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A Year After The Marathon Trials, Atlanta Gets Back To Racing This Weekend

02/25/2021
By David Monti, @d9monti
(c) 2021 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved

(24-Feb) -- One year ago on Saturday the Atlanta Track Club (ATC) staged the largest-ever edition of the USA Olympic Team Trials Marathon on the streets of Atlanta, a joyous and raucous celebration of elite running which determined America's Tokyo Olympic marathon team.  Certainly exhausted, but still very motivated, the ATC team rallied back the following morning to put on the Publix Atlanta Marathon, Half-Marathon and 5-K, too.  Between the three distances the Sunday event had nearly 11,000 finishers, and five of the six USA Olympic team members came out to cheer on the runners.  It was one of the most memorable weekends in road running ever in the United States.

But due to the pandemic, it has taken the ATC exactly one year to plan and stage another large in-person event, Atlanta's Marathon Weekend, which takes place on Saturday and Sunday at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, a NASCAR racetrack located about 30 miles south of downtown Atlanta in Hampton, Ga.  The ATC is geared up to host (safely!) up to 5,000 runners between Saturday night's 5-K, and Sunday's marathon and half-marathon (there are also virtual race options for those not yet comfortable with an in-person event).  The ATC team couldn't be more excited.

"I get goosebumps," said Jennie Coakley the ATC's senior manager of events on a video conference with Race Results Weekly on Monday.  She continued: "So for the first time in a year I'm panicking at some points, and I have so much adrenaline. I have this overwhelming feeling of joy at other times because it's just so exciting.  I cannot wait for people to have this experience."

Under executive director Rich Kenah, the ATC has spent their time during the pandemic reimagining road races and how they can be put on safely.  Starting with small test events, Kenah's team has looked at every risk factor in virus spread and how best to mitigate those risks.  The result is an elegant software-driven, race-by-appointment system which will be used this weekend to insure that each runner has plenty of physical space from the time they arrive at the race to the time they go home.

"We identify how many people we feel should be in any venue at any given time, and it does vary," explained Lisa Tanner the organization's director of events.  "We started out with these little (events) as five people starting every five minutes, and it was just a loop around our facility, and it was a mile.  We choreographed every moment of their day, so we controlled when they arrive on site, we control when they get out of the car, and the list goes on."

The Speedway is the perfect venue for a COVID-safe running event, ATC officials said.  The facility not only has a wide, 1.5 mile racetrack, but an entire network of service roads which surround the track, ideal for creating an interesting, car-free running course.  Athletes will start on one of the facility's captive roadways and finish on the racetrack itself, utilizing a multi-loop course which takes advantage of the Speedway's sprawling grounds.

"As we started all these test events we just started to accumulate a list of possible sites," Coakley said.  "Some of them were appropriate for smaller events, and some were appropriate for larger ones.  Atlanta Motor Speedway was simply one of the properties which made the list.  We went to do a site visit.  Three of the event managers went down there, and the minute we drove on the property I think I sent Lisa a text and I said, 'No more discussion. This is going to be it.'  Every single one of us was sold."

The Speedway was excited to host the ATC and worked with the club on making the venue rental affordable for the not-for-profit.  Like other businesses which depend on large gatherings of people, the Speedway was significantly impacted by the pandemic and welcomed the opportunity to host Atlanta's Marathon Weekend.

"They were open to it right away," Coakley said.  "They have actually had running events there in the past.  So, it was not a completely foreign event for them to host."  She continued: "They were open to it, because they had also struggled with events being cancelled at their venue.  So, any sort of activity they could have on their property they were certainly willing to have that discussion with open arms."

The race-by-appointment system requires each entrant to select a five-minute starting window for their distance.  Friends can coordinate their starting times so they can run together.  The event uses two large, parallel starting areas, and 80 runners will start at once, 40 per area.  Each runner has personal space of eight square feet.  Runners are not grouped by pace, and everyone will be scored by net time, sometimes called "chip time."  The athletes will space out quickly when they begin to run because they will be moving at different speeds.

"What that does is it spreads people out even more," Tanner said.

Moreover, runners have to follow a rigid script, from arrival to departure, which assures them of adequate personal space.  Runners arrive a maximum of 45 minutes before their appointed starting time, and mask-up before leaving their cars.  From there, they go to a health screening and the ATC team verifies whether they have submitted their health screening form.  Once cleared, runners get a special wristband which will allow them to enter the venue and pick up their bibs.  From there, they go to the start area at their appointed time.  Runners have to carry their masks throughout the race and put them back on immediately after finishing.  That's a lot of rules to follow, but Tanner isn't worried that runners won't adhere to race guidelines.

"We were blown away by the gratitude and willingness of the running and walking community to play by the rules," Tanner explained.  "They were so excited to be out there again.  They realize that we have one chance to do this right, and we take this very seriously."

Elite athletes like Molly Seidel, Matt Llano, Zach Panning, and Natosha Rogers will also take part, getting their own start at 6:40 a.m.  Those athletes not only have to pass the regular health screening, but also have to show evidence of two negative COVID tests in the seven days ahead of the race, a USATF guideline.  The elites, who will start ahead of everyone else, will be scored on gun time so their marks will count for records and personal bests.

"It's excitement and gratitude to the Atlanta Track Club to even put this event on, to have a safe place for us to run," said Llano in a telephone interview with Race Results Weekly.

That over 40 elite athletes will be taking part was not part of the original race plan.  The race does not have a dedicated elite athlete budget for prize money, travel or lodging, but there was so much demand from top athletes looking for a safe place to race that Kenah added the elite start.

"There was no plan to incorporate elite athletes," Kenah admitted.  "In fact in a conversation we said we are not going to spend our time, and our effort and our resources investing on elite athletes in this event.  We only did so because of the number of elite athletes who reached out to us to see whether we were willing to provide an opportunity for competition.  And of course, we accommodated."

He stressed that the event would not look at all like the Trials where the course was completely "dressed."

"It's going to be very different," he said.  "It's going to be functional, it's going to be operational, it's going to be safe."

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