

Messick argues it will be possible to put on safe races within whatever the local public health parameters are. If the city and county are permitting you to go outside for bike rides, then he said Ironman should be able to put on a race outside that “isn’t any riskier.”

Many others disagree about soon that can happen.

Volunteers at an aid station at Ironman Frankfurt. Photo: Joern Pollex/Getty Images for Ironman

“Our gut feel is that it will be difficult to have races over 1,000 people this calendar year,” said Bickel of RunSignUp, though they’re seeing people working on much smaller races for the summer and expect that to expand as protocols get established. “Hopefully, sometime next year the larger societal issues of testing, vaccines, workable guidelines, etc. create a new normal, but the next six to nine months are going to be tough.”

“My feeling is that it is at least 50/50 that there are zero sports or events of any kind in 2020,” said Peter Abraham, a sports marketing consultant who has worked for a number of endurance brands, like the LA Marathon and Nike.

He points to so many logistical questions: How will people feel safe? Are you going to test spectators and athletes as they come into an event, how expensive will that be? Who will be liable if you say a race is safe and then an outbreak happens? At a time when unemployment is high and spending is low, will people even want to pay for races?

The legal and liability questions are actually a major hurdle, said Kelly Burns Gallagher, a race director and labor and employment attorney. “We don’t have a standard of care. We don’t actually know what’s safe right now and I don’t think a 2,000-person event is the guinea pig for what’s safe. I can’t even contemplate what safe would be for a race of that size.”

Her point is: How can you say ‘we did everything safely’ if you don’t know exactly what is safe right now—if the rules on who has to wear masks vary from California to Georgia to Massachusetts? How do you even obtain enough masks and hand sanitizer when essential companies and hospitals can’t get enough masks and hand sanitizer? What liability do you have for volunteers (if you can get volunteers)? It could all easily become a protracted legal fight.

“There are so many unknowns that trying to figure out how to safely put on a large event doesn’t seem smart,” said Burns Gallagher.

And what happens if you come back too soon, there’s a large outbreak of the virus and then a more extensive ban on any mass gatherings for even longer? It’s a concern, said Messick. “Ultimately, we’re trying to play a long game here,” he said. “And we’re trying to be proactive.”

If race directors can’t convince everyone they can come back safely, then the alternative is counties, provinces, states, and cities simply ban all public sporting and mass participation events for the foreseeable future out of an abundance of caution. Quebec province already banned all large gatherings through the end of August, putting the kibosh on Ironman Mont Tremblant; Germany canceled the Berlin Marathon in September; and Gov. Newsom in California outlined a plan that would only permit live audience sports and concerts “once therapeutics have been developed”—meaning vaccines.

Races will come back. It’s just a question of if they come back this fall or next spring, what do they look like when they do, and which companies will still be around then.

Some race directors and brands simply won’t survive this, said Harris. Even Ironman, which is the largest organizer of mass events (cycling, running, triathlons) in the world, is going through a tough time, said Messick. Though both are optimistic that the sport, overall, will survive and that triathletes will continue to be triathletes in the future.

It seems likely some smaller events will get up and running this year, depending on the region: local running races, for instance. But there is going to be a strong emphasis on staying local and a decrease in travel in the near future. Ironman thinks it may have races again soon in Australia and Europe—but those may be limited to non-international athletes.

And what happens to the 70.3 World Championships scheduled for November in New Zealand, which has had a strict lockdown since the end of March? Or what happens to Kona, when right now Hawaii is requiring a 14-day quarantine after you travel to the islands?

“We’re exploring all options,” said Messick.

Both he and USAT CEO Harris believe that athletes want to race, though, and think that if they can provide a safe enough option triathletes will be hungry and eager to get back out there.

“I think athletes badly want to race,” said Messick. “If we’re able to take the right steps, athletes are going to be the first people to come back.”

Featured photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images for Ironman

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