By David Lavallee
It’s official. October and November will comprise the busiest marathon season in history. This week the TCS New York City Marathon and the Marine Corps Marathon both delivered the good news that they would hold live, in-person races this fall after cancelling their marathons in 2020. Most observers were pleasantly surprised that New York will host at least 33,000 runners and hinted that the field could increase before the gun goes off on November 7. The MMM will take place a week earlier, although the Marines haven’t specified the exact field size.
The announcements by both races reflect the growing scientific consensus and practical reality that outdoor events carry a very low risk of Coronavirus transmission. The CDC revised its guidance for fully vaccinated people last week, announcing that it was safe for them to engage in outdoor activities without a mask. That policy change made it much easier for large races to finalize plans with their local governments. If you think the politics of New York are frustrating, imagine the job of the MMM organizers as they negotiate permits and policies with Maryland, Virginia, DC, the National Park Service and the federal government. That hydra-headed regulatory beast is probably why the MMM hasn’t yet announced a field size for October 31.
The races were also helped in their mission to hold a large in-person event by the plummeting Covid numbers. The vaccines are working. According to CDC numbers released yesterday, infection and death rates are now at the lowest levels since the beginning of the pandemic. If current vaccination and infection trends continue, it is easy to see why race organizers and government officials feel confident about marathons five months from now.
A similar story is playing out in the UK, where vaccinations have outpaced continental Europe and approximately 70% of adults have received at least one shot. That enabled organizers of the October 3 London Marathon to open registration and plan for a large in-person event. When the UK media recently asked London’s top organizer, Hugh Brasher, if the race would happen, he responded: “I absolutely believe so. Unequivocally, I believe so.”
As a side note, if you are only consuming mainstream U.S. media, you could be forgiven for not realizing that Covid numbers have hit record lows. A Dartmouth economics professor recently completed an exhaustive research project on Covid media coverage and concluded that 90% of stories on the virus have been negative, compared to about 60% overseas. U.S. coverage was equally negative whether the media outlet had a liberal viewpoint (e.g. MSNBC) or a conservative take (e.g. Fox News). Negative coverage was prevalent even as objectively good news about the vaccine emerged, with much media coverage emphasizing problems with the rollout or uncertainty over the effectiveness of vaccines against variant virus strains. One theory on this negative coverage is that media outlets viewed it as almost a public service obligation. If they published only glowing stories about the vaccine and declining infection rates, people would be less likely to seek a vaccine, thinking the pandemic was largely over. At the risk of introducing more politics into the discussion, if you are wondering who isn’t seeking a vaccination, it turns out that the largest group is rural white men who lean Republican, according to the non-partisan Pew Charitable Trust. We are unclear what the implications of that fact are for fall marathons, but thought it was worth sharing.
The other big question for fall marathons is whether they will require proof of vaccination. Many schools and universities in the U.S. have already declared that students need to be vaccinated in order to return in the fall. The federal government has resisted calls for a national “vaccine passport,” but local businesses and organizations -- like endurance event producers -- are free to create their own guidelines. If we had to bet, we think it is likely that many events will require proof of a vaccine (or a valid medical/religious exception) in order to run a big marathon this fall. New York has probably come closest to this standard as they declared that “runners should be prepared to provide a negative COVID-19 test result or proof of a complete vaccination series,” with full details to be provided later this year.
Updates on whether these marathons will have a traditional pre-race expo likely won’t emerge until later this summer. Some have indicated they will offer a simple packet pick-up, while others are working hard to have at least some version of an expo featuring several vendors. For the sponsoring shoe and apparel partner, expos are a big deal as they can generate millions in revenue selling the only official version of merchandise branded with the event’s logo. We understand that they are working hard to preserve some version of these opportunities for impulse purchases after runners pick up their bibs and are steered through the merchandise area.
Here is a quick overview of the U.S. marathons that typically have more than 20,000 finishers in along with some prominent overseas events that will take place during the busy October and November window.
October 3 - London Marathon -- Field size TBD
October 10 - Chicago -- Full field size of 50,000
October 11 - Boston -- Reduced field size of 20,000
October 17 - Tokyo -- Reduced field size of 25,000
October 31 - Marine Corps Marathon -- Field size TBD, but likely reduced
November 7 - NYC Marathon -- Reduced field size 33,000