PROVIDENCE — We are ready to race.
Those countless hours running solo on bike paths and quiet roads, or sticking it out on treadmills, has gotten us through the stress and monotony of endless pandemic days. But the novelty of the virtual races is so 2020.
Give us the road races, the starting line with the National Anthem, that rush of adrenaline as we bolt at the starting gun, the cheering spectators, and the camaraderie of fellow runners sharing the struggle to get to the finish line.
After months of cancelations, postponements, and planning, Rhode Island is ready to run. The Providence marathon, half-marathon, and 5K kicks off Sunday morning, and the Newport marathon, half-marathon, 5K and beach run are coming up May 22, with more to follow this year.
The races will look different, the way everything does during the COVID-19 pandemic. The race directors are limiting the number of runners and staggering their starts to maintain social distancing, and requiring masks at aid stations and at the start and end of the races. There’s no socializing after the race, no vendors, no tents for running clubs, no spectators — just get your T-shirt and medal, and go.
Still, runners are glad to have it. Even though some races are canceled or remaining virtual this year, local race directors say they’ve seen a boost in sign-ups for the in-person races.
“The feeling was that, we’re not going to be held down,” said Susan Rancourt, whose company Rhode Races is producing the Providence races on Sunday.
For that, they can thank a fellow runner for getting them over the hurdles. Commerce Corporation spokesman Matt Sheaff has been collaborating for months with race directors, health officials, and the Department of Business Regulation on plans to bring back road races.
This was personal for Sheaff. He started running two years ago, as a way to stay in shape and clear his mind. “Running is such a personal experience, personal goal setting, personal achievement, and a lot of people maybe don’t even consider running because they think, ‘I’m never going to be fast or I’m never going to go far,’” Sheaff said. “To me, it’s not about that. You’re lacing up your shoes and going out there.”
The 2020 Providence marathon was supposed to be his first marathon, but the pandemic forced it to go virtual. So, on a snowy Saturday last April, Sheaff went out alone for a 26.2 mile run from his house in Providence, down the East Bay Bike Path, and back up to finish at the State House.
When Sheaff posted his accomplishment on social media, it caught the eye of another runner, Bill Kole, the New England editor for the Associated Press. Though they’d never met, the three-time Boston marathon finisher grabbed his medal from the 2012 race and went to Sheaff’s house.
“I found it really stirring, because marathons aren’t meant to be run that way, and I wanted to do something to help Matt celebrate his achievement,” Kole said later. “Fresh from his effort, he was moving pretty stiffly when he came down to meet me on the sidewalk outside his apartment, and he was blown away. I texted him later: ‘Bro, a first marathon is such a special accomplishment. You should have finished to the cheers of a big crowd. No way you get out of this without a little well-deserved bling!’”
This is what Sheaff loves about running — and what he worked to convey to the non-runners in state government.
“It’s important to get races going, because there’s such a sense of community in the running community,” Sheaff said. “While folks have their individual goals, at a race, you see people come together and cheer each other on. There’s a sense of community and bonding at a race, and it’s exciting that it’s coming back.”
More than just camaraderie, there is a real financial factor to the races. There are nonprofits and charities that benefit from the money raised by races, plus vendors and local hospitality venues that are patronized by runners after the races, Sheaff said.
Of course, none of that was possible in the early months of the pandemic. Health officials were still learning about how the coronavirus spread, states shut down all but essential businesses, and recommended that people avoid any gatherings and wear masks. Over time, those recommendations changed and hospitality and tourism began to open up again — but in Rhode Island, state and local officials were still leery about road races.
New Hampshire wasn’t, however. John Mortimer, the owner and founder of Millennium Running, took the lead in working with New Hampshire’s COVID task force on guidance for producing road races during the pandemic.
They had the support of Governor Chris Sununu, who ran the Boston Marathon and “now runs the state,” joked Mortimer. After publishing the state guidance last June, New Hampshire saw its first races in August.
During the pandemic, Millennium Running became the only company producing running events in New England. Mortimer said they’ve held 40 events with 15,000 finishers — and contract tracing “hasn’t found a blip” of COVID-19 from any of the events.
New Hampshire set the groundwork for Rhode Island and other states to follow, with staggered starts of two runners every five seconds, for example, to make sure runners are spread out. That does mean that the process takes a lot longer — “What used to take three minutes to get everyone across the starting line now takes three hours” — but it’s what they needed to do to comply with social distancing, Mortimer said.
Rancourt and other Rhode Island race directors have incorporated those ideas into plans for in-person races.
With Sheaff’s advice, Rhode Races was able to put on a smaller version of the Ocean State race in Narragansett last October, before coronavirus cases started climbing again. The runners lined up six feet apart and started in “pulses.” The runners had to agree to a social contract -- they were healthy and following restrictions, and the race had to develop a COVID-19 plan.
“We were very nervous. We were setting the bar with races,” Rancourt said. “At the time, there was a moral question, and we didn’t know if we were doing the right thing. People on Facebook said, ‘How dare you? They will spit on the ground and bring COVID.’”
The race was fine. Rancourt did contact tracing on the 400 runners afterward, “and nobody had COVID from the race.”
When Newport city officials balked at holding the Newport Marathon, postponing the permit until May, Rancourt showed them a video of how she produced the Ocean State race. She also gave them the results of a survey of people running the Newport Marathon. As of late March, half of the runners had been vaccinated, and 87 percent planned to be vaccinated by race day, she said.
“A lot of runners are teachers, first responders, and tend to be health conscious,” Rancourt said. “They are rule followers and they are goal attainers.”
The city granted approval.
Drew Appleton, the vice president at Gray Matter Marketing, which produces several road races, said they’d been in communication with state officials since the beginning of the year. They recently got approval to hold the BankNewport 10 miler in June.
“There’s been a little bit of challenge in breaking through mental barrier. You picture the mass start line and that’s an immediate red flag in COVID times,” Appleton said. “But there is a way to put on race in a safe manner, by staggering start time. If you spread out 1,500 people over 10 miles, and that’s the Boulevard on a Saturday. We had to communicate with the state that there is a responsible way to do it.”
Now that more people are getting vaccinated -- and the Centers for Disease Control has said that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask outdoors, except in crowded settings and venues -- it feels like the finish line is around the bend, says Sheaff.
“For so long, we all wondered if the end would be in sight, would we ever get through the dark days, could we leave our house?” Sheaff said. “Being able to have a large race this weekend means the end is in sight.”