For a long, long time, we have marked the passage of time by the designations Anno Domini (A.D.) and Before Christ (B.C.), with A.D. first coming into use in 525 A.D. while B.C. took hold two centuries later in 731 A.D. It’s an interesting history, you should look it up.
But however it’s designated, time’s stream has brought us into today’s strong coronavirus eddy in which the U.S. Ship of State has quickly been unsettled with a novel, mercurial captain at the helm.
If we can avert the shoals, perhaps we will recalibrate the coming years as A.C./B.C. – After Coronavirus/Before Coronavirus – at least colloquially. We saw a bit of that in America in the years following 9/11. But coronavirus is a worldwide pandemic with as yet undetermined consequences ahead.
In our own little sporting corner of running, with all the race postponements this spring, we are now seeing the potential for a fall marathon season like none before or, hopefully, after. And that is assuming a fall season even takes place at all as the virus continues its insidious spread.
In a normal year, Berlin, Chicago, and New York City are the three big Abbott World Marathon Majors scheduled in the fall, with Berlin in late September, Chicago early October, and NYC early November.
With its fastest course in the world, Berlin has emphasized paced world record attempts featuring a relatively small elite field. The more robust actual foot races have been staged in Chicago and NYC. But NYC and Chicago are very different racing propositions, too.
Chicago is one of the world’s bullet courses as evidenced last year when Kenyan Brigid Kosgei obliterated the women’s world record with her 2:14:04 clocking. NYC, with its five bridges and rolling Central Park finish, is more of a tactical affair where time is secondary to the win. The women’s record in NYC remains stuck at 2:22:31 by Kenya’s Margaret Okayo back in the dark ages of 2003. The men’s mark, 2:05:05, was set by fellow Kenyan Geoffrey Mutai in 2011.
Different athletes thrive at these two mega-Majors. But when a rescheduled Boston Marathon on September 14th and London on October 4th are added to the calendar, suddenly four of the six AWMMs are stacked in six weeks with NYC laying off until 4 November.
The ripple effects of this re-calendaring are significant. Not only are race and civic schedules challenged to find new room, but training camps and training patterns must adjust as well. Who knows when, or if, government-imposed lockdowns and social distancing edicts will be lifted. And if someone gets off to a later start than usual, or can’t train with the same number of training partners, you could see how the late-placed NYC Marathon might end up being the unplanned beneficiary.
I witnessed just this sort of race choice calculation at the Los Angeles Marathon. Contested on March 8, LA barely dipped in under the wire before the coronavirus clampdown was fully implemented the following week.
Zane Robertson of New Zealand originally planned to race the Lake Biwa Marathon in Japan on the same date as LA. But after a traffic accident at his home outside Addis Ababa, Ethiopia injured his left leg two months earlier, he begged off Biwa for LA.
“We originally thought I had broken my left femur,” Zane told me. “But fortunately it was just cartilage inflammation. But my speed work became an issue afterward. So I looked for a race without pacers, which wouldn’t go out as fast.”
Granted, the fact that Zane and LA had both signed on with Asics played into his decision. But the idea of having less time to prepare led him to a tactical rather than fast-paced venue (though LA did, in fact, start fast and Robertson eventually dropped out).
With training camps the world over currently in lockdown, and with medical advise warning athletes not to over-train in order to protect their immune systems, the final resolution of the coronavirus social distancing crisis remains very much up in the air.
Who knows when or if a resumption of full camp training will return by the fall season.
A rescheduled 124th Boston Marathon will now kick off the 2020 campaign on September 14th, all things staying on schedule.
But is the field that was recruited for April still the one that will run in September, or is the whole fall season now up for re-recruitment?
“I’ve given the existing field the opportunity to run in September and allowed them some time to focus on themselves and their families,” responded Boston recruiter Mary Kate Shea of John Hancock. “I want them to do what is best for them and their careers. So far the response has been very good. If there are any openings I will add athletes.
“The good news is that there is great depth – East Africa, Japan, U.S. – so even though there are many quality races, all of them should prove exciting. With the Olympic Marathon also rescheduled, that gives further options. The fall should be a celebration of races around the world and this is historic.“
Like so much of life, the marathon world is in a state of suspended animation awaiting the turn in our current crisis. But when that turn takes place, as it surely must, will athletes who might normally look to Berlin or Chicago now look at Boston or NYC as a better choice in 2020? And what about that highly anticipated shootout that was expected in London this April between the world’s two fastest marathoners, Eliud Kipchoge and Kenenisa Bekele?
One gets the feeling that 2020’s events if they come off, will be similar to New York City 2001 post-9/11 and Boston 2014, the year following the tragic finish line bombings. In both cases, the elite races, though important – and in Boston’s case historic with the win by Meb Keflezighi – paled in comparison to the spirit of camaraderie and common humanity that the sport engenders in both its participants and spectators.
Famed Seventies supergroup Crosby, Stills, and Nash sung in Wooden Ships: “If you smile at me I will understand cause that is something everybody everywhere does in the same language.”
Though it might be masked by a furrowed brow and a narrowed gaze, running is the full-body representation of a smile, a universal expression of life’s fullness and joy.
“People like you and I are more concerned with elite competition,” said Boulder Wave CEO Brendan Reilly from his home in Boulder, Colorado when discussing the changes coming this fall. “But races everywhere will be festivals of running, more like social recovery runs than elite competitions. Even if Eliud Kipchoge and Kenenisa Bekele still line up in London, they won’t be the focus. It will be about the 30,000 – 40,000 who run and the hundreds of thousands watching along the sidelines to celebrate life, its beauty, and wonder.”
And so it goes, and thus we hope it will be. Stay well. Run safe.
P.S. I received the following response on Facebook after posting this blog. I believe it is yet another ripple in the coronavirus stream that is unintended, but significant. Thanks to Darris Blackford, Race Director, Nationwide Children’s Hospital Columbus Marathon & 1/2 Marathon for bringing it to my attention.
Toni – You know I love and respect your writing, and this is a nice article, albeit misses the possible tragedy unfolding for some races regularly scheduled for fall. These races were only just starting to get people signing up for fall 2020 when this all hit, and now are contending with competition from spring races that already had all or most of their money collected. Now, with people out of work and money tight, there is little doubt many athletes will choose the events for which they already paid, rather than spend “new” money on existing fall events. Same with expo vendors. There is only so much money and travel time to go around. Unfortunately, spring races moving to the fall may cause significant “fall-out” against their industry partners who have long-held fall dates. Thankfully some spring races made the brave decision to cancel or defer athletes to next year which will lessen the blow, but those that decided to move to the fall could cause could cause irreparable harm to some events that “were here first.” Thanks for reading, and for the work you do covering our industry.”