Gearing up for a road race, triathlon, or a charity ride? You might want to thank former politician Scott Brown.
The senator-turned-ambassador-turned-law school president quietly arranged a meeting in March between race organizers and Governor Charlie Baker’s point people for the state’s economic reopening, Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito and economic development secretary Mike Kennealy. That meeting helped set the stage for Baker’s announcement on Tuesday that road races and other outdoor athletic events would be back on the calendar as of May 10. Participants in that meeting said they believe they successfully made the case to accelerate the return of racing this spring, and to do so without capacity limits.
As part of the pandemic restrictions, Baker took a strict stance on outdoor endurance events such as road races — everything from the local 5k to the Pan-Mass Challenge was either shut down or went into virtual mode. The governor had made it clear these events would not return until the fourth and final phase of the reopening, once vaccines had arrived. An entire year’s worth of events was wiped out because of COVID-19 concerns.
Some states allowed races, with limited capacities or staggered starts, but not Massachusetts.
As 2021 began, many race directors were getting anxious, particularly without feedback from state officials about when and how their industry would reopen. They did not want a repeat of 2020. But without a local trade group or lobbyist working on their behalf, they lacked the conduits into the state government machinery that other industries have.
Enter Scott Brown. The former US senator is also a veteran triathlete, and he had just returned from New Zealand, where he was the US ambassador, and was starting his new job as president of New England Law in Boston. Like many other triathletes, he wanted to draw up his personal race schedule for the year. Brown, who now lives in New Hampshire, connected with triathlon director Mark Walter, who told Brown about the uncertainty.
Brown, who typically lands on the podium for his age group at triathlons, said he volunteered to reach out to Polito. The two Republicans had served in the state Legislature together. Polito responded right away, he said, telling him this was a perfect time to discuss the issue, as the administration was preparing to move the state into Phase 4.
The meeting was set for the first week of March. Brown was there. Joining him and Walter was Boston Triathlon director Michael O’Neil, who came armed with a 14-page slide deck, and Sue Goldie, a public health professor at Harvard University. She helped make the case that the risk profile of outdoor endurance sports was actually lower than other events allowed in Phase 4, such as attending a game at the TD Garden, and that strategies could be used to further reduce their risks with social distancing and other protocol adjustments. O’Neil argued that it didn’t make sense to put capacity limits on races because start times could be spread out over time on race day.
Then, last week, word started circulating that Baker would finally give racing the green light, at the start of the next step in Phase 4. On Tuesday, the May 10 start date was official: There would be no capacity limits imposed, as race directors wanted, although staggered starts would be required. Race plans would need to be approved by local or state health regulators.
A spokeswoman said the Baker administration conducted outreach with a number of stakeholders in the industries that were closed, as rules were drawn up for Phase 4. She said they included amusement park operator Six Flags, a group of theaters, organizers for the Boston Marathon and the Pan-Mass Challenge, and the group that Brown convened.
Within 24 hours of Baker’s announcement on Tuesday, everyone from elite athletes to weekend warriors received a stream of e-mail alerts and Facebook ads. Racing was back. Sign up, and lace up, everyone.
The news came too late to prevent some races from moving to New Hampshire, where they have been allowed with proper COVID-19 protocols. Race director John Mortimer, for example, relocated three that he had planned for Massachusetts this year to New Hampshire.
Mortimer has held 40-plus events in New Hampshire, collectively attended by 15,000 people, since the pandemic began, and not one case of COVID-19 transmission has been traced to them. Sure, the races take longer to get going: At a recent half-marathon in Manchester, N.H., the lead runners had crossed the finish line before the final wave had even started.
To Mortimer, owner of Millennium Running, it was well worth the added hassle to keep racing alive. And he said he’s developed a successful, safe model that can be rolled out elsewhere, including in Massachusetts.
The local economic impact is tough to calculate. The industry does support a range of small businesses, from tent companies to medal manufacturers. Then there are the charities. Sometimes it’s the local Lions Club. And sometimes it’s the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, which reaped $63 million from the Pan-Mass Challenge bike-a-thon in 2019.
O’Neil’s presentation in March showed more than 1,000 endurance events took place in Massachusetts in 2019, with more than 500,000 finishers.
His Boston Triathlon that August, for example, helped fill hotels: Athletes came from more than 40 states and a dozen countries. The nearly 2,000-person event has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Boston Medical Center over the years. Boston fund manager Columbia Threadneedle has committed to sponsor it through 2023.
O’Neil fired off a celebratory e-mail to past triathlon participants this week: We’ll be back on Carson Beach, come Aug. 29.
Both O’Neil and Walter said Brown played a crucial role in making the return to racing happen.
Brown is a bit of a polarizing figure, a Republican in a blue state, with ties to Donald Trump’s administration.
But before Brown starts his workday at New England Law, he hits the road to train with race goals in mind, like any other amateur athlete. He’ll no doubt visit the podium again this summer. To the local racing community, he’s already won the most important victory.