About the only aspect of the 2021 Boston Marathon untouched by COVID-19 is the 26.2-mile route from Hopkinton to Boston.
After the havoc wreaked by a virus that wiped out last year’s physical race, the resurrection of the famed marathon Oct. 11 represents something of a logistical, if not existential, miracle.
In addition to imposing strict vaccination, testing, and distancing requirements for a field that had to shrink by a third, organizers at the Boston Athletic Association confronted hurdles and oddities that simply never arise when the race is run on a typical Patriots Day in April.
Whether it was adjusting to two fewer hours of sunlight, facing the prospect of clearing heavy, wet leaves on the pavement, adjusting to shifting public health guidance, ensuring safe passage of elite runners from halfway across the globe, hiring a crowd scientist to help keep runners spatially distanced, or making sure portable toilets don’t wind up in any wedding party photos, BAA organizers have been on their toes for months.
“The word of the year is we’ve been very flexible,” said director of operations Lauren Proshan. “We have pivoted. We have done all the things we’ve had to do. We are doing things differently, but we are very comfortable with our policies.”
The backdrop of fall foliage will make for a picturesque and stark reminder of the biggest change — that this year’s race is being run six months later than normal.
There was nothing casual about choosing Oct. 11.
Ever since May 2020, when the BAA abandoned hopes of a physical race that year, it began looking at the 2021 calendar. Even with vaccines on the horizon last fall, the organization’s COVID-19 Medical & Event Operations Advisory Group steered it toward the fall. September was considered, but that could mean hot and muggy conditions, so the advisory group pushed for a later date. November was deemed too cold and too dark, leaving October in the sweet spot.
Conflicts were everywhere. The Head of the Charles Regatta was scheduled for Oct. 22-24, the London Marathon Oct. 3, Chicago Marathon Oct. 10, Tokyo Marathon Oct. 17 (since moved), and the New York City Marathon in early November.
The BAA also knew it needed a lot of buses and drivers to transport runners from Boston Common to Hopkinton, and the ongoing shortage of school bus drivers confirms that that concern was warranted. The BAA zeroed in on the one statewide school holiday in October, when school buses would be available.
The date falls on Columbus Day, which is increasingly being recognized as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. With three of the eight towns and cities on the route recognizing the latter holiday, the BAA addressed concerns with a number of measures, including a land acknowledgment at the race’s start.
With the date chosen, planning commenced.
“The idea of requiring a tremendous amount of transportation, that was a very real element that we knew from the get-go,” said Jack Fleming, the BAA’s chief operating officer. “We were going to be looking at an event that was ‘spatially distanced,’ a race where people had room and were going to be stretched out. So, what does ‘stretched out’ mean?”
Field size in a normal Boston Marathon is 31,500, with 20 percent being non-qualifiers who are running for charity or sponsors.
The same 20/80 ratio exists this year, but the field has been reduced to 20,000, and all participants must be vaccinated or test negative no earlier than 72 hours before the race. Everyone will be required to wear masks everywhere, except while running.
Keeping that line moving and each runner distanced until the start line required expertise, not to mention thinking about the entire “participant journey,” as organizers called it.
“We brought in a crowd scientist this year to understand how people flow from space to space,” said Proshan. “The crowd scientist was far more experienced than us in understanding human behavior — stopping at restrooms, drinking water, waiting for friends, knowing everyone’s patterns are different, and really boiling it down to models.”
Computer simulations on runners crossing the start line in three-, six-, and nine-second intervals gave the BAA a much better idea on how to plan.
Between 7:30 and 10:15 a.m., a total of 33 buses will depart every 15 minutes from Boston Common, each coordinated with projected start times determined by runners’ qualifying times, so that the fastest start earlier than usual.
Bibs in six colors — red, white, blue, yellow, green, and orange — distinguish the fastest from the slowest or non-qualifiers. Instead of 8,000 runners per wave in normal times, this year there will be 3,500 in each wave.
With the Chicago Marathon being run the day before Boston and the other major marathons clustered so closely this fall, Mary Kate Shea, the BAA’s professional athlete program manager, is proud that 14 past champions, top finishers, and Olympians will run here.
Getting the elite runners from overseas to Boston came with its own order of magnitude.
“We had to deal with, ‘How do we test these folks, how do we get them on planes despite different vaccines in different countries, different testing protocols, different mask mandates?’ ” said Shea. “We had to get really creative.”
For example, Geoffrey Kirui, the men’s 2017 champion, will take three flights — a short one from Eldoret, Kenya, to Nairobi, then a 2,076-mile trip northeast to Doha, Qatar, before heading west for the 6,504-mile trip to Boston, arriving Thursday with most of the other elite travelers, who’ll be tested daily and stay mostly isolated at their Copley Square hotel.
Potential problems have been scouted.
Because the sun sets at 6:08 p.m. on race day, which is around 1:20 earlier than in April, organizers were worried that the slower runners might still be on the course when it gets dark. To compensate, the start time has been pushed back one hour, to 8 a.m. for the pros, 9 a.m. for others.
Blue Bike docking stations aren’t in place in April but they are in October, so those along the route will be temporarily removed. A construction project in Hopkinton will be idled. Extra lighting will be installed in the start area so early-morning volunteers can see what they’re doing as they set up.
Then there are the weddings, rescheduled like the marathon.
One in the Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel on the Saturday night before the race means a media workroom will have to be taken down after use Friday and then set up elsewhere.
And since weddings at the Boston Public Library require obligatory photos on the main entrance steps on Dartmouth Street, Proshan and her crew are doing their best to make sure the finish-line sightlines are compatible with lifelong memories.
“No Port-a-Potty shots,” she said.
Once the race is over, the overworked BAA staff has just six months before the 2022 race takes place — pandemic permitting — on Patriots Day.
Barbara Sicuso, director of athlete services, is on it, back on familiar ground: “We’re scheduled to open up registration on Nov. 8, so we’re rolling right into 2022.”