ALBANY — Grab a box of Freihofer’s chocolate chip cookies off the supermarket shelf, and it’ll look exactly as it it did 20, 30 years ago.
Crack open the box, and the cookies are the same size and shape, with the same number of chips as they’ve always had.
The same can’t be said for the popular 5k road race sponsored by Freihofer’s for the last 43 years.
The Freihofer’s Run for Women, which annually draws a field of over 2,000 that includes a few dozen elite professional runners, some of whom have medaled at the Olympics, will look substantially different when the runners leave the starting line on Saturday.
No change will be more apparent and impactful than the one that happened on the calendar — the Freihofer’s Run typically has been run in the late spring, but will get an early fall look this time, as race organizers have adjusted back to an in-person competition after holding a virtual race last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The ongoing pandemic has prompted other changes to the race, too.
But the race is back, and, as always, promises to offer an interesting mix of elite talent and a big field. Race director Kristen Hislop said entries were at almost 1,200 as of Wednesday morning, with two registration events still to be held Thursday and Friday.
“This year, nothing is typical, with any events, and certainly with the road races,” she said. “Everybody’s right about at 50%. I think the reason, if we didn’t have the virtual option, and we only offered the in-person, it would’ve forced some people to participate in the in-person.”
The Freihofer’s Run has a virtual option via online sign-up through Friday night.
Runners can register for the in-person race, which starts on Washington Avenue just above City Hall at 9 a.m. Saturday, from 4-8 p.m. Thursday and 2-7 p.m. on Friday at The Armory at Russell Sage College, 130 New Scotland Ave.
Among the changes related to the pandemic will be a variety of health and safety measures, most notably a staggered start that sends waves of small groups at intervals. The race is chip-timed, so runners will get a net time based on when they crossed the start and finish.
“I had a couple epidemiologists, public health and doctors on a committee who took what was happening at other big races and events around the country and say, ‘Hey, what are they doing?’, then looking at what’s happening locally and what we should do,” Hislop said. “We met with all the government entities, Albany police and they said what you’re doing looks great.
“What we wanted to do is create the least amount of risk. We’re trying to mitigate as much risk as we possibly can.”
Runners will not be required to be vaccinated for COVID.
The Freihofer’s Run did cancel its annual Health & Fitness Expo accompanying packet pickup and registration at The Armory because it falls in the category of large indoor gatherings.
There will also be no Kids Fun Run.
“The ones that are requiring vaccination have large indoor gatherings, or like the Boilermaker has a big beer party afterwards, and people are packed in there. So we’re not doing that,” Hislop said.
“I didn’t want to have [expo] vendors coming in and not having people taking the time to sit and chat with them and talk about their product or service. We felt like we were mitigating enough risk that we didn’t need to go down the route of requiring vaccination.”
Albany Running Exchange, which has held several in-person races with staggered starts and other safety measures since last fall, will conduct the timing and results tabulation.
Runners will have various colors on their bibs corresponding to staging corrals based on the runners’ expected finish time to promote social distancing.
With the staggered intervals, the field should be clear of the starting line in about five minutes.
“It’s just a nice flow of everybody going onto the street and you’re starting with people who are pretty much the same pace,” Hislop said. “Washington Avenue is wide, we’ve got tons of space and can naturally keep people a little distanced.”
A staggered start could create competitive advantages in the elite field, but with just 20 runners, they’ll have plenty of room on Washington to line up together.
The calendar shift did have a profound impact on the field, though.
June is a comfortable spot for a 5k on the schedule for many elite runners, but September is a different story.
The Boston Marathon, which is usually run in April, is also regaining in-person status after going virtual in 2020 and is scheduled for Oct. 11, and the New York City Marathon is Nov. 7.
“It’s marathon season. It’s two weeks out from Boston, right?” Hislop said. “So there’s lots of people who have their marathon, and even throwing a 5k in, is it speed training? You’ve got to plan that into your program, and a lot of the coaches are saying, ‘No, you’re not doing that, because we’re peaking for the marathon.’
“Then there’s collegiate runners, and they’re in the middle of their season. Usually in June, we’ll get some high school runners even though it’s state qualifier time. But depending on how far you go in the collegiate season, a lot of those runners are done by then.
“That definitely has affected us. And just the change in the time and change of the year. I know a few who are moms and have kid stuff that they have to be doing. So it’s a challenge. I think we’re going to have a nice, fun, close elite race, which will be great. It might be more regional. We’re pulling from Boston, and we’ve got a top masters runner, Sascha [Scott], coming from Syracuse. Having them come in is great because it showcases the incredible talent we have in our area.”
One change that will benefit more runners at the top of the results table is that the prize money will be dispersed over a wider range.
The winner usually gets $10,000 and the runner-up $5,000, but this year it’ll be $3,000 and $2,500, respectively, with top 10 open, top fives masters, top five age-graded, top five USATF members and top five USATF-registered teams each getting a check.
Hislop said race organizers expect to get back to the usual June date for the Freihofer’s Run in 2022.
“It’s funny how people get in their pattern of ‘I do this race at this time,'” she said. “I’ve been talking to a lot of runners, and they didn’t have things to do during COVID, and some people overran. Then there were people who stopped racing and now are having a hard time getting back to it.
“It’s almost like that fear of, ‘Wow, I haven’t raced in awhile, am I going to be able to?’ for some of the more competitive people. If you’re not racing regularly, you kind of forget, like, ‘Oh, man, it should hurt now,’ and ‘I do have it in me.'”
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