Will the Long Beach Marathon happen? It’s a running question

The COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered storefronts, canceled graduations and cast a shadow of uncertainty over nearly every aspect of everyday life in the county but it hasn’t canceled the Long Beach Marathon. Yet.

As the Oct. 3 race weekend approaches, race organizers remain optimistic that the event could occur with some modifications. But first, there would have to be a dramatic turnaround in the region’s transmission rates for them to be given the go-ahead to host the 36th iteration of the race.

Though a marathon may look like a relatively, simple event, it requires a tremendous amount of logistical planning. Organizers started working on the 2020 event just about the time that the last runner crossed the finish line last October.

In addition to street closures, there are a lot of moving parts involved in drawing and accomodating thousands of people to Long Beach’s downtown: medals and t-shirts must be designed and ordered, sponsors and vendors have to be contracted, volunteers have to be recruited to help staff the race, handing out invaluable cups of water and Gatorade.

And even if you get all that figured out, comes what might be the most daunting task for organizers: finding enough runners who are willing to run 26.2 miles, half-marathon or 5K while wearing a mask, a likely be a requirement if the race is allowed to happen.

Dan Cruz, head of communications for the Long Beach Marathon, said that while it’s looking less likely that the race will be able to take place, organizers are moving forward in the hopes that it will happen the first weekend of October.

“Our hope is to be able to run the race, if not we will offer registered runners a series of options from virtual to a deferral next year,” Cruz said in an email.

Cruz said that race organizers are monitoring the situation and are in constant communication with local officials and community partners.

“We fully support social distancing and all of the steps local officials are doing to ensure the safety of the community,” Cruz said. “We will continue to follow the direction from the city and state and cooperate with whatever they want us to do.”

In order for the marathon or any large public gathering like it to happen the state would have to be in the last stage of reopening which would allow concerts and professional sports to occur with fans. While Major League Soccer returned to the field last week and professional basketball and baseball players are ramping up for a return to competition, those games are largely expected to occur without an audience.

The likelihood of that happening by October is slim. Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered indoor dining to close once again just over a week ago as cases in the county and state continue to surge.

The starting line of the marathon typically means thousands of people packed into corrals elbow-to-elbow with each other. Even with masks, runners would likely face the prospect of being in close quarters with others for at least the first few miles until the packs of runners thin out as they fall into their individual pace times.

Tasha Day, manager of the city’s Special Events and Filming Department, said that the race is currently not permitted to happen.

“Per state orders, we cannot permit any special events right now,” she said. “We’re not issuing permits to anyone because we can’t.”

Day said that most events have canceled due to the uncertainty of the virus but said that hosting a marathon isn’t out of the question. If guidance were to change from the state in time for race organizers to coordinate with runners, vendors and volunteers, 
it could possibly happen. However, the crowds that typically surround the course likely would not be permitted.

The latest that the city could issue a permit and have the race still happen under a city ordinance is 10 days, with that time allowing for residents to be alerted to road closures and potential parking impacts associated with the race. However, the point of no return for race organizers would likely come months before race weekend.

To Run or Not to Run

Despite the uncertainty, runners signed up for this year’s race have varying degrees of certainty that they’d take part if allowed.

This year would have been Laura Brodnax’s fourth time running the Long Beach course, but she highly doubts a race will happen and, if one does, she likely won’t run in it. Brodnax said she’d need to see a significant drop in the transmission rate locally and for that number to hold for at least a month, probably two, for her to feel comfortable on race day.

LA County announced nearly 3,000 new cases Sunday with 142 of those cases being diagnosed in Long Beach.

“The situation on the ground has to drastically improve,” she said.

Aside from the discomfort of having to wear a mask for 13.1 miles, she said there are other logistical issues that she doesn’t think can be solved before race day.

“Where are they going to get the volunteers?” Brodnax said, noting that the Los Angeles race in March faced shortages. “Whose going to want to volunteer at these water stops? Whose going to want to volunteer at the start line?”

Brodnax has been practicing running with her own water supply because she, like other runners, is wary of taking cups of water from volunteers and putting it to her lips for a drink that may also serve as a point of infection.

The Los Angeles Marathon was the last major race to be run in the county. The Boston Marathon which was scheduled for May was canceled for the first time ever and the New York Marathon, scheduled for the first weekend of November has been canceled as well.

Alfonso Esquivias, a 28-year-old bartender who also works at a gym, said he would be open to competing in the race if it happens. He said that with the amount of running he’s put in since the pandemic has closed businesses across the region he’s confident he could “crush” his personal record.

“Because of what I have to do [for work] I’m a little more accustomed to putting myself in situations around people,” Esquivias said. “We’re not sharing anything other than space.”

There have been limited studies on how likely a person is to contract COVID-19 while exercising outdoors. Heavy breathing while exercising has been shown to spread respiratory droplets farther but being in open air can make them dissipate faster.

Health officials have recommended people exercising outdoors to wear a mask if they’re unable to maintain social distancing while doing activities like running. Social distancing before the start of a marathon held under normal circumstances is nearly impossible.

Esquivias wears a mask at work and when he’s out in the community but said he likely wouldn’t wear one during the race. The threat, he said, would likely be at the starting line which he hopes race organizers can figure out a solution for like assigning start times to individual runners in an effort to avoid the corrals of people waiting for start of the race.

The Long Beach Marathon, a qualifier for more prestigious races like Boston, is a chip-timed race so it wouldn’t matter what time a runner began the race.

The Virtual Option

The last time the Long Beach Marathon was canceled wasn’t due to a global pandemic but because of the lack of a corporate sponsor. Due to the loss of sponsorship, the race didn’t happen for three years from 1996-1998. Jim Warnemuende, who turns 80 this year, was one of the runners who kept the race alive by banding together with others to run the unofficial, not blocked off, audience-free course. They named it the Bob Fernald Memorial Marathon, after the former race director who passed away.

“We started together, we finished together and we had beer,” Warnemuende said. “We did that for three years in a row.”

Warnemuende is a legacy runner with Long Beach, meaning he’s run the race every year. Since 1996, he said he’s run the race twice a year, the Bob Fernald in February—the Long Beach race was bumped to October when it resumed in 1999 due to proximity with the Los Angeles race—and the official race in October.

But now a resident of Redding, he’s contemplating if it will be safe enough for him to make the eight-hour drive to Long Beach to do the race if it’s allowed. He’s hoping that maybe race organizers could allow legacy runners like himself to start hours before the rest of the field to allow them to put distance between them and the rest of the pack.

“I have a lot of anxiety about running that many runners,” he said. “I’m almost 80 years old. After the gun goes off there are going to be a whole lot of people running past me and breathing hard.”

The virtual race, an option that existed prior to the pandemic and is being extended to legacy runners like himself is the likely option he’ll select, Warnemuende said. Runners can run any 26.2 mile route and log their time with a fitness tracker and submit a link to those results or a photo of the tracker as proof of completion.

However, races like Boston do not accept virtual marathons as qualifying finish times.

For a runner like Warnemuende who has been running for 40 years and is likely to log a 25-mile training run prior to race day, solitude is not the issue. Maintaining his legacy status is, and so is his personal safety.

“I’m used to going out there and running by myself,” Warnemuende said. “It’s a mindset, you just run alone and be with your mind. It’s very meditative.”

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.
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