6 ways that coronavirus will change ultra running
As I write this the ultra running community has paused with the rest of the world due to the coronavirus outbreak. It’s unknown when things will return to a semblance of normal, of course. And when they do, our world will have changed significantly from when news of the virus began to emerge from Wuhan, China.
I was fortunate to be able to run my 50K race last weekend but my April 100K has been cancelled. Public gatherings such as ultras will remain off-limits through mid-May and likely well beyond in order to minimize the pandemic. I remain hopeful that my July race goes on as planned but it is too early to tell whether that will happen or future races will be cancelled or postponed.
As runners we must keep the faith and work through this difficult stretch — much like we do when we hit a rough patch in training or are mired in a dark place during an ultra. At some point races will once again be held. But as we learn and assess the lessons from this pandemic, we will also be reshaping the approach to road, trail and ultra running.
Here are six predictions of changes that will emerge from the coronavirus pandemic:
Surge in FKTs: There will be a noticeable increase in the attempts and successful completions of FKTs (Fastest Known Times). Races were scratched from calendars as runners were peaking for spring events. With social distancing being the standing order for the time being, it’s only natural that runners look to challenge themselves with a shot at an FKT that calls to them. I know I have been thinking about it.
More trail runners: The move toward separating ourselves from the frenetic modern pace is already encouraging Americans to rediscover a love of the outdoors. With restaurants, fitness centers, movie theaters and other entertainment venues closed for safety, individuals and families are heading outside to local, state and national parks. At the same time, health experts are encouraging people to exercise – and running is something easy to do without the need of gym equipment. It’s only a matter of time until the hikers and newbie runners take to the trails.
Self-serve aid stations: One of the best things about the ultra running community is the volunteers, especially those at aid stations. Early jokes about the coronavirus included references to ultra runners building up immunity from the germs they picked up while grabbing M&M, chips and more goodies at aid stations. The 50K I ran a week ago changed its aid stations to being cupless, and serving only unpeeled fruit and wrapped snacks. I would expect this to become the norm as race directors opt for safety first for their runners over the grabfest of old. Going cupless additionally will be better for the environment and allow race directors to save a little money on supplies.
A different finish line: Completing any ultra is a time for celebration. It's common to see race directors and volunteers hugging, high-fiving and shaking hands with finishers as they present medals or awards. The physical part of such celebrations is one aspect that I fear may — at least temporarily — be replaced with a germ-conscious fist bump, wink or verbal praise.
The economic impact: While the human toll is shocking and unnerving, the economic toll from coronavirus appears to be significant. People will lose their jobs. Businesses will close. Industries will usher in sweeping changes. Smaller businesses, of course, will be the most vulnerable. The outdoor industry itself is comprised of a few large retailers but smaller companies provide invaluable services and products. It will continue to be a challenging time for small business owners, especially in niche industries like trail and ultra running.
Get the popcorn ready: The late summer and fall races are going to be epic. Road races such as the Boston Marathon have rescheduled for the fall. Well-known ultras like the Georgia Death Race are aiming to do the same thing, but permitting issues need to be resolved first. With a significant pause in some well-known ultra races — and the uncertainty of summer classics like Comrades Marathon and the Western States Endurance Run – there will be more elite runners packed into races later this year. Should be fun to watch and track!