Runner, coach and writer Mario Fraioli’s The Morning Shakeout podcast has shared a weekly conversation about the running world for the past seven years. In the first of a regular series, Like the Wind editor Simon Freeman talks to Fraioli about how organised races are returning and re-evaluating after Covid-19 disruption
LtW: Thanks for joining us, Mario. It’s always great to speak to you. I’m keen to talk to you about the state of running right now. As an athlete, a coach and a journalist, what is your take on what is happening in running now that much of the world is emerging from the pandemic?
MF: To rewind a bit before the pandemic hit and the world shut down, the last event that I was at was the US Olympic Marathon trials at the end of February 2020. And I was there primarily as a coach – I had eight athletes competing at that event. But while I was there for the weekend, I also did a couple of media events. And this was a big event here. In the States, it chooses our Olympic team. So there was a lot of excitement around that. Hundreds of athletes who were competing brought friends and family. Running community members came to watch the race. It was high energy anywhere you went in Atlanta that weekend. You could feel it, it was palpable. And then at the event itself, it was just madness. You have a looped course. And runners are going around and around and people like myself, plus thousands of others, were running from one end of the course to the other end. It just felt like this incredible celebration of running. There were shakeout runs before the main event. I went to one that Ben Rosario had organised and I mean, it could have been a road race on its own. It was it was really incredible. And it was really special to be a part of it.
And within two weeks of that event here in the US – mid-March – everything shut down. Events were being cancelled. And it stayed that way for quite a while. There were some one-off elite events. But no mass participation races. No fans. I think back to just about a year ago, spring of 2021, there was still so much in limbo. London Marathon was postponed. Boston Marathon was postponed. Here in the States, the high school and college track seasons were starting to pick back up. But you know, they were very limited in scope.
I feel like as we got into summer last year, it did feel like more events were starting to come back on the calendar. Then last fall, more or less, there was a normal racing season in terms of marathons and other road races. Some still got cancelled and postponed. But there was certainly more of a schedule than there was last spring. I was at the Boston Marathon as an athlete, and it was great to be back in that environment. Although it was weird being in October. But it was great to be back and to be at a race weekend. But Boston felt like it was operating at about half power. And what I mean by that is the number of participants I think was two-thirds of normal. The number of people who were there for the event was you know, half to two-thirds of normal. There weren’t as many pre-race events, as there were in typical years. To be in that environment was weird with, you know, wearing masks to the start and having a rolling start so the organisers could spread people out – which they’ve never done before.
Then fast forward from there to just a month ago, as of this conversation, and I was back at the Boston Marathon at its normal time in mid-April, with a full capacity field. And I felt that energy as soon as I got off the plane in Boston. I felt it throughout the weekend. It felt like old times again. It made me realise just how subdued things were last fall. For me, that was kind of the ultimate litmus test. Boston is an event that I’ve been to either as an athlete as a coach and or in the media for the past 18 years. I go every year. And it felt like it was back to pre-pandemic levels. The energy was palpable. There weren’t as many masks; at least, they weren’t required. It was a normal wave start for the race itself. You could have burned yourself out on events before the race – if you wanted to – there was just so much going on. And that felt good; it did feel like a return to normalcy.
Thinking about the athletes that I coach, for a majority of 2020, after the Olympic trials, I didn’t have anyone race at all. I had some people do time trials. And a lot of my athletes were re-examining the role that running played in their lives. And I was having these conversations with them to understand not only how we structure their schedule, but what they wanted to get out of running at that point. And then in 2021, as some events returned, I had some athletes who were chomping at the bit to get back to training for a marathon or half-marathon or to have some kind of racing season. And I had others who had completely reimagined their relationship with the sport and what they wanted to get out of it in terms of racing. And I found that that was interesting.
And then to fast forward to last fall and this spring, it’s just been full on from a coaching standpoint. I’ve got athletes who are back into the normal or close-to-normal rhythm in terms of building up for a fall marathon. Taking a little bit of a break over the winter, building up for a spring marathon, thinking about some races like fall marathons on the horizon, knowing with almost absolute certainty that they’re going to happen this year. Whereas the last two years, they knew races weren’t going to happen at all, or the chances were very slim.
So that’s all to say that it does feel like right now, as an athlete myself who raced the spring, albeit at shorter distances – I raced on the track at a normal track meet – to a coach helping my own athletes prepare for their events and then as a journalist covering these events, and just kind of paying attention to the rhythm of the year as I do, it does feel like it’s gotten back to pre-pandemic times. Now it just feels like: “OK, we are cooking with full gas right now.” That’s, you know, really exciting.
LtW: It does appear that many events have come back with a vengeance. Races like the London Marathon were even more oversubscribed than usual because everyone’s desperate to do them. The UTMB was more oversubscribed than ever with more people desperate to get in. And yet many other races just couldn’t weather the storm of having no income for two years [and] aren’t coming back. Which diminishes or denudes the landscape a little bit. Is that something you have seen?
Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. The bigger, more prominent events had the capability to weather the storm for the past two years, whether one or perhaps two years of their events got cancelled or postponed. They’re robust organisations, some of which have a number of events. And they suffered as well. But not as bad as some of those smaller to mid-sized events, which could not survive having to cancel their race. And we’ve seen that all over the globe: there are a number of smaller to mid-size events that just weren’t able to make it through. And now that we are returning to what feels like some degree of pre-pandemic normalcy, the demand to get in the London Marathon, the New York City Marathon, is sky high. For something like UTMB, it’s sky high. People want to get back to racing but a lot of smaller events have fallen off the radar. But [what] I think is interesting, and I’ll be curious to follow over the next few years, is the emergence of small, alternative events. Because so many things were cancelled, or taken away in 2020 and 2021, some race organisers, or just random athletes and people in the sport, got together and came up with some really ingenious ideas. And not just virtual races. Here in the States, I don’t know if this happened elsewhere, there was something called the Take the Crown series. You had people in in a given city who set up a course for that week and people could go and race it whenever they wanted and their times were listed so runners went head-to-head. Because people run on their own, it was safe. And it generated some local excitement, albeit on a very small scale.
Then you had some exciting things happening on the professional level. Folks like Ben Rosario, and others, who set up The Marathon Project to give professional athletes an opportunity to race a fast marathon at the end of 2020. In some cases that allowed the runners to preserve their ability to remain professional athletes. Or to get a qualifying time that they needed for 2021 Olympic qualification or whatever it happened to be. Some of those things would never have happened without the pandemic. And some of these innovations are going to stick, I think. Another example is the folks at Sound Running, who have taken advantage of opportunities these last couple of years to create events that didn’t previously exist. And to present them in a way that hadn’t been done before – either live-streaming them on YouTube, reaching an audience that way, and crowdsourcing prize money from fans for the athletes. Quite frankly, none of that sort of stuff would have happened without the pandemic. I think all this has the ability to change the landscape at the elite level – how the sport is packaged and presented, certainly here in the US, and perhaps globally. On an amateur level, there are some events which I think are going to be oversubscribed and the demand will always be there. And they’ve had the ability to weather the storm. Sadly, there are some very beloved events that weren’t able to make it and are probably gone forever. But there are also new things, unique things that have popped up, and are really exciting.
Then you had some exciting things happening on the professional level. Folks like Ben Rosario, and others, who set up The Marathon Project to give professional athletes an opportunity to race a fast marathon at the end of 2020. In some cases that allowed the runners to preserve their ability to remain professional athletes. Or to get a qualifying time that they needed for 2021 Olympic qualification or whatever it happened to be. Some of those things would never have happened without the pandemic. And some of these innovations are going to stick, I think. Another example is the folks at Sound Running, who have taken advantage of opportunities these last couple of years to create events that didn’t previously exist. And to present them in a way that hadn’t been done before – either livestreaming them on YouTube, reaching an audience that way, and crowdsourcing prize money from fans for the athletes. Quite frankly, none of that sort of stuff would have happened without the pandemic. I think all this has the ability to change the landscape at the elite level – how the sport is packaged and presented, certainly here in the US, and perhaps globally. On an amateur level, there are some events which I think are going to be oversubscribed and the demand will always be there. And they’ve had the ability to weather the storm. Sadly, there are some very beloved events that weren’t able to make it and are probably gone forever. But there are also new things, unique things that have popped up, and are really exciting.
LtW: It’s almost as though the old adage is true that necessity is the mother of invention.
MF: We’re both creative people. And speaking for myself, I work very well, when I have a set of creative constraints. I mean, you tell me that I’ve got a certain amount of time to do something or I have a word count that I have to adhere to – that forces me to really think about how I want to do something. I think that happened to a lot of events: they were constrained, whether it was by geography, whether it was by budget, whether it was by inability to have fans or sell tickets. And some of the creativity that came out of that is really pretty incredible. And I think this has the potential to change the way that events are hosted, but also the way that they’re packaged and presented moving forward.
LtW: With your coaching hat on, do you think that the enforced break could end up causing problems, further down the line? I’m thinking of kind of 15- or 16-year-olds who maybe have missed some key high school experiences in terms of track and field and cross country. Perhaps for older runners that 18 month or two year gap with no racing is won’t be that important. But maybe for a younger athlete it’s quite a big deal. That’s when we get to the Paris Olympics in 2024 or the LA Olympics in 2028, we suddenly find today’s 16 year olds have missed some key time in their development?
MF: Yeah, I see where you’re coming from. Here in the States what we’ve seen, certainly this spring, despite a gap where there were no races, are some phenomenal performances across the board. And depth that in the distance events on both the boys and girls side that we’ve that we’ve never seen. So while I think in 2020 and 2021, some of those 16- or 17-year-olds who were looking to have a track season – that quite frankly many needed if they wanted to run collegiately or gain a scholarship – they missed those opportunities.
But other athletes are making up for lost time, I think. You know, the folks who stayed with the sport – continued to train, were supported by their coaches and their teammates and were patient enough to just wait for an opportunity – they’re taking advantage of it now.
And going a little beyond that, one thing I’ve seen with some of my athletes, now that races are popping up, is that I’m reining people in. Because now there’s an abundance of events to choose from. And many people have raced very infrequently, if not at all, over the last couple of years. And if that’s something that they’ve they have really missed they’re like: “OK, now I’m two years older, and I haven’t been able to race a marathon in two years and I know that as I get older, for a while I can still get faster but now I need to take advantage of you know this time.” And I have to hold them back from not doing everything. I’m saying: “Hey, OK, yes, let’s take advantage of some opportunities when they exist, but we have to be very intentional about what we pick. Otherwise, you could very easily overdo it and potentially get injured, burned out, and then end up having to take another two years off.”
So I’ve been very observant of that with a lot of the athletes that I work with. Those who now feel safer in a race environment. They feel more confident that events they signed up for six months ago are actually going to happen. They are committed and I’m just trying to make sure that I keep them reined in enough that we can keep this sustainable for a long while.
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