Boston is canceled. But running the race during this pandemic isn’t.
The historic event is further making history by announcing today that the marathon is not taking place on its postponed date of September 14. Instead, hopeful Boston Marathoners have the option to run this race virtually.
“The Boston Athletic Association has announced that the 124th Boston Marathon will be held as a virtual event, following Boston Mayor Martin Walsh’s cancellation of the marathon as a mass participation road running event due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) writes.
With its inaugural race in 1897, this is the first time in 124 years that Boston is not being held. While war and weather (like 2017’s heatwave 2018’s freezing rain) hasn’t stopped the approximate 30,000 people from running the event, this coronavirus has.
A disappointment for sure, but this decision makes the best sense for public health. And to be honest, we could have seen it coming. It very well might set the precedent of the looming fate of fall races.
History In The Making
The first time cancellation in the history of the event isn’t the only thing to add to the record. It’s the fact that the Boston Marathon is also adding a virtual option this year.
But is it even worth running it?
“The best advice I can give (as a qualifier in this situation myself) is to enjoy the journey,” RRCA-certified coach Gabe Cox said. “This is the first time in Boston history they’ve had to cancel, and we will be the first— and probably only—virtual Boston runners. Think of it as an epic year and choose a positive attitude toward it.”
Participants registered for the Boston 2020 will be given a refund for their entry fee, but also have the option to run the virtual Boston Marathon.
The rule of the virtual race is to complete the length of the marathon, 26.2 miles, at once—specifically in six hours—just like the organized race. This means you can’t run a few miles over a few days. Runners do have the option of running any time and on any of the dates between September 7 to 14.
Finishers are required to submit proof of timing but will receive an official Boston Marathon program, participant t-shirt, medal, & runner’s bib.
Boston Marathoners can also expect virtual events like panel discussions and champions interviews, as well as a printable finish line.
So Should You Run It?
The choice to go virtual is better than no race at all—if you look at the glass half full. But it’s up to each runner whether or not they want to participate in the event this way.
Worse case there are no organized marathons this fall. (As of Now the New York City Marathon is still on for November 1, 2020.) It’s a way to still complete the goal distance. This option allows marathoners to still be part of the Boston Marathon, giving a sense of community in a time where we need to stay respectively apart.
For those who qualified for their first time, still running the race minus the bells and whistles is a way to still celebrate this victory.
No ‘Boston Feel’
On the downside, is it just won’t be the same. No race atmosphere, no iconic finish line—and runners might actually miss Heartbreak Hill.
One runner took to Instagram to express her sorrow for those who trained and raced hard to qualify and raise money for charity. “I truly think that racing it virtually is a joke for what this race represents and is,” she writes.
“I’ve run Boston three times so far, and to know what this year’s qualifiers will be missing out on and won’t be experiencing is heartbreaking to me,” Facebook RLAG community member Kelly Schurman said. “Boston just can’t be experienced virtually. But [I’m] trying to stay positive. It will be a memory for sure. One for the history books.”
It’s the atmosphere that keeps Boston marathoners coming back each year.
“I admit to running even slower during because I stop to take so many pictures, high-five spectators, grab a kiss in the scream tunnel, take spectators up on their offer of popsicles and perhaps a shot at the top of heartbreak hill, run through open hoses and fire hydrant,” she said. “I literally soak up every single thing that course has to offer and I take my time enjoying every minute.”
Despite this not being an option, running it virtually is still a way to be part of the first-of-its-kind experience.
“Running a virtual wherever you do it won’t be anything like the atmosphere of the real thing,” runner Karen Eastburn said. “It will be a novelty though and you will always be able to say you ran the one that never was.”
“I agree, I’d rather it be the full experience, and if it ran in September it wouldn’t have been,” Cox, the podcaster of Red Hot Mindset said.
However, the author of the book Mind Over Marathon is running it virtually with hopes to come back to 2021 even faster.
Weather or Not To Run
Running Boston on an invitational entry, Schurman ran in 2017, 2018, and 2019. She reminisced running in the heat her first year, the cold her second, and then seeing “all four seasons during the 26.2 miles” last year. “It was raining and hailing when we started and we crossed the finish line dumping cups of water over our heads it was so hot,” she said.
Schurman, who is from Arizona, is undecided if she will race virtually for 2020. With temperatures above 100 in September where she lives, weather plays a major role for her.
“I train in Phoenix where it’s flat as a pancake and hot,” she said. “Running a virtual half will be hard. If we do opt to do it, my husband and I considered driving to California and seeking cooler weather.”
It’s important to consider the heat factor when going for those long miles. Now is the time to train smart. This means keeping a strong body physically that is injury-free while focusing on eating healthy, boosting the immune system, and getting enough sleep.
“Training for a virtual race is slightly different from training for a physical one, especially right now, as we embark on the hotter season,” Cox said. “I would encourage runners not to overtrain but to work on strength and agility.”
If the summer training sounds brutal for runners, don’t feel bad for skipping out if this is what’s best for you. Avoiding heat exhaustion is more important than a Boston medal. Instead, take the time to run for fun and come back to training and racing next year.
Which brings up another important factor to consider: the course. Many live in flat areas that won’t mimic the few hills of Boston.
In comparison, the Marine Corps and L.A. Marathon are arguably more challenging because of its hills are placed earlier in the race. Chicago Marathon is known for being fast and relatively flat.
Those who want to simulate the course of Boston might need to get creative. “Since Arizona is flat my husband and I run the multi-story parking garages at our mall in Scottsdale after the malls close,” Schurman said. “It’s shaded, safe and continuous inclines”
After a recent move to Colorado for Cox, hills are no problem compared to the relatively flat terrain where she lived in Minnesota. “The Boston course is tough because of the hills and where they are positioned throughout the race,” she said. “My suggestion would be to find a hill of any size and incorporate hill workouts into your weekly regimen. Not only should you practice doing the uphill workout, but also incorporate some downhill workouts. The front half of Boston is largely downhill, and if you’re not used to running those slants, the second half will be killer with all the uphill!”
Cox recommends finding at least one hill somewhere in your city. If all else fails, there is the treadmill. There is even the option to create a workout simulating the course on certain treadmills, which she recommended doing over the course of multiple workouts.
No matter how flat your city may be, there’s always one hill. Find that hill. You can also simulate it on a treadmill if you prefer.
Tips To Virtual Boston
It’s unclear whether or not anyone can participate virtually or it’s just for those registered.
“Registration details, including fees for participation and/or shipping costs, will be communicated to all Boston Marathon entrants in the near future,” The B.A.A. writes.
But start training next week and you will have 16-weeks to train for virtual Boston. But do registered runners need to train differently for virtual Boston?
“Run the virtual for fun and come back in 2021 to kick some major butt,” Cox said.
And this is a great point since many experts I spoke to in my book Running During COVID-19 did recommend taking it easy to not overstress the body. Now is not the time to strive for a PR.
“I encourage all 2020 qualifiers to make the most of the virtual race,” Cox, who provides accountability coaching, said. “Train to make it a pleasure run out in nature. Don’t train for speed or time goals. Train because you can. Train because you earned it. Get out there and prove to yourself that you are meant to be a part of the elite club. You earned your spot by qualifying, so now show your support by running.”
She suggested then started to train for a time goal to race in 2021.
“This marathon training cycle is about the mind,” she said. “It’s the perfect time to work on the mental training, which, in my opinion, is as important— if not more important— than the physical training itself. Mind Over Marathon.”
Finishing the 124th virtual Boston Marathon in 2020 will not count towards qualification for the 2021 Boston Marathon. So run it for fun and without the time pressures.
What About Boston 2021?
Cox said she was optimistic that Boston would be held in September. “But deep down I knew that was just optimism,” she added. “With everything going on, I figured if the B.A.A didn’t make the decision themselves, someone above them would force the cancellation.”
The good news is that the B.A.A, is looking into the specifics, but it appears like runners can use their 2020 Boston Marathon qualifying time for 2021.
Registration for the 2021 Boston Marathon opens late September 2020. “The beginning of the qualifying window to be used for application and entry into the 2021 Boston Marathon has been established to be September 15, 2018, which means that we will accept qualifying performances posted for the 2020 event into the 2021 race, as well.”
“I think the B.A.A did its best with the decision it had to make, and giving us both the opportunity to run the race virtually in September as well as the opportunity to register and hope to be accepted to 2021 was the fair and right thing to do,” Cox said. “Because we are in a pool with both the 2020 and 2021 qualifiers for a bid to the Boston Marathon, the qualifying time will most likely be substantially higher, and, in this case, it will stink for those who either qualified for 2020 or for 2021 but don’t make the cut because there are so many in the field vying for a spot.”
More details regarding the qualifying window and registration dates for the 2021 Boston Marathon will be announced and posted in the coming weeks. Keep in mind that having a qualifying time does not mean the runner automatically is accepted to run.
The Bottom Line
From someone who is not a Boston Marathoner but has a deep respect for the race and its athletes, I could only sympathize with how heartbreaking the cancellation is. But it shouldn’t be soul-crushing. This is out of our hands and is just the world we live in now. As much as I miss races and have too trained hard for ones that were canceled, it is what is needed to do for our health safety.
I cannot wait for races to be held again and agree with many other runners who believe that there will no fall races.
From someone who just virtually ran a half marathon, I know how hard it can be to do without the race atmosphere. When your legs start to feel heavy and doubt clouds your mind, it’s the crowd that breaks through that fog and serves as a source of energy.
“One thing about training for a virtual and why I think it should be trained to run essentially for fun is because the adrenaline of race day just won’t be there,” Cox said. “It’s a completely different atmosphere running alone or with a buddy then standing at the start line with thousands of others rearing to go.”
It might not be ideal or even capture the spirit of the Boston Marathon, but one thing Boston Marathoners are is strong. And to be named among these athletes even for a virtual race is a badge of strength in its own right.
“Control the controllable— this is huge,” Cox added. “We can only control two things: Our attitude and our actions. We can’t control these circumstances or the weather or other people. All we can control is how we will react to the circumstances in front of us.”
Remember why we run, although the show won’t go on the run still does.
The next Boston Marathon takes place on April 14, 2021.