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Runners start fast in the 2019 Blessing of the Fleet Road Race.

The Blessing of the Fleet Road Race draws thousands of runners to Narragansett every July, and its organizers hope many of them will keep running, wherever they are, following the cancellation of the in-person event and the switch to a virtual race due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Narragansett Lions Club has organized the race for 49 years, and proceeds from registration fees provide the bulk of the group’s budget. In turn, those funds are doled out to local charities, youth programs, community projects and to individuals and families in need.

“Our biggest reason for doing the virtual race really was that we need to be able to help people,” said Narragansett Lions Club President Ryan Meyer. “We give money to a lot of organizations. This virtual race was an avenue to do that. Whatever we raise, we give away. Normally, we have about 3,000 runners. If we can get 2,000 runners, that would be amazing, a massive turnout. And that would allow us to continue to support the community.”

The Lions Club plans for the next year’s race almost as soon as the last runner crosses the finish line. As soon as the effects of the pandemic began to take hold in late February and early March, the club began making plans for adjustments. With gatherings expected to be limited all summer, a road race with 3,000 people became unrealistic. Even if there was a possibility of having the race, organizers couldn’t make that bet and plan a race that only might happen.

“We start planning for the Blessing in December, and we really plan all year for it,” Meyer said. “In February and March, when things were getting serious with coronavirus, it was immediately a main discussion of, ‘What’s going to happen?’ And then, the state sort of made the decision for us. We obviously wanted to do it, but I think we knew pretty early on, it wasn’t going to be realistic.”

The race has long been a summer tradition in South County, drawing top local runners and engaging the community in ways that few other races in Rhode Island can. There are parties at dozens of houses along the route, people cheering from lawn chairs and gathering amid the festive atmosphere at the finish line in the Pier.

“We realize the big party and the major event is not a reality this year,” Meyer said. “People are obviously going to be disappointed about that. But our feeling was, we can still give people part of it, a piece of the tradition to keep alive.”

Virtual races have quickly become the new standard amid the pandemic. The Providence Marathon, which was scheduled for early May, also became an online event. The Boston Marathon, after initially postponing to a date in September, was recently canceled and switched to the virtual realm. While obviously not the same, the virtual races are motivation for runners to keep their training going and, for races that benefit charities, a chance to uphold that mission. Runners complete the mileage on their own, within a date range, and log their time online. Times are compiled into official results. For the Blessing, runners are asked to complete their personal 10-mile run between July 25 and August 1. The race was orginally scheduled for July 24.

“It’s a way to keep the essence of the race alive,” Meyer said. “People really love running the Blessing and I think this gives people something to look forward to. You’d be amazed at how many people sign up for the Blessing of the Fleet Road Race six months in advance. We wanted to keep it alive because people really enjoy it.”

Brain Doyle is one of those who has always enjoyed it, especially the last two years. The former Bishop Hendricken and Providence College standout, now an assistant cross country and track coach at Davidson College, has won the last two Blessing of the Fleet titles.

“It will be disappointing to miss the live version of the race,” Doyle said. “For me, the Rhode Island summer road racing scene has always been about bringing people together. I feel at home among that community. If virtual racing is all we can safely do this year, then we’ll deal with it and come back hungry next year.”

Doyle is also one of the organizers of the annual Bobby Doyle Summer Classic, another Narragansett running tradition. That, too, will head to the virtual world. In hopes of running a good time for that race, Doyle may not take on the 10-mile distance of the Blessing, but he will be rooting for the runners who do.

Those who have already signed up for the race will receive an email explaining their options. The same choices are up on the race’s website: stay signed up for the virtual run, donate the entry fee or request a refund. The Lions Club hopes people will embrace the change, both for a taste of competition and to help the cause.

“As president, my feeling was this: the virtual race is an event where we don’t have to put anybody at risk, our own members or the community, we can generate revenue and there’s really no risk of it being canceled,” Meyer said. “That was a big thing, too – if we plan this big event, there’s a very strong chance we’re not going to be able to do it in the end anyway. People have something to look forward to, that they know rain or shine they can do and they can be part of something.

“We ask the hardcore runners and the people who are very competitive, who are used to getting bibs and awards, our ask is just give us one year where we have to give up those things. And it’s really to support the charities. That’s what this year is about.”

It’s especially important given the challenges created by the pandemic, from job losses to food insecurity and health concerns. Lions Club volunteers have teamed with other organizations to help with Belmont Market’s efforts to deliver food to those in need. Belmont, in turn, is taking donations from customers and giving back to the Lions Club, the Elks Club and Southern Rhode Island Volunteers. Belmont Market will be the major sponsor of the virtual race.

“Our thinking with the virtual race was, ‘How do we continue to generate money, so we can continue to help the community?’” Meyer said. “Because the community is probably going to need it more than ever now, and we want to be in a position to help.”

In addition to the race, the accompanying festival in Memorial Square and the actual Blessing of the Fleet in Galilee have been canceled. Meyer said the Lions Club will still host a small ceremony to bless the fishing fleet, which will not be open to the public.

Once the virtual race efforts are complete, the club will turn its attention to next summer, when they hope the race will be back with a bang. Already slated to be a milestone, the race will be bigger than ever.

“Next year will be our 50th road race, so it’s going to be an absolute blowout,” Meyer said. “We’ll do it bigger and better.”

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