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London Marathon Organizers Pull Off the First Major In-Person Race

8 Nov, 2020

By: Michael Popke
High-Tech Safeguards Worn by Runners Encouraged Social Distancing

In a season of no, it’s great to see a big event go – even when that big event is a major marathon and it has to be run in the rain.

The bright spot on the 2020 marathon calendar will undoubtedly be the Virgin Money London Marathon, which took place last month with an elite-only field of more than 100 international runners. They ran in the rain (and seemed just plain glad to be there), while another 36,000 participated in the marathon’s first-ever virtual competition.

Originally slated for April, the London Marathon was moved to October, but with the pandemic still raging, organizers wouldn’t have been faulted if they waited until 2021 to stage one of the biggest races in the world. After all, that’s the option taken by other marathon organizers. (More on that later.)

But the London Marathon did, in fact, happen ­— albeit in a dramatically altered format — and it prompted U.S. distance runner Molly Seidel to take all precautions necessary in order to participate.

“The restrictions, the fear of traveling — it might deter some people, but getting the chance to race the one major that’s happening this year, I said, ‘Yes, 100 percent, let’s do it,’” she told RunnersWorld.com

The event took place on a 19.7-lap closed-loop circuit around St James’s Park in central London, which ensured the iconic finish on The Mall would remain in the same place as it has for the past 27 years. The changed route, however, did eliminate the tour of London streets participants usually receive.

According to the marathon’s website:

“To make the race completely safe and secure for athletes and all staff, the [London Marathon Events] team created a bio-secure bubble around the event. Information on the best way to do this was garnered from other sports, which had returned to action, as well as from medical and security experts and [g]overnment advisors from [the city’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport].

The bio-secure bubble would be created from the moment the elite athletes arrived in the country to the moment they left the UK after the race. In total it amounted to a nine-day window. … Eventually a hotel was found about 60 minutes outside central London. Its identity was kept secret to prevent anyone from turning up to see athletes. Hotel staff were booked in for the full eight days to ensure they were in the bubble and security was booked to man the site 24/7.

Race sponsor Abbott, a life-changing tech company and global diagnostics leader, provided the critically important Covid-19 testing for the elite athletes, staff and everyone else working in the bio-secure bubble.

All elite athletes, their coaches and support staff had to undertake a Covid-19 test in their country of origin before flying into London, Anyone who failed a test could not travel. In addition, every single person that went into the hotel from the UK had to return a negative Covid-19 test four days prior to arrival. Everyone was tested again the day they arrived at the hotel and again on Friday 2 October. Absolutely nothing was left to chance.”

Additionally, Bump devices — created by UK-based technology company Tharsus — were worn by all runners and members of the event operations team to help maintain social distancing on race day.

“The Bump devices were attached to a lanyard and worn around the neck like a medal,” the marathon’s website reported in a detailed account of how the London Marathon became the only major marathon to take place during the pandemic. “Bump helped inform effective social-distancing behavior by using sophisticated Radio Frequency technology to create a ‘Personal Motion System’ that immediately alerts wearers when they are getting too close to another person. Going within two meters of someone prompted a blue flashing light and within 1.2 meters a red flashing light and loud beeping noise. Data was downloaded daily, which allowed organizers to accurately monitor how often and how long elite athletes and event staff spent in close proximity to each other. If anyone in the bubble tested positive for Covid-19, either during the event or during the two weeks following the event, organizers would be able to trace interactions back to specific wearers and inform them accordingly.”

Meanwhile, thousands of other runners from 109 countries completed an even more socially distant London Marathon on their own, running 26.2 miles in the allotted 24-hour timeframe on Oct. 4. Many of them also raised money for charities, organizers said.

As RunnersWorld.com notes: “The London Marathon holds the Guinness World Record as the largest annual fundraising event on the planet. Since its start in 1981, runners have raise more than $1.1 billion for various charities.”

Like the 2020 London Marathon, the 2020 Boston Marathon was originally postponed from spring to fall. But the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) announced Oct. 28 that the event won’t happen at all this year — and not until at least Fall 2021.

“By shifting our focus to a fall date, we can continue to work with stakeholders to adjust the in-person experience for runners and supporters alike,” BAA Chief Executive Officer Tom Grilk said in a statement. “Prioritizing the safety of participants, volunteers, spectators and community members, we continue to assess all elements of the race including a potential reduced field size or weekend date. … “We are optimistic that the Boston Marathon will continue its tradition of celebrating the spirit of community and athletic excellence next fall. We know there will be many questions and we will look to address them in the coming months ahead.”

The Boston Marathon Virtual Experience, which encouraged participants to cover 26.2 miles in one continuous run within their own neighborhoods between Sept. 5 and Sept. 14, resulted in almost 16,000 finishers from all 50 states and 83 countries.

“We call this a virtual race, but this is not virtual,” Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said during a post-race party on Sept. 14. “You watch the 15,000 people in all these countries completing a 26.2-mile marathon, breaking the tape, being met by family and friends, bottles of champagne and all sorts of stuff. It’s as real as it’s ever been, and it’s a beautiful thing.” 

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