’Running is not canceled.’ But the Chicago Marathon is smaller, quieter and virtual because of the pandemic
After concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic canceled a series of marathons around the world, Chicago runners reimagined the traditional 26.2 mile route this weekend with groups across the city embarking on “virtual” and socially distanced runs.
Greg Hipp, executive director of the Chicago Area Runners Association, said that virtual marathons emerged after it became clear that mass gatherings would be canceled because of the pandemic.
“Virtual marathons let people run from anywhere,” he said. “It allows you to run and still reach your goals even though the marathons have been canceled.”
Virtual marathons track runners through phone apps and allow them to complete the race within 24 hours, he added. Runners may choose their paths individually or in small groups. In Chicago, many chose to run the lakefront path, and some began the race on Saturday.
On Saturday, more than 400 runners across the city and suburbs embarked on the marathon through the running association. Hipp said the organization typically helps train more than 2,000 people, but many runners chose not to race this year, even virtually.
“A virtual race definitely has that lack of experience and excitement you get when you run with thousands of people, but people relied on friends and families to keep them motivated," he said.
Tyrand Williams said he has been running ever since he lost a bet and had to run the marathon in 2018. Williams ran the virtual Chicago marathon Saturday, making it his third completed race.
“It was really nice, there was some good crowd support,” Williams, who ran on the lakefront, said. “It was still a nice tour of the city and great to see the city come together and make the best of a bad situation.”
Though running the full course without all the fanfare proved to be different, Williams said running has been therapeutic for him during the pandemic, and his running group, Chicago Endurance Sports, encourages those training to remember that “running is not canceled.”
“When everything was getting shut down in March, running was the thing that kept a lot of people sane,” he said. “Knowing that if you can get through the marathon this year means that you can get through it any year. It gave me perspective to keep pushing through.”
Training for the virtual race was also different, according to Hipp. Running is an isolating activity and groups, now limited in size, create a sense of community. Runners who trained with groups met in smaller groups and wore face masks when they were unable to stay 6 feet apart. Excess space among runners also became common practice, he added.
This year, Becky Yaworski decided not to run the virtual Chicago marathon.
Yaworski, who has been a runner since 2008, has run six marathons and has completed the Chicago course five times. But after the New York Marathon was canceled due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, she decided to defer her entries for both Chicago and New York marathons, opting instead to run London’s virtual marathon last week.
“London offered a very cheap entry to their virtual and I ran that with a charity, so I wanted to keep with that one. I didn’t want to run Chicago the weekend after London,” she said.
Yaworski said she enjoyed having 24 hours to complete her own course in her own time.
“I had scaled back my training with the news of all the races being canceled. This way I was able to break it into two more comfortable runs and not have to worry about the risk of injury,” she said.
But like most crowd heavy experiences canceled or postponed by the pandemic, the experience, often marked with loud music and encouraging crowds along the way, is not the same.
“I missed the crowds and excitement of race day,” she said. “Marathon Sunday is one of my favorite days of the year in Chicago. If I’m not running, I’m out on the course cheering friends on. I usually go to different spots along the course, ones that I know are tough to get through, and make sure I’m there to cheer on the runners and bring them whatever they need.”
Last year, 45,000 runners participated in the 42nd Bank of America Chicago Marathon with thousands of onlookers cheering on participants as they ran throughout numerous Chicago neighborhoods.
“I don’t train with a team or running buddy, so I’m used to running the lakefront alone,” Yaworski said. “But that excitement and buzz of the city was definitely missing when I ran (last week), and it’s a little sad today knowing that I was supposed to be out there running the streets of Chicago with 50,000 other runners.”
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