By R.L. Bynum
We haven’t crossed the finish line, but it’s exciting that we are racing back toward normalcy.
I don’t know about any other runners, but my runs helped me get through the worst of the pandemic. One of the best parts of any day was my run. It got me out of the house while we were all in lockdown and, for an hour or so, I didn’t think as much about the suffering people were dealing with during the pandemic.
It was infinitely less significant than dealing with the sicknesses, deaths or job loss and comparatively minor, but seeing many races canceled and replaced by useless (to me, at least) “virtual races” was frustrating. I understand that some charities depend on proceeds from certain races, which is why I participated in the virtual “Carolina Food Run Challenge” that benefitted food banks.
Gradually, races are coming back.
Just this week, the Marine Corps Marathon (which I ran in 1994, 1995 and 1998) and the New York City Marathon (which I ran in 1996) announced that they would be back this fall. The parkrun in Durham, a free Saturday 5K at Southern Boundaries Park, returns this Saturday for the first time since March 7, 2020. The Running of the Bulls 8K is back in Durham as an in-person race in June for the first time since 2019, and the Bull City Race Fest (with a half-marathon and 5-miler) is back this fall.
Last weekend, I ran my fifth marathon of the pandemic and I hope that my next marathons might be closer to normal.
I remember standing in a crowd of packed-in runners March 1, 2020, before the One City Marathon in Newport News, Va., as the pandemic was starting to get worse. (If you count that as a pandemic marathon, then I’ve run six during the pandemic.)
I had doubts about this being a good idea. I was glad to finish that race, though, considering all sorts of races got canceled after that, including several I was going to run: the Tar Heel 10 Miler in April, the San Francisco Marathon in July, the RDC Marathon in November and the Charleston Marathon in January.
Among the first to cancel was my favorite marathon, the Tobacco Road Marathon in Cary, a mid-March tradition that also includes a half-marathon. It felt like a step back to normalcy Saturday when I ran Tobacco Road in the event’s return after 26 months.
Imagine not being able to run your favorite race for more than two years!
Because government officials only approved the race after the all-volunteer board for the non-profit event agreed to restrictions, it was different. It was like going to a game to support your favorite team and missing a lot of the energy because the stadium/arena capacity is extremely limited.
Usually, the half-marathoners and marathoners start at the same time early on a Sunday morning. Your adrenaline is flowing as you hear the national anthem and anticipate the sound of the starting gun. You then go off with hundreds of other runners.
There usually is a lot of hooting and hollering. It feels special that you’re with a bunch of people who love running, and that race, as much as you do.
There were plenty of people who love running there this year, but it was different.
The marathon was on Saturday and the half-marathon was on Sunday because of the restrictions. We signed up for one of the various starting times to begin our races in small groups. I was a few minutes late for my scheduled start, so I had little running company after I got my temperature check and set out onto the familiar TRM course.
It felt more like a training run until I reached the American Tobacco Trail and started seeing more runners. The pockets of enthusiastic supporters along the course still made it a special day.
TRM always has a railroad theme to its medals and this year was unique with a train that moves along the tracks.
The half-marathon was a one-time loop course to eliminate some of the congestion on the ATT and meet the restrictions.
North Carolina’s governor, Roy Cooper, lifted mask restrictions for fully vaccinated people a couple of days before the marathon. The race experience probably would have been markedly different if he made that change a month or so earlier. (I’m not saying that he should have done that.)
Many who hadn’t raced since the pandemic started probably were nervous as they prepared to run one of the Tobacco Road races. I wasn’t one of those people since I had previously run four of them.
I had those nerves June 27 when I ran the Jackson River Trail Marathon in Covington, Va., in my first race since One City. They encouraged runners to space out at the start. I wore a mask before and after the race and had a gaiter that I would pull up whenever I got very close to another runner.
This isn’t a race that likely attracts a lot of spectators, so I’m guessing my experience wasn’t that different than during most years, other than getting water in bottles instead of cups.
For the Battleship N.C. Marathon in Wilmington, (a one-time addition to the traditional half-marathon) on Nov. 8, they did a good job of spacing out groups of runners who went off at staggered times. By that time, I had a good mask that was made for runners and pulled it up often when I was close to another runner.
At the Oak Island Marathon in Oak Island on Feb. 13, they encouraged runners to space out. On a rainy, nasty day, my wife dropped me off near the start. I walked to the start line and had little company as I got my race started. Again, I had that mask designed for runners and used it a lot when I was close to others.
At the Northern Trails Marathon in Greensboro, N.C., on March 13, I had to pick up my packet on race day. They put everybody’s bags on the grass and packet pickup happened without having contact with anybody. Again, runners went off in small groups of runners who were socially distanced. Again, I pulled up my mask when I was near other runners.
Tobacco Road was like many of those others in that the water and Gatorade were only handed out in bottles. But, given the changes in guidance from the CDC and Gov. Cooper a couple of days earlier, I didn’t run with a mask. I wore a disposable mask before the race per race rules.
I didn’t run with a mask because I’ve been fully vaccinated since April 8. I received my first Moderna dose two days before running Northern Trails.
That San Francisco Marathon I wanted to run last year? That will happen in 2022. Hopefully, I can run the RDC Marathon in November and the Charleston Marathon in January.
I can’t wait until racing is back to normal and there are no restrictions.
Top photo courtesy of the Tobacco Road Marathon