During a pandemic, all systems go for Upstate Classic road race

PHOTO PROVIDEDTo maintain social distancing, runners use a 10-second staggered start during the Thacher Park Trail Running Festival in August.

To maintain social distancing, runners use a 10-second staggered start during the Thacher Park Trail Running Festival in August.

They’re going to say “Go” 325 times.

In a year when so much has stopped, the inaugural Upstate Classic road race is going to start on Sunday, at the crack of 8:30 a.m.

Ten seconds later, it’s going to start again. In fact, it’s going to start 325 times over the span of well over an hour.

There will be over 1,000 runners, in the flesh, at the Altamont Fairgrounds, but as Josh Merlis pointed out, “Density is all that should matter,” not raw crowd volume numbers. So at a time when large public gatherings are still forbidden in New York state, the president of Albany Running Exchange Events Production (AREEP) has formulated a detailed and comprehensive plan to hold a road race — remember them? — while applying principles and CDC and New York state guidelines designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Most races have gone virtual, including the annual MVP Health Care Stockade-athon 15k, which had been scheduled for Sunday, but is offering a finish time submission window from Oct. 12 to Dec. 15.

The Upstate Classic is offering what has become a rare opportunity to run a race like it was meant to be, against a big field on the same course at the same time. That said, the race will have substantial modifications from a conventional one, such as staggered starts releasing a maximum of four runners at any given interval, all with the purpose of keeping everyone safe.

“Now more than ever, races need to be deployed a certain way to truly maximize the safety,” Merlis said. “You have to have a plan, and you have to execute it that way. It is our mission to safely deploy these events so the people of the 518 have something healthy that they can enjoy outdoors.

“We have received messages from people that this is the highlight of their year, and I am not embellishing that.”

If you’re dying for a race and suddenly thinking of jumping into the Upstate Classic, which offers 5k, half marathon and marathon options, don’t bother.

Registration closed over two weeks ago, to allow AREEP enough time to put the final touches on organization, such as building a starting time grid and communicating it to the runners.

The field is split into groups of 50 that will be directed to various staging areas as their starting time approaches, with specific appointments down to the second.

The Participant Handbook is 16 pages and outlines everything from when and where to be masked; no contact water stops (bring your own bottle, no cups); a map of the staging areas; and directions on what to do at the finish (“What a rush it will be!”) to ensure that runners keep moving and aren’t milling about in groups.

AREEP is uniquely equipped in the Capital Region to pull all of this off, since the timing and event management company has developed a reputation over the last 20 years of covering every aspect of race operation. The challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic became another logistical puzzle to solve.

“I’ve been in business almost 20 years, we’ve worked over 1,500 events in the past decade, we were scheduled for 200 races this year, we work across the country, Nike events of 25,000 people, New York City Marathon … we’re not a PTA 5k that’s never done this,” Merlis said.

“Everything we have done to make our events happen, objectively, has been safer than everything else that has otherwise been allowed to happen in any kind of retail experience. We feel like our events are objectively safer than going to the mall, going food shopping, safer than eating at a restaurant.”

That’s “events”, plural, since AREEP has already operated some races after the state began to work its way through the series of phases opening up business and activities.

The first was the Dodge the Deer 5k on June 27, originally scheduled for Schodack Island State Park, but held in Slingerlands. That race served as a building block supporting AREEP’s subsequent event deployment plans and applications to local authorities.

Altamont Fairgrounds is privately owned, and the Upstate Classic application went through the Town of Guilderland, Merlis said.

“Our Dodge the Deer race in June was supposed to be at Schodack Island State Park, and even though we were technically allowed 25 people, they did not feel comfortable allowing the race,” Merlis said. “So I rented a private farm where I held the race and we did two people every 10 seconds, and when I got permission for the Thacher Park race in August, part of my application was mentioning, ‘Here’s how we did that Dodge the Deer,’ and that helped us get permission to have 50 people.”

AREEP ran the Thacher Park Trail Running Festival on Aug. 23, followed by the Druthers Helderberg to Hudson Half Marathon on Aug. 29, rescheduled from April and switched to a start and finish on the Altamont Fairgrounds to keep it more self-contained and logistically feasible.

Besides the 200 events AREEP is contracted to do for clients, the organization owns several of its own races, including the Hairy Gorilla Half Marathon and Squirelly Six Mile, which were run for the 16th time back at John Boyd Thacher State Park on Oct. 31.

“One thing to put it in context, we had about the same number of runners this year [for Hairy Gorilla] as we had last year; last year, it took roughly 30 seconds to start everyone, and this year it took 28 minutes,” Merlis said.

“We have so much control over these events and how they’re experienced, and we had to modify how they’re controlled, but also how it’s experienced.”

With only six of the 200 contracted races happening this year, AREEP is losing 95% of its revenue, he said.

Merlis is particularly frustrated that, at a time when the public health is of grave concern to everyone, an outdoor sporting event that promotes good health at is being lumped in with weddings and concerts when considering crowd capacity.

In an email, he pointed out that “The square footage of the physical grounds of the Altamont Fairgrounds would allow for 28,000 people to be present if it were an indoor retail business.

“We will have a little over 1,000 present — occupying a space outdoors, immensely larger than Crossgates Mall, which can exceed 8,000 concurrent shoppers.”

Those 1,000 runners on Sunday will be told, in small clusters, to “Go” every 10 seconds, and a process that should take about a 60 seconds will take 80 minutes.

Based on the enthusiastic response Merlis has seen in social media in the wake of his previous races this year, all these extra measures will have been worth it …

“Josh and team, this is the template going forward. Flawless, perfect attention to the details, safety a top priority. You guys met the challenge , and made history. We can’t thank you enough.”

“Many thanks to you for organizing this race! I would say that it was a great success overall and I think that many of us needed this in person race to lift our spirits in this challenging year.”

Categories: -The Daily Gazette, Sports

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