SCHENECTADY — They will be rolling out a new kind of slot machine, if you will, at Rivers Casino on Saturday.
And the safest bet is that hundreds of runners will enjoy a payoff.
Albany Running Exchange Event Productions (AREEP) will be holding the inaugural Electric City 5 Miler road race, to start and finish in the Mohawk Harbor complex, at 9:30 a.m.
Organizing a race can be a complicated chore under any circumstances, especially when the course uses public roads. These days, with a battery of COVID-19 regulations and restrictions governing safe distancing and healthy practices, that task rises to a whole new level.
AREEP already has some experience with this altered landscape, and has been compelled to develop their own “slot machine,” a staging-area system by which the runners are assigned time slots that stagger starts every 10 seconds in groups of no more than six runners.
It’s one of many COVID-induced adjustments AREEP has made, but they’ve already demonstrated that in-person road races — not just virtual ones — can return to the sports calendar under CDC, state and local guidelines.
The Electric City 5 Miler represents the latest in a series of races AREEP will be holding in 2021, and the first of two new races that will use Mohawk Harbor as a home base.
“A long-standing mission of mine has been to develop a race series that we fully own and operate, and the silver lining of the pandemic is that it’s given me the time to focus on that, which hasn’t been the case since 2008,” AREEP president Josh Merlis said on Wednesday.
A year after the racing schedule was decimated everywhere, with virtual options offering a small measure of consolation in some cases, AREEP will present a race in every month of 2021 except January and September.
The official series schedule on the group’s website shows a hole in May, but Merlis said that will be filled by the Miles on the Mohawk, offering five-mile, 10-mile and marathon distances, on Sunday, May 30, which falls on Memorial Day weekend.
In the meantime, he has 600 runners registered for the Electric City 5 Miler on Saturday. They’ve each been assigned a group number and letter that correspond to specific times to be in the starting area, with 10-second intervals between groups at the line.
Runners can pull down their masks out on the course, as long as they’re six-feet distanced from other people, but have to leave them on everywhere else.
“At the end of the day, just, four minutes before your start, get your butt to the staging area, and then you’re on a conveyor belt, and our people are like, ‘OK, keep moving, keep moving, Group 2, letter B …'” Merlis said. “The Upstate Classic [in November], we had over 1,000 people who showed up and ran, and we’ve got 600 signed up for this weekend. Most of them did the Upstate Classic.”
He said he has noticed that the runners themselves have been learning what the routine is, which helps the process run smoothly, especially pre-race.
“What we’ve really improved is for more of my key people to get experience with the plan and deploying it, especially at the staging, how we’re moving people,” he said.
It’s all chip-timed, so each runner will have a net finish time recorded, and the results will be combined to show placement after the last runner comes in.
In spite of the pandemic, Merlis and his crew have operated eight in-person racing events since last year, most recently the Brave the Blizzard 5k Snowshoe Race in February.
“The initial plan, really, was pretty good,” he said. “It had to be, or we wouldn’t have been allowed to do it again. If anything, I would say we were overly strict right from the start. I mean, for the first major one, the Helderberg one, I had people park based on their zip codes in different sections of a 100-acre field.”
The Electric City 5 Miler course is mostly flat and fast.
It starts on the bike path between the casino and Mohawk Harbor apartments, crosses Freemans Bridge and takes Sunnyside Road to Collins Park, Western Gateway Bridge to the Stockade, and the bike path through Riverside Park back to Mohawk Harbor to complete the loop.
The Miles on the Mohawk to be run on Memorial Day weekend will use the same course for the five-miler, and although details are still being worked out, the marathon will be a loop using much of the bike path to the west, and the 10-miler will be point-to-point from Rotterdam, with the final nine miles the same as the marathon finish stretch.
Many races have already canceled and others remain in limbo, but road racing is making a comeback in 2021.
“People were just so … happy … to be there. I wish I had better, more colorful words for it,” Merlis said. “But that’s it.”