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How to plan 2021 races amid coronavirus uncertainty

A year ago at this time, I was looking forward to a race calendar that included the Zion 100K and a fall 100-miler, both of which would be Western States qualifiers. I eventually settled on the Hennepin Hundred.

But the pandemic had other ideas, scrapping both of my goal races.

I feel fortunate that I have been healthy this year, first and foremost, and also that I was able to participate in three races during the COVID-shortened racing calendar. First up was a half marathon trail race in Indianapolis. Then I was able to squeeze in the Bel Monte 50K before everything shut down in March and closed out my season with the Hungerford Trail Marathon, which turned out to be a mini ultra.

While small trail races continued in the fall and early winter, I passed, opting for safety first as the predicted surge in coronavirus cases took hold.

Like many runners, I am looking forward to 2021 and hopeful that more races will be held. While the early indications for vaccines sound promising, it will take months before enough people are vaccinated to have an impact.

If you are trying to determine how to prepare for 2021, here are some tips:

Keep it local, or at least a drivable distance: Personally, I don’t see air travel as an option for quite some time. As I look for races, I’ll be prowling for options that I can drive to and from, preferably within five hours.

Bigger does not necessarily mean better: Or, more to the point, safer. The Hungerford race was handled expertly. Masks were mandatory whenever people converged – packet pickup, start line, finish line, aid stations, etc. The start line was adjusted so that runners wouldn’t be bused to it. And aid stations were full of pre-packaged goods. Smaller races would seem to have the advantage in returning to action, as it is much easier to maintain social distancing with hundreds of runners rather than crowds the size of marathon majors. The Boston Marathon, for example, has already been postponed to at least the fall. As I plot out my racing calendar, I’ll be looking for small- to mid-size races that publish clear social-distancing procedures on their website.

Exercise patience: Recently, health experts predicted the next three months (December through February) would be the greatest health threat ever to America. Some smaller races may take place in spring but we likely won’t see much activity until May or later in the summer. I’d recommend to focus on races set for mid-year or later, and not get too excited about any that are aiming to be held in the spring.

Keep going virtual: The pandemic ushered in interest in virtual races and I expect that trend to continue at least for the first half of 2021. This would also be a good time to try a new distance, or try to set a PR at a distance you have not raced in a while. Personally, I might try to PR a 5K, which I have not done in almost exactly a year.

Try an FKT or two: With the 2020 race calendar decimated, there was a sharp increase in Fastest Known Times. Track ongoing attempts, plot your own and review guidelines on And read my previous interview with FKT co-founder Buzz Burrell. In 2020, I had one successful FKT and one that went horribly wrong. What does 2021 hold in terms of FKTs? I have some ideas and am definitely interested in chasing down one or two early on in the year.

Enjoy the journey. While we all love races, keep in mind what is most important. There is so much more to our commitment to running than a shiny buckle or free banana at the end of a race. Take time to find joy on your runs. Get out on trails and soak in nature. Remember how good you feel by maintaining the physical fitness. Help a friend who is struggling with his or her running.

And most of all, wear a mask and stay safe. See you at the start line soon.


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