Just over a year ago, athletes across the nation watched as facilities, events and entire sports shut down at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. With gyms, pools and fields shuttered, and the need to distance from others, many turned to the most elemental sporting activity there is: running. “No matter what is going on in the world, running has always been one of the most accessible sports and that proved true in 2020,” said Dawna Stone, CEO of Running USA, a nonprofit group focused on promoting the sport. “Through our conversations with race directors and industry experts, there is evidence of a nationwide running surge. This surge is likely due to gyms and fitness studios being closed for extended periods.”
While many picked up the sport on their own during the past year, the competitive running landscape also seems to be returning to normal. Gyms are once again open, running groups are assembling or planning their eventual reunions and some races are even holding in-person events, albeit many with virtual options, limited capacities and social-distancing measures in place.
Several members of The Villages Running Club competed in person in the Lake Minneola Half Marathon, 10K and 5K races, held March 27 in Clermont.
Each race was separated into waves, sending only a percentage of the runners at a time, rather than a mass start, and runners were assigned spaces to wait for their start within their waves to ensure social distancing.
“They had that set up so well,” said Gail Charrette, of the Village De La Vista, who placed third in her age group in the 5K race.
Though things weren’t quite how they were pre-pandemic, they were close enough for Charrette to experience the thrill of the in-person competition she’d been missing for a full year.
“There’s nothing better than being in a live race. It’s just the atmosphere and the runners, it’s a different feeling,” she said. “There’s all these races you can do at home and virtual and it’s just not the same. There’s no energy when you’re running by yourself.”
The spring of 2020, and the 12 months that followed, took a toll on the sport and its participants, even as the activity grew in popularity.
Widespread closures, which stretched into the late spring and early summer, limited fitness opportunities for many, including here in The Villages. Many who didn’t run took it up, and many who did increased their running by volumes.
“The quarantine closed my other fitness options like MVP Fitness and daily swimming, so I ran every day while those events were closed,” said Steve Wolf, of the Village of Mallory Square. “I upped my daily runs and ran seven days per week and I enjoyed that for two and a half months.”
Wolf was not alone. The North American edition of Running USA’s 2020 Global Runner Survey, which polled more than 4,500 runners from all over the continent, spanning several demographics within the sport, brought back several responses citing gym closures, more time at home and a lack of other activities for an increase in their own running routines.
Running also served as a rare social outlet for many. Already an outdoor sport, running incidentally provides distance, making it a more feasible pastime during a pandemic. Locally, members of The Villages Running Club relied on the company of their compatriots while isolated from family and friends elsewhere.
“A few other runners from the club decided to keep running during our normal Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday mornings,” said John Campbell, one of the club’s vice presidents. “This became one of our only social outlets. We thought it was safe because we were outdoors and we were distanced.”
Even for those who didn’t run with the group, whether out of caution or otherwise, the knowledge that there were others out there in the same predicament was reassuring.
Sheri Rowe, of the Village of Collier, used the popular run-tracking app Strava to run “with” her daughter, who lives in Pennsylvania, comparing distances and times and sharing pictures of their runs.
“We had started a little before, but it became our ‘glue’ during the pandemic,” Rowe said.
“It also allowed me to stay a part of my old running club in Pennsylvania, since they are all on Strava.”
Bob Jennings, of the Village of Winifred, was coming off of a fractured femur shortly before the lockdown period of the pandemic and wasn’t in full form to run with the club. However, with pools closed and few other options available to maintain a cardio workout routine, Jennings persisted with running.
“I’d just started running a month or two before COVID and I couldn’t keep up with my other runners, but I would run the other direction so I would pass them and see them and it was at least a sense of normalcy,” Jennings said. “It got me out of the house and that was just so important.”
Beyond the encouragement he would get from other members of the club, the sense of solidarity with fellow runners helped Jennings through the more uncertain times in the spring of 2020.
“I haven’t seen Bob Coffey in more than a year now, but I knew he was out running and that helped. Same with Tim Mahaffey. The solidarity, it just felt good knowing these other people are out here, still running,” Jennings said. “Steve Wolf, I would see him every once in a while doing a long run, and it felt good to know he was out there. It was like, ‘This is what we have to do right now, but everything’s going to be OK.’”
Returning to form
As COVID-19 vaccines reach the public en masse — 16.9% of Americans are fully vaccinated and 28.5% of Floridians have received at least the first dose, per the Centers for Disease Control and prevention — life appears to be headed back to normal. The Running Club is maintaining its three weekly runs, even venturing out to new locations, and athletes are once again able to supplement running with activities like swimming and weightlifting at pools and fitness centers.
Even with races starting to return to form — RunningintheUSA.com, a run-tracking site, showed 125K races set for around Florida today — running may still be a ways away from what it looked like pre-pandemic. More than 90% of respondents in Running USA’s survey reported cancellations of events they’d registered for in 2020 and 89% expect further cancellations this year and that could have long-lasting effects on the industry.
“While no definitive loss figure is available, we know the impact was dramatic and widespread,” said Stone. “With the majority of events not happening last year, many companies laid off employees and contract workers, which are common in this industry, were affected as well. Many vendors and event producers pivoted their work to other industries to stay afloat.”
The industry’s biggest response to COVID-19 was to offer virtual races, where participants sign up and run in the location of their choosing, rather than traveling to a single location and running in a crowd, and submit times online, sometimes via a tracker device.
While many runners took the option in 2020 — 73% of those surveyed ran in a virtual race in 2020 — others are less keen on the concept.
“It has been difficult to train for and plan to participate in specific races because they are being moved, cancelled, shortened, or turned into a virtual race,” said Mark Mehlberg, of the Village of Pine Hills. “I am not a fan of virtual racing because you don’t have that racing atmosphere, which is part of the excitement of these events.”
Mehlberg is not alone in that sentiment — 82% of those surveyed preferred traditional races.
As the sport begins to rebound, some races are already being held live, but bringing back in-person racing in full isn’t as simple as acquiescing to demand, though.
“This is a complicated question because every state — and, in some cases, individual counties within states — have unique restrictions and protocols in place,” said Stone. “Unfortunately, there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. Many larger events are working with epidemiologists to prove out safety measures.”
In the meantime, the virtual format has been a suitable stopgap for many.
Valerie Miller, of the Village of Bonita, ran several virtual races in 2020, even completing the Guthrie Wineglass Marathon, typically held in New York state, within the borders of The Villages.
“It’s a mental challenge to go out there and do it without some of the other motivation,” said Miller, who noted that she still prefers in-person races.
“There’s no people, there’s no band, none of the stuff that motivates you. It was interesting. I’m glad I did it because it showed me I can do it.”
The Villages Recreation and Parks Department opened registration for the Running of the Squares this week, which will take place virtually after the races were canceled last year.
“We had a lot of interest from former runners who would do the 5K every year, every single one, and we saw lots of other rec departments hosting virtual 5K’s themselves and we thought it would be something within our standards to offer,” said Lifestyle Events Supervisor Yajaira Perez. “Even though we can’t all be there together, we wanted to offer people the opportunity to compete against each other, record their times and be part of something with other people.”
Interest for the event has already been high with nearly 300 of the 500 available slots claimed in the first two days of registration.
When in-person races do eventually return in full, they may never look quite the same. Some may permanently keep some of the safety protocols already seen at in-person races that have returned.
“Every race is different. Many race directors are telling us that water stops, start line organization and person-to-person touch-points will likely look different going forward, and many events plan to include a virtual component to their events going forward — even post pandemic,” Stone said. “Those changes are not only making events safer, but they are also making them more efficient and inclusive.”
The important thing, though, is that the sport, like its participants, has endured the pandemic, and runners — and the rest of the world — are nearing the finish line.
Staff Writer Drew Chaltry can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5233, or firstname.lastname@example.org.