A frosty chill in the air mixed with the warm camaraderie customary among runners as race director Lonnie Somers counted off a start sequence for the Super Bowl 5K in Washington Park last Sunday. The race’s format would have been unthinkable before COVID-19.
“Three, two, one, go! Three, two, one, go!” Somers called out, over and over. “Three, two, one …”
Two by two, runners crossed the start line from two roped-off lanes set six feet apart, one at a time per lane, going off every five seconds or so. It would take two and a half minutes to launch 75 runners in the first of eight waves. Chalk marks were drawn on the pavement in each lane, indicating six-foot social distancing separations for runners as they lined up to wait their turn.
That sequence would be repeated 30 minutes later and six more times in 30-minute intervals — 75 runners or walkers per wave — in order to minimize the number on the course at one time. The last wave went off at 11:30 a.m., three and a half hours after the first. In all, 466 runners and walkers would participate.
This is what road racing looks like now, and it’s probably what it will look like for the next several months at least.
Somers conducts his races according to a blueprint first developed by Colfax Marathon officials last summer in collaboration with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and Denver Public Health. Colfax race director Creigh Kelley, a mainstay of the Denver running scene for decades with national influence in running circles, called race officials around the world to pick their brains for ideas.
Health officials approved that plan and it was shared on the Colfax Marathon website for other races to study and implement. They set a up non-profit, the Colorado Running and Walking Events Alliance, to promote the idea among the running community. They keep the website up to date with the latest guidelines and public heath orders from the state.
The whole point is making it possible for hundreds of runners to compete in races while limiting the number on course at one time, as well as ensuring social distancing at start lines and finish areas.
“In all my friends in all the states and all the countries that I have spoken to, there has yet to be one reported COVID-19 issue at a race,” Kelley said. “Not one.”
For now, the blueprint only works for small- and medium-sized races, and it figures to be a while before large races will be allowed by public health officials. The Colfax Marathon and its associated races (half marathon, 10-miler, relays and 5K) have already been moved from its normal date in May to Oct. 16-17.
Officials of the Bolder Boulder Memorial Day 10K, which typically attracts 45,000, haven’t made a decision on their plans for this year’s race, but they surely can’t accommodate that many people by launching 75 per hour.
“We can’t do that, and we won’t be able to do that on May 31,” said race director Cliff Bosley, adding that he expects to make an announcement regarding this year’s race in early March.
And so, even with the COVID dial changing colors and restrictions easing in recent weeks, runners who love to race may have to settle for small events of a few hundred for a while. The Super Bowl 5K on Sunday was capped at 600 entrants to comply with public health guidelines, and this week Somers was notified that he can expand the cap to 700 for the Runnin’ of the Green on March 14.
That race typically is regarded as the unofficial start of the Denver running season. Normally it takes place in LoDo, but this year it will happen in Wash Park with the same format of 75 runners per 30 minutes.
But if this is all there is for runners now, participants at the Super Bowl 5K were grateful to have it.
“Having a specified (start) time and having two people go at a time was awesome,” said Denver runner Jordan Rutledge, 29, whose wave went off two hours after the first one. “It was nice to get back out and run again after being cooped up inside for almost a year. I felt completely safe and confident. Everyone there was incredibly respectful of space and how things were organized. It was wonderful. It was nice to get back to some kind of normalcy, even though it’s not normal yet.”
Betsy Cochran had run the Polar Bear 5K four weeks ago, another race Somers puts on with the same format. She was back again on Sunday.
“It’s very well managed,” said Cochran, 65. “It felt great. it’s mask on at the start, and then you can take it off and run, and mask on at the end. These races are just so fun. There’s nothing like them. I’m not a fast runner, but it’s a blast.”
Matt Jones of Lakewood ran Sunday with his son, Tyler, who runs for Lakewood High School.
“I think it’s great,” Matt Jones said. “We still get to get outside and run with people. It’s less of a crowd, so there’s not as much momentum at the beginning, but it’s still a great way to get out and exercise. I think they’ve handled the safety, keeping people separate, really well. It’s a lot of fun still.”
Somers said he doesn’t foresee events with thousands of people running together anytime soon.
“My hope is that summer will be opened up a bit more — obviously we’ll still be under some type of colored level — and that by the late fall or early winter, we can finally see a return to normalcy with events,” Somers said.
Kelley is more optimistic.
“By August, we’re going to see real events,” Kelley said. “Will they still have to wear their masks to the start? Yes. Will they have to go out every three seconds? No. I think it’s going to be an evolutionary process because the numbers will support it.”
When things do get back to normal, Kelley believes there will be a new running boom because so many people began running — or returned to it after years away — as an outlet during the pandemic.
“There is a level of optimism,” Kelley said, “that this next running boom will be bigger than we’ve ever seen.”
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