Typically the final entry on South County’s annual running calendar, the Ocean State Rhode Races event in Narragansett was this year the first, and maybe the last and only.
The event’s 5K, half marathon and marathon were held on Sunday, the first in-person races in the area since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. All the other usual events – including the Blessing of the Fleet Road Race – went virtual or were canceled.
The other events in the Rhode Races series met a similar fate, but the company targeted Narragansett as a way to get back up and running, with precautions in place.
“At one point, we had tears in our eyes because we were just so happy,” said Rhode Races co-founder Susan Rancourt. “A lot of what we do is we get to help people attain goals. We hear a lot of amazing stories. So it was such a great day to be back.”
Signs bearing the words “Road Race Sunday” – a common sight in the summer and fall – reappeared last week on Route 1A, Middlebridge Road and in Bonnet Shores. One hundred eighty five runners hit the roads for the marathon, 168 ran the half marathon and 69 participated in the 5K. The organizers heard nothing but good things.
“I think everyone was so excited to have an actual race,” Rancourt said. “They were like kindergarteners – what do we do, where do we stand, how does this work?”
August marked the return of road races to the state, with the Funky Monkey Half Marathon and 5K in Smithfield breaking the ice. South County’s summer circuit had already been called off by then. The Blessing of the Fleet Road Race and the Bobby Doyle Summer Classic went to virtual races, where runners log the distance on their own and post times, while the Run 4 Kerri in Matunuck was canceled. The Ocean Road 10K, which had been slated for early October, was also canceled. The Narrow River Road Race, which typically happens in May, was canceled as well. The Rhode Island State Police 5K Foot Pursuit went virtual.
Rhode Races went virtual for several of its events, including the Providence Marathon, but worked to create a safety plan that was eventually approved by the state for Narragansett. They also offered a virtual option.
“One of the things we’ve spent the last eight months doing is learning from our industry partners, learning best practices, and watching what other people were doing,” Rancourt said. “I talked to a race director in New Hampshire who has already had 25 events this year. The difference is New Hampshire included race directors as part of their reopening plan. They have a protocol, where we kind of had to lobby and create this protocol ourselves and try to get somebody at the [Department of Business Relations] to look at the plan and agree to it. We have been watching and learning what other events are doing, and we have not seen a road race that has been a super spreader event or has had COVID cases attached to it.”
The starting line featured the most visible differences, with social-distancing decals that have become common in stores spread out on the pavement. Runners lined up four across and 25 rows back. They were told to keep masks on through the start and up to the first half mile. For the 5K, runners started in 10-second intervals to create more space.
“With the three races, we’re basically spreading people out over seven hours and 26 miles,” Rancourt said. “We completely eliminated a lot of things. Normally, we have athlete food, a massage tent, photographers. This was completely bare bones. All the post-race stuff was you cross the finish line, water and prepackaged food were on tables and then it was back to your car.”
The field of runners was willing to do whatever it took.
“Everybody was so amazing,” Rancourt said. “I was so nervous about somebody not wanting to follow the rules. We had waivers and participant agreements. Everybody was really great about it.”
Brain Reis of Cooperstown, New York, won the marathon. Stephen Paddock of Wethersfield, Connecticut, won the half marathon. Ken Vinacco of Scituate won the 5K.
The Narragansett races are the only ones on the calendar for the Rhode Races crew in 2020, though they will start right away in 2021 with the 36th annual Hangover Classic in Bristol on New Year’s Day.
While there is uncertainty about the future of road races amid the pandemic, Rancourt thinks some of the changes forced by the current circumstances will stick as positive impacts.
“The technology is evolving so much. We’re looking at doing a race that has an audio tour, where you get cues in your ear about what you’re going to see along the way,” Rancourt said. “COVID has definitely changed the road race environment and we don’t know how long this is going to go on. A lot of people said they preferred this way, where they had some space. And it’s pretty scaleable.”