This Saturday Jennifer Zayas along with two friends will lace up for the 27th annual Hartford Marathon.
Unlike past years, she won’t be starting at 8 a.m. and she won’t finish under the Arch in Bushnell Park, steps away from the State Capitol. She expects to see just one fan on the course.
Zayas will be heading out the door an hour early, running the entire 26.2 miles on the Farmington Canal Trail and relying on her husband for water, fuel and encouragement the entire way.
“Originally, I was signed up for the Chicago Marathon on the Autism Speaks team. In order to be on that team I had to raise money and I had so many people donate to me,” she said.
Because of COVID-19, Zayas’ race in Chicago was deferred until 2021, “but I felt overwhelmed by the support for the cause. I said I still have to run a marathon.”
Zayas is by no means the only athlete competing in the fall classic, even if she won’t see the more than 4,300 runners who are currently registered.
Adam Osmond, the co-founder of Run 169 Towns, will also be lacing up on Saturday.
“Every year I used to put together a relay team in the Hartford Marathon and I’m not stopping this year. Me and some of my coworkers are doing the virtual run and meeting in Hartford for it,” Osmond said. “We will keep our tradition alive.”
Planning races in the time of a pandemic
The Eversource Hartford Marathon is one of the largest races in the state, hosting more than 10,000 runners annually, second only to the Thanksgiving Day Manchester Road Race.
When it became clear that the pandemic was not going to allow for the usual spectacle, the nonprofit started brainstorming on how to keep the running community connected and motivated during this unusual season.
“Obviously being an event management company we have had to reassess everything. We started with our first virtual challenge – We Run CT event in April … but every event can’t just be a virtual event,” said Elizabeth Cowles, the Hartford Marathon Foundation Marketing Director. “Running for a cause that is important and relevant right now has been something that is imperative to race planning. It helps people feel good about what they’re doing and motivates them to sign up.”
All the proceeds from this year’s Hartford Marathon, Half Marathon, 10k and 5k will be donated to charity, including Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, Connecticut Food Bank, Red Cross, Girls on the Run, Hospital for Special Care and others.
“With our Hartford Marathon being such a community event we couldn’t just let this year pass,” Cowles said. “We decided the best solution was movement with purpose, making every penny of registration fees a donation.”
Virtual racing, however, is just not the same.
“A lot of people miss their friends. They miss the fans,” Osmond said. “I used to run in a race every week, it’s like missing my family. Running is not just the actual race, it’s what happens before and after.”
Zayas, on the other hand, said she is excited for the intimate feel of a virtual race with just her two running buddies.
“It feels more intimate that I have my two running partners and I’ll be right there with them as they finish their first marathon,” she said.
Finances of Road Racing
Charity fundraising requires the continued support of sponsors – especially Eversource – during this year where the companies will not get nearly the same amount of publicity.
“It’s only because of our sponsors we are able to mail out medals, shirts and still donate all the money to charity,” Cowles said.
Other races, however, have not been as lucky.
According to Dani Kennedy, a member of the Manchester Road Race executive committee, the historic race will need to have at least 4,000 registrants for this year’s virtual event in order to break even.
“If you love the Manchester Road Race sign up and pay your $20, we need it,” she said. “Anyone who says they love a race needs to support their race.”
Although the Manchester Road Race is more than likely to make it through this challenging year, Kennedy said she is very concerned about other races not coming back.
“I’m concerned about a lot of other races. A lot of sponsors may not have the money they may have had previously to support events,” she said. “Even if COVID is over, it doesn’t mean financially everyone is back to normal.”
Keeping the momentum going
The Manchester Road Race attracts between 12,000 and 15,000 runners every Thanksgiving Day, so to connect them together the race’s executive committee developed a novel way for competitors in a virtual race to experience the course.
Instead of receiving a shirt and bib in the mail and encouraging participants to send in their self-recorded times like many other races – including the Hartford – are doing, Manchester Road Race has developed an app that will allow racers to track their mileage on the typical course.
“When you press start Jim Balcome will say ‘This is Thanksgiving in Manchester,’ just like usual. As you run, the app will show you moving along the traditional course with sounds bites at key locations of what you would usually be hearing,” Kennedy said. “It will give you splits and tell you when you are done. Then it will upload your time automatically.”
Racers will have from the Friday to the Wednesday before Thanksgiving to complete the race to avoid any large crowds gathering on Thanksgiving morning.
“We are trying to help the town to not have hordes of people showing up,” Kennedy said. “If we allowed racing on Thanksgiving day we could easily have 5,000 people show up.”
Although some runners will certainly be gathering in Hartford this weekend to toe the line on Capitol Avenue, Cowles said the race is trying to strike the right balance of maintaining the community feel without the crowds.
“We have a mobile medal that has moved around the region so individuals can take photos,” Cowles said. It will start off in Bushnell Park on Saturday morning, but will be moved to Simsbury for the afternoon after spending Thursday at Fleet Feet Running Store and Friday in Glastonbury Center.
“We will definitely see people running the course, especially the half marathon course, but we aren’t encouraging it,” she said. “We want people to understand there is a reason we can’t.”
Opening of smaller races
Although many runners have continued running and competing during the pandemic, Osmond said the move to almost all virtual races has been especially challenging for his organization.
Virtual races do not count toward gaining entry according to Run 169 Towns rules.
“Each race to count has to be an officially timed, in-person race,” he said. “It was a little tough for people who have been close to finishing.”
This summer several smaller races have been held in person, including a Riverfront Scramble by the Hartford Marathon Foundation.
“We had one person finish the 169 towns since the start of the pandemic,” Osmond said.
Cowles said the Hartford Marathon Foundation is planning to hold at least a couple of in-person, holiday races later this fall which will include a staggered start in order to maintain social distancing at the events.
For those who are struggling to stay motivated to train or compete in a virtual race this fall, Zayas had one simple piece of advice.
“Remember why you signed up in the first place,” she said. “The work and effort you put into it, whether or not it’s in a large crowd or solo, it still takes the same amount of energy.”