Navigating the world of ultramarathon during COVID 19 is still somewhat of an unknown. Here in South Carolina, restrictions have been almost completely lifted, and life is slowly returning to something that resembles “normal”. And this past weekend, our state experienced it’s first in person ultra marathon post COVID restrictions.
Whether it is the right time or the wrong time for races to happen is still yet to be determined. I will recognize and acknowledge that your opinion on whether it’s too soon might be swayed dependent on your location, and your personal experience with this pandemic. My family and I have been choosing to social distance and take as many precautions to protect ourselves and others during the last 12 weeks. We also felt that the risk of volunteering during this event was very low, and we trusted that the race director and our local ultra community would take the precautions necessary to keep everyone safe.
So when race director Chad Haffa of Eagle Endurance announced that the Forest Service had approved his permits for Hell Hole Hundred this past weekend (May 30th), we decided to uphold the volunteer obligations we had made earlier this year.
Typically I’d write a race report, but obviously I didn’t run. Instead I spent about 28 ish hours manning an aid station at mile 12 (ish) of a 16 (ish) mile loop on the Jericho Horse Trail in the Francis Marion National Forest. Because so many people are unsure about the future of ultramarathon while COVID-19 risks are still heightened, I thought I’d share my experience. This won’t be the most exciting or entertaining blog post I’ve ever written, but if you are curious about what the immediate future of ultrarunning may look like…read on.
Standard bib pickup at one of Chad’s races is simply a line in the morning that leads to a table where you’ll find Chad with a checklist and bibs. This time, however, the table was tucked under a tent and behind a huge banner, almost creating a “room” for the table. Only one runner was allowed in that space at a time. All of the other runners lined up behind, and seemed proficient at giving each other enough space.
Ultramarathons and trail races, in general, tend to bring in a smaller crowd. That said, this race had less than 90 participants running one of the following offered distances:
- 16.3 miles
- 50 miles
- 100 miles
- 140.6 miles
- 212 miles. Yeah, you read that right. Yeah, someone finished (congrats Chris V!)
Prior to the event, Chad had asked people to wear masks in the starting line area. They were free to take them off once they ran a little ways down the trail and had more space. I’d estimate that probably 85% of runners complied to that request. Chad then sent the runners off in waves, allowing for social distancing in what is typically a crowded start of the race.
Let’s be honest: ultrarunners tend to be gross. It’s not on purpose, of course, but when we’re absolutely exhausted, we may reach into a community bowl of skittles not remembering that just ten minutes earlier, we used those fingers to wipe our runny nose.
Further, research shows that one of the biggest contributing factors to getting sick after an ultramarathon isn’t necessarily a weakened immune system, but rather, the germs you are exposed to by other runners during the race.
So needless to say, in the middle of a pandemic, aid station protocol is important. Here’s what we did:
All food was either individually packaged OR portioned into individual paper cups by a gloved volunteer. No, it wasn’t environmentally friendly, unfortunately. But it prevented anyone from sticking their hands into a “community” bowl of food.
Runners were very respectful of this, and more often than not ASKED for food rather than just diving in and hovering over the snacks.
Individual water bottles were available for those who wanted it. Otherwise, two large water coolers were left with the spout portion in the bright and hot sun (with ice of course, so the water was still cold). Research shows that UV light can decrease the viability of viruses on surfaces. Does that apply to COVID-19? The jury is still out. But hopefully it helped.
A gigantic, gallon sized jug of hand sanitizer was available for all to use.
Perhaps one of the most important factors in preventing the spread of any germs in this race was the runner traffic. Thanks to the nature of this course, runner traffic was very spread out. At most, we had 4 or 5 people at the aid station at once, and typically, that was because it was a group of 4 or 5 that were already choosing to run together.
Runners were respectful of each other, and of the aid station in general. There was little hovering – in fact, a number of runners seemed prepared with their own hydration and nutrition options and didn’t even stop, beyond making sure we checked them in via their bib number.
That said, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that much later in the race as the evening wore on and the 100K distances and beyond athletes became more tired, social distancing and safety measures did become a little more laid back. I definitely had an exhausted runner ask me, a complete stranger, to peel an orange for them. I suppose that is the nature of people being physically pushed to their limits: they take their chances. (Or simply stop caring, because everything hurts and they can’t see straight).
Speaking as a volunteer, I feel as though this race went as well as could be expected, considering our current pandemic atmosphere. Here’s what I think worked in our favor:
- Relatively small athlete field (approximately 80 runners started, and there were 58 total finishers)
- A mostly wide, open trail that allowed runners to easily space out along the course. No long stretches of single track trail.
- Ultra runners in general are good at social distancing (it’s what we come out here for)
- The enthusiasm from participants to ACTUALLY have a race to run seemed to spur on compliance to COVID-19 prevention measures.
I honestly don’t think that this would have been as successful with a bigger race. Never the less, it gives me hope that we will begin to see more endurance events popping up in the near future.
As an athlete, I think it’s important to remember that events simply aren’t going to look the same for a while. But a combination of understanding, compliance, and patience as we navigate this new world may result in us getting to see our running family in person at races sooner, rather than later.
So there you have it, my first post COVID-19 onset race experience. If you have any questions, I’m more than happy to answer. In the meantime: hang in there my friends. If we’re good at anything, it’s enduring the “long run”. We’ve got this.