As the coronavirus spread throughout the country last spring, marathoners heard this: "On your mark. Get set. Wait."
After a year and half without races, soon the last word will be "Go!"
Starting late summer, several marathons in big cities will be back. Plans have been made, and people have signed up for those 26.2-mile races in Boston, London, Tokyo, Chicago and other locales.
All this news makes runner Jeff Dengate happy. "I have not run at all in the last 18 months. I'm really bumming out," he says.
Now Dengate has no reason to be bummed anymore. After a year of virtual marathons and practice runs, he's signed up for two marathons: the Pikes Peak Marathon in August and the Boston Marathon in October. Normally, the Boston run is held in April, but organizing officials at the Boston Athletic Association set a later date to comply with the Massachusetts reopening plan.
Dengate holds the title of "runner-in-chief" at Runner's World. He has no worries about his health while participating because he's vaccinated and knows that marathons have a built-in safety factor.
"Our sport is pretty fortunate that it happens outside," he says.
Berna Jacobson, who's run 40 marathons over the last 20 years, will be competing in her hometown race, the Chicago Marathon, this year. Her last marathon was the one in Atlanta two years ago. She's not worried for her own health, but is concerned about runners who haven't had their jabs.
"I don't know, if I wasn't vaccinated, how comfortable I would feel," she says, adding, "I think it has to be a personal choice." As far as Jacobson knows, when she signed up, she wasn't asked about her inoculation status.
Runners in the TCS New York City Marathon will have to be screened when they register, says race director Ted Metellus. And on race day, he says there'll be social distancing, with runners kept six feet apart. "There'll be necessary space on the course for them to run safely."
That might be a bit of a challenge for organizers to maintain as runners trot through all five boroughs of the city. Fortunately, as most marathons progress, runners become spread out. The elites are sparse and way ahead, while even the slower ones usually aren't on top of each other.
Last year, marathons were cancelled one-by-one. Many were turned into virtual events where you signed up to run the marathon distance and report your time to the sponsoring organizations' websites. Not quite the same thing as being surrounded by your fellow marathoners.
Now that these big races are coming back, many that would have been run in the spring have shifted to the fall. That means more marathons packed together over a few months, making it necessary for runners to make choices on which ones they can get to.
Jonathan Gault, a staff writer for Letsrun.com, says that in addition to purposefully limiting participants, the logistics will keep the events smaller. "It means it's going to be more competitive," he says.
Some marathon sponsoring organizations are sitting out this year, as they did last year. The next marathon in Eugene, Ore., for example, is slated for 2022. Race director Ian Dobson says one reason is that many elite runners will decide to run elsewhere. He also says health concerns played a part in his group's decision.
"We're being more careful than other places," he says. "Our entire state has been taking a really careful approach to this." Dobson adds that it didn't feel right for Eugene to encourage people to travel there from all 50 states and 20 foriegn countries. "We just felt that the optics of that are really, really challenging."
Meanwhile Runner's World's Jeff Dengate says he's paid his registration fees and booked his flights from his home in Easton, Penn., to Colorado Springs, Colo., and Boston. He says if COVID-19 cases rise unexpectedly again, he'll just write it off. Dengate also says that's the attitude other marathoners should take as they sign up for races.
"Make the plans. Hope for the best," he advises. "But don't be disappointed if it doesn't come together on race day."
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Jeff Dengate likes to run in big city marathons. The pandemic made that impossible.
JEFF DENGATE: I have not raced at all in the last 18 months. Actually, I'm really bumming out.
KELLY: But Dengate may not be bummed out much longer. A number of major marathons plan to return later this year - Boston, New York, Tokyo, London and many more.
DENGATE: I signed up for the Pikes Peak Marathon in August and the Boston Marathon in October.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Dengate is the runner-in-chief at Runner's World. He's convinced the races will be safe. After all, there's a built-in safety factor.
DENGATE: Our sport is pretty fortunate that it happens outside.
BERNA JACOBSON: My name is Berna Jacobson. I live in Chicago, Ill. And I'm an avid runner, and I've run over 40 marathons.
KELLY: Jacobson's last one was Atlanta two years ago. Now that she is fully vaccinated, she has no fears about running in this fall's Chicago Marathon. When she signed up, there was no screening for unvaccinated participants.
JACOBSON: I don't know if I wasn't vaccinated how comfortable I would personally feel. I think it has to be a personal choice.
SHAPIRO: Runners in the TCS New York City Marathon will undergo some screening when they register, says race director Ted Metellus.
TED METELLUS: We'll be asking participants to answer a COVID questionnaire.
SHAPIRO: And that's not all.
METELLUS: We will have the necessary infrastructure in place to create a socially distant operation where athletes will be starting 6 feet apart, and there'll be the necessary space on the course for them to run safely.
KELLY: While race organizers in New York are working to keep runners safely spaced, the marathon calendar is packed, says Jonathan Gault. He writes about marathons and other races for letsrun.com.
JONATHAN GAULT: The ones that were supposed to happen this spring, many of them have postponed their 2021 races to the fall.
SHAPIRO: Gault says calling off last year's races left marathon organizations feeling a nasty financial pinch. Starting up again will help. But even when marathons are run in 2021, many will have fewer participants.
GAULT: The fields in Boston and New York, they're not going to be quite as big as normal. And so it means it's going to be more competitive. It was more competitive to get into Boston than it's been for a long, long time.
SHAPIRO: But not every marathon organization feels it's ready to run races yet.
IAN DOBSON: My name is Ian Dobson. And I'm the race director for the Eugene Marathon here in Eugene, Ore. For the second year in a row, we didn't hold an in-person event.
KELLY: Dobson says because the fall is so crowded with marathons this year, his group didn't think they'd be able to attract enough top runners.
DOBSON: I think we're being more careful than other places. And at the same time, I think that our entire state has been taking a really careful approach to it. And so in the context of that, it just didn't feel right to us to encourage people to come in when we have people registered from all 50 states, from 20 countries. We just felt like, boy, the optics of that are really, really challenging.
SHAPIRO: But Jeff Dengate of Runner's World isn't worried. He offers this advice to his fellow potential marathoners.
DENGATE: Make the plans, hope for the best, but, like, don't be disappointed if it doesn't come together on race day.
KELLY: Pretty good advice for marathons and life.
(SOUNDBITE OF CITY OF THE SUN'S "I'M WITH POLLY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.