Race Tips

How To Race a Triathlon In A Pandemic

As we look to the potential of returning to racing in 2021, here’s what the experience may look like.

In July Kathy Phlegar competed in a local sprint triathlon in Charleston, S.C. Just a few months into the pandemic, Phlegar, 56, had reservations about racing a triathlon. “We just didn’t know as much then as we do now,” she said, of the spread of COVID-19. “Understandably, some people in my tri community were concerned and even against the idea. I decided to take the risk, but I went in fully intending to turn around and go home if I didn’t like what I saw.” 

Turns out, Phlegar was pleasantly surprised with the entire experience. Throughout the morning, she snapped a few photos to show her friends the scene: An entire bike rack to herself. The wide-open transition area, where masks were required up until race time. At the start, people were lined up six feet apart, and entered the water every 15 seconds or so. The lake was wide enough to allow for easy passing without anyone swimming near or on top of Phlegar, and she remained mostly distanced from other participants throughout the race. And after she crossed the finish line? She simply packed up her stuff and drove home, even though she won an age-group award. An anticlimactic ending, for sure, but one Phlegar was OK with. 

“It was different, but I felt the race director did a model job,” said Phlegar, who wound up racing another sprint the next month. “I never felt uncomfortable or concerned that my safety wasn’t a top consideration.” 

RELATED: How Do We Track COVID Spread at Triathlons?

As we prepare to flip the calendars to a new year, many of us are ready to place 2020 squarely behind us. But, the reality is the impact of the pandemic will be felt for months and perhaps years to come. And while the many races that were canceled because of COVID will hopefully come back in 2021, it won’t be without an abundance of caution and plenty of evolving safety protocols. 

As Phlegar observed and the modicum of races that did occur nationwide this year displayed, a safe return to racing can be possible, at least at the local level. (It may take longer for large-scale events to get off the ground, although Ironman did host around 1,000 athletes each for its Arizona and Florida events, before shuttering the rest of its races due to rising COVID cases, and Challenge Daytona, featuring age-group and pro races, will go off this weekend.) 

Eric Opdyke, the President of Rev3 Triathlon, which canceled all of its in-person triathlons in 2020, says that a smart return comes down to both athletes and race directors being on the same page when it comes to safety. “I think the biggest change for triathlon is that we need athletes to be in more control of their own actions,” said Opdyke. “Events won’t be able to cater as much as we have in the past, but most [race directors] will go above and beyond to make athletes feel safe.”

If you hope to race next season, the good news is that you will probably find an in-person event near you. But the experience won’t be what you’re used to. Here’s a glimpse at what race day will likely look like (keeping in mind that these are subject to change at any time and will vary from location to location depending on local guidelines and restrictions).  

Race starts will be spread out. Photo: Ironman

Triathlon During the COVID Pandemic

Taking Pre-Race Online and Off-Site

Several parts of the pre-race experience, from the athlete briefing to packet pickup, will be done exclusively online or off-site. In its “Safe Return to Multisport” guidelines, USA Triathlon encourages race directors to mail race packets ahead of time or conduct a drive-through packet pickup to reduce contact, and also suggests selling race merch exclusively online to avoid crowds at an in-person expo. 

Scheduled Check-In Times

In larger races, anticipate having to select a specific time to check-in and rack your bike, as was the case at Ironman Florida. As for the transition area itself, bikes will be racked at least three feet apart to increase physical distancing among athletes. 

Health Screening Stations

Before entering the triathlon venue, all athletes will be screened by medical staff. Expect a temperature check—anyone with a temperature of 100 degrees F or above or who is exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 will be evaluated by the medical director. You should also expect to complete an online medical waiver the night before the race as part of the screening. 

DIY…everything

Once quaint (and rather intimate) race-day experiences, both body marking and wetsuit stripping as we knew them have become a thing of the past–for now. Race directors will either have you body mark yourself or provide temporary tattoos in your race packet. And as for that pesky wetsuit, both Ironman and Challenge have eliminated stripping services, so better practice wriggling out of your neoprene.

What else is out? Pre- and post-race massages, ice baths, sunscreen appliers in transition, bike catchers, and change tents (at least at Ironman-branded events). And there won’t be any volunteers to drape a medal around your neck at the finish line either–expect to get your bling in a bag. 

A Different-Looking Awards Ceremony

Speaking of bling, if you earn any extra hardware for your efforts, expect it to be mailed to you. USAT encourages taking awards ceremonies virtual, or, at the least, have prizes spread out on tables so individuals can grab their own as opposed to having it handed to them. Some race directors have opted to keep the podium, but space out the steps so that they’re six feet apart. 

Mask Up

You should expect to wear a face mask at all times you are not in competition, including in transition and up to the swim start. At the Challenge Daytona race, athletes will be given disposable masks to discard prior to entering the water, but at smaller events plan to bring your own. 

Limited Spectators

Don’t anticipate throngs of fans cheering you along the course or at the finish line. Depending on local restrictions for gathering, spectators will be limited at most races–and expected to be distanced and masked if they do attend. You may also need to register your spectators prior to race day so organizers can keep numbers in check. 

Staggered Swim Starts

Mass swim starts were already on their way out pre-pandemic as a way to prevent incidents in the water, and now it seems like rolling starts are here to stay. In Challenge Daytona, athletes will enter the water one at a time at a rate of about 20 per minute.  

Reduced Aid Stations

As a way to avoid person-to-person contact, aid stations will be greatly reduced. Most races will offer a grab-and-go style of aid station, where competitors take their own nutrition from a table instead of a volunteer handing it out. If you want to keep your race as contact-free as possible, race with extra bottles or a hydration pack and a vest or a pouch to transport your own gels, bars, and other nutrition. 

What About the Port-a-Potties?

Believe it or not, there may be more portable toilets at the race site. USAT is encouraging race directors to increase the number of port-a-potties to “lower the ratio of athletes per portable toilet.” Just keep in mind that the lines are going to look a lot longer than usual, since athletes will be asked to stand six feet apart when in queue. 

COVID-Safe Gear Bag Checklist

Aside from the usual, add these items to your race-day gear bag:

  • Disposable face mask. Bring one you won’t mind tossing before you enter the water. 
  • Sharpie or permanent marker. Just in case you forget to body mark at home.  
  • Hand sanitizer. There’s no such thing as too much. 
  • Extra fuel. BYO gels and bars to avoid extra contact at aid stations. 
  • Hydration vest. Wear one if you’re worried about contact at the water stops on course. 
  • Spray-On Sunscreen. The luxury of having a stranger rub it on your shoulders in transition is so 2019. 
  • Mobile wallet or credit card. If there’s an expo at your race, contactless payment will be the way to go.