This past weekend, the Unplugged Half Marathon was held, starting and finishing at Waterfront Park in Burlington. In total, 425 runners finished in eight waves, an hour apart over two days. It was a modified out and back course along the Burlington bikepath.
It was unusual for various reasons. One, COVID-19 protocols limited the number of runners per wave to 150. In theory, that would have allowed for 1,200 runners. As it was, 950 were registered, but many of those had originally registered for the race on April 11th. With the April event cancelled due to COVID, runners’ registration carried over to October. If they did not respond when contacted for their preferred wave they were assigned a day and wave. That didn’t work for some, including a large number of out of staters subject to travel restrictions. Two, the eight waves were not seeded. Thus, usual competitors (at least before COVID) were likely not together and able to pace each other. Three, the course was out and back on the bikepath, not everyone’s first choice for a half marathon. The reason was the South End of the Burlington bikepath is being totally redone and the two-mile stretch from downtown to Oakledge Park was impassable. Four, late October weather in Vermont can be anything. Saturday was quite warm – 65 degrees – but really windy and rainy for much of the morning, whereas Sunday was cold – 36 to start with minimal winds that picked up. So, while a 55% attrition rate is extremely high, these factors were all likely contributors.
While just staging the race was an accomplishment, showing a resiliency to move forward and live with COVID, a couple observations seem warranted. One, the novelty of making the best of COVID restrictions is already beginning to wear off. Runners weren’t quite as enthusiastic as they were on September 20 at the Island Vines 5 miler (see Back to Racing post). Starting a half marathon with just 30-40 runners in some waves created a vibe akin to a large fun run. Thus, doing what’s possible to maximize wave size will offer runners the sense of a true race. With Unplugged, expected attrition probably would have allowed for registering at least 200 runners per wave with no more than the 150 limit showing. In the unlikely case the allowed number was exceeded, incentives could have been offered to those volunteering to run the next wave. This would have enabled the race to be run on one day even with the one hour gap between waves (a pretty strong argument could be made for 30-minute gaps). Two, volunteers are a scarce resource and there was a lot of downtime both at the start/finish and on the course. Bottom line, volunteers want to be doing something, and standing around for long stretches hardly lends itself to getting a “yes’ from volunteers when asked to help again.
So, on we go. Hopefully, learnings are applied so reasonable precautions can be taken without creating unneeded constraints. For example, with a start mat tracking net times, there is really no need to limit waves to 150, as long as runners are spread out at the start. Two hundred runners could have safely co-existed in an Unplugged wave. Guidelines prescribed by such groups as the Governor’s Task Force can and should be informed by what is actually observed at races. It’s a learning process for sure.