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With the announcement of vaccines also came plans for the return of fall racing. And now that fall marathon season is here, there are some things you should know to have a safe race. Especially because the Delta variant, which data has found to be more infectious, is currently the predominant variant in the United States, according to the CDC. As of October 4, the United States has reported 698,627 deaths and 106,395 new weekly cases being reported on average.
And though vaccines are widely available, there is still vaccine hesitancy. So, it’s important to continue mitigation strategies in your prep leading up to race day, during travel, and on race day itself.
Since racing is finally making a return in a big way in the coming months, it’s understandable that you have more questions than ever about staying safe while finally being able to put your training to good use. So, we tapped David Nieman, Dr.PH., health professor at Appalachian State University and director of the Human Performance Lab at the North Carolina Research Campus, Brian Labus, Ph.D., M.P.H., assistant professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, and Matt Ferrari Ph.D., associate professor of biology in the Eberly College of Science and a researcher with the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at Penn State, to help answer your most frequently asked questions.
What risks will I encounter during travel and race events?
Before traveling to a race, you should consider your own vaccination status as well as the health and vaccination status of those in your household. And, this cannot be stressed enough, if you test positive for COVID-19 or are a close contact of someone who has tested positive (anyone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period, as defined by the CDC) you should not attend your race.
With that being said, the risks that you will encounter depends on where you are going, says Labus. Different places have different rules on mask usage and social distancing, different vaccination rates, and different rates of COVID. International travel is even more complicated, often involving testing before entering the country and before returning home—even if you are vaccinated.
You can check the vaccination status of the city you are headed to for a race using state or local government websites. You can also track the daily COVID-19 cases using this Johns Hopkins data. If you are traveling for an international race, be sure to check local guidelines for vaccination, negative test, and quarantine requirements.
What should I know about staying safe as I travel to races if I’m vaccinated?
Right now, especially because of the Delta variant, you still have to wear good masks—such as an N-95—and be very careful about getting into situations where there’s large groups, especially in small indoor spaces, says Nieman—even if you’re vaccinated. “Make sure you remain in areas where there is good ventilation and stay outdoors as much as possible.”
Keep in mind, the vaccines also do an excellent job preventing hospitalization or death if you do happen to develop breakthrough disease, according to Labus.
And, while there’s a good chance you won’t get very sick if exposed, it is possible that you could bring infection home (or to work) to others post-race. So, if you have access to rapid tests, it would be a good idea to test yourself for 3 to 5 days after high-risk activities, like travel, to ensure you’re not putting others at risk, Ferrari explains.
What is my race doing to keep runners safe?
In most cases, major marathons are allowing both a negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination. Nieman says that, especially given the Delta variant, there’s a high likelihood that unvaccinated runners could be carrying the virus and spreading it around, so for those people, they should mask up and test frequently the in days and weeks leading up to the race.
Most larger races have a mask requirement (remember, effective masks are at least two-ply and fit your face snugly) in all high-density areas such as indoor venues—like packet pickup—in the starting areas, and in the post-finish area. In additional, races have implemented a smaller field as well as spacing out starting waves.
With that being said, because races are crowded and running isn’t conducive to wearing a mask, social distancing and mask requirements can’t be used to protect you 100 percent, according to Labus. “That leaves organizers only one option, which is fortunately the most effective way to prevent COVID—the best thing that race organizers can do to protect runners is require that anyone participating is vaccinated,” he says.
All unvaccinated runners should keep in mind that a negative test administered by a healthcare provider given in the few days leading up to the race will be required to participate. Most large-scale marathons are requiring either proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within a certain timeframe before the race. For instance, the Boston Marathon is testing on site, the New York City Marathon requires a negative test within 48 hours of race day, and the Chicago Marathon requires a negative test within 72 hours of race day.
If you test positive for COVID-19 or are a close contact to someone who tests positive, you should contact your race for further instructions on how to defer your entry or get a refund for your race fee if that is an option.
The best way to find out specifics about the race you are running is by checking the race FAQ page. Check here for the Chicago Marathon, here for the Boston Marathon, and here for the New York City Marathon.
On race day, what are some extra precautions I can take to keep myself and others safe?
“Masks are still the best extra layer after vaccination,” Ferrari says. So, if you can, wear a mask when things are tight at the start and finish to help yourself and others.
And, for those who are not vaccinated, Labus cautions that while masks can help, you will still be standing close to many runners who have traveled from all over, and you won’t be running with a mask on. “Your best option is to be fully vaccinated before you line up,” Labus says.
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Are there any signs that would make my race unsafe to attend?
“Everyone has a different level of risk that they are willing to accept, so there is no one simple answer to this. You have to look at what is happening with COVID at the time of the race and make the decision that is best for you,” Labus says.
If you’re a vaccinated older runner (65 and up), Nieman suggests looking at the race environment as a whole and determining how safe you feel. If you feel unsafe, there’s no harm in waiting until virus levels decline to race.
Both Ferrari and Labus caution you to take a look at hospital capacity, as you may still need access to already overwhelmed medical services, even if it’s not coronavirus-related.
“I would be concerned if the hospitals in the area are completely overwhelmed with COVID patients,” Labus says. Consider: If you get injured during the race, will they have the capacity to take care of you? Or will you just make a bad problem worse?
Jordan Smith Digital Editor Jordan Smith is a writer and editor with over 5 years of experience reporting on health and fitness news and trends.
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