The Boston Marathon Is Going Virtual, So What Does This Mean for Other Marathons?

On Thursday, the Boston Athletic Association announced that the Boston Marathon would hold a virtual event rather than a live race during the coronavirus pandemic, leading to questions about what may happen with other marathons in the coming months.

The race had already been moved from April 20 to September 14, but the association's CEO Tom Grilk said that safety was the prime concern in choosing to move the event online. "Our top priority continues to be safeguarding the health of the community, as well as our staff, participants, volunteers, spectators, and supporters," Grilk said in a statement. "While we cannot bring the world to Boston in September, we plan to bring Boston to the world for an historic 124th Boston Marathon."

In the announcement, the BAA said that it would refund all participants and provide virtual events including panel discussions, interviews, and more. The organization also said that all virtual participants who ran 26.2 miles in a six-hour time frame and could show proof of time would receive a program, T-shirt, medal and runner's bib.

BAA did not respond to Newsweek's emailed request for comment in time for publication.

Rich Harshbarger, CEO of the nonprofit trade association Running USA, told Newsweek that safety is a top priority in every race. "It's unfortunate what's happened in the industry overall with mass gatherings. To see such an established and historic event unable to take place in person is disappointing, but it's as a result of keeping people safe, and that has always been at the heart of what this industry is about: keeping people safe and allowing people to achieve their goals of healthy living," Harshbarger told Newsweek. "At every race, whether it's as storied as Boston or a local 5K, the number one thing on event directors' minds is the safety of their participants, and unfortunately, it's not safe to be at a mass-gathered event this year."

With almost everyone unsure of how to proceed in the COVID-19 pandemic, Harshbarger said that "its hard to be definitive" about what Boston's move to virtual will mean for future races. "There's not a national response to this pandemic. Every state is operating a little bit differently," he said. "I think it's likely that others will have to be in virtual or get cancelled, but it's hard to know based on the individual states."

While Boston has opted to move online, many other marathon organizers have yet to cancel or make adjustments to their plans, still hoping to run in 2020. The New York Road Runners shared an announcement on May 14 that said the New York City Marathon was "proceeding as planned" on November 1, but the team was "exploring alternatives, modifications, and new approaches, all of which would need to follow government guidelines to ensure the health and safety of our runners for our in-person events and programs to return" and would keep giving updates. New York Mayor Bill De Blasio said that it was "too early to come to any conclusions," in a May 20 press conference.

The San Francisco Marathon is also set to go on as rescheduled on November 15. Melissa Faulkner marketing director of the event's producer Jumping Fences, told Newsweek that the race was still expected to happen. "At this point in time, our event is planned to take place in November. That's the date that the city has supported us on and the date that they gave us for rescheduling our original July date. So, we are moving forward in that direction and have had nothing but positive support from the city and the county," Faulkner said. While the event is still planned to take place in November, Faulkner also explained that a virtual alternative was offered to those who could not attend the rescheduled date. The San Francisco Marathon also offered a virtual event in 2019.

She also explained that while seeing the Boston Marathon move online is disappointing, it does not necessarily mean that it will affect the San Francisco race. "There's a lot yet to be seen in terms of races because of the COVID crisis. San Francisco is a different city. We're two months after Boston was scheduled to take place on their rescheduled date. We also attract a different type of runner. So, we're not necessarily taking it as a foreshadowing. We're always very disappointed and saddened to see any race that's cancelled, especially since we know how hard all the runners have taken towards qualifying and then also all the training that goes into those types of races."

The Bank of America Chicago Marathon is also scheduled to continue as planned on October 11. In an update on March 20, the event's website stated that race organizers were "closely monitoring the developments related to COVID-19" and would give updates closer to the race.

"The overall impact that the pandemic is having on this sport in particular is tremendous. The majority of events and people who work in this industry are small businesses, and the impact is devastating, and while it's disappointing to see Boston go virtual and not be able to be held in the way that is typical. The impact that this is having on small businesses and timers, on manufacturers of shirts and medals, photographers and the events themselves, shouldn't be overlooked," Harshbarger said.

Boston Marathon
Kenyan Lawrence Cherono edges Ethopian Lelisa Desisa for first place for the Men's Elite race, at the 123rd Boston Marathon on April 15, 2019. Boston Athletic Association CEO Tom Grilk said that safety was the prime concern in choosing to move the event online. RYAN MCBRIDE / AFP/Getty