"Life is a Lot Harder Than Running in This Race"

by Josh Merlis

Andy LaPorta and I shared these words shortly after he crossed the finish line. While you may not know Andy, if you were there, you most certainly saw him; he was the one carrying the American flag. Upon his back was the picture of Sgt. First Class Ethan Carpenter. It was in his memory that Andy ran.

What should I do?

In the final few days before the 2nd Annual Electric City 5 Miler, it was clear that a storm was coming our way. The timing was still being figured out, along with the type of precipitation, but the overall picture was bleak: it’s not going to be pretty.

So many thoughts were running through my head. But it was all ultimately related to a single question: should the race be canceled?

As a matter of principle, and viewed solely from a difficulty of running perspective, I am a firm believer in the show must go on. In simpler terms, if all the participants were sleeping in a hotel at the start line, and all that the participants had to do was walk out the door of the hotel, run the race on a bike path with 1 turn-around, and go back into their hotel, heck yeah, we’re running. But our scenario was not quite as simple.

All of our lives have been upended in the past 2 years in ways that none of us ever could have imagined. It is absolutely surreal to think. There has been so much sadness in that time. Lives lost. Separation from loved ones and friends. And a lack of opportunities for the joyful moments in life. No more parties or races. No concerts or group outings. I don’t write this to express an opinion regarding not being allowed to do these things, only to explicitly state that reality: we couldn’t do them. And so how do we maintain our own mental health? Where is the balance to offset all that frustration and hopelessness? What makes us smile?

For us who run, it is that. Running. And thankfully, on a day to day basis, running was not taken away from us. But our shared experiences at races were. And regardless of the reason that any of us participate in any particular event, the communal energy is synthesized as a byproduct of our diversity, excitement, and varied motivations. Where else in our daily lives might you spend 15 minutes, half an hour, or more, within just a few yards of someone you may never meet in your life in any other capacity? And to not just be around others, but to do so while we all are challenging ourselves, gaining strength from these strangers!? It should therefore be no surprise that so many of us make friends through running, for it is in that shared suffering that we reach that next level of self-belief, and for so many of us, myself surely included, it is only through running that we feel such accomplishment and pride in our commitment to bettering ourselves. Is there anything more positive and reaffirming? And overnight, it was gone.

When AREEP’s 2020 schedule of roughly 200 client events evaporated (ultimately 6 of those races happened), I was mired in despair. Surely with respect for the gravity of the situation facing all of us, but also of the belief that running outside, even in an “organized” setting, had to be on the low end of risk, particularly compared to how we were still allowed to do so many things inside - like have 800 concurrent shoppers at Walmart, or how restaurants could literally have more unmasked diners seated at tables for an hour without even leaving a chair, while we couldn’t have the same number of people outside running. And so I set out to do something about it.

I am certainly appreciative of our local leaders trusting in our ability to safely deploy our events as described in extensive detail in the plans we created, and this led to the creation of the Upstate Classic, Miles on the Mohawk, and the Electric City 5 Miler. And so, to put a bit of a morbid spin on it, the Electric City 5 Miler only exists because of a global pandemic, which otherwise shut down nearly every opportunity we had to run in an organized race in this part of the United States in the first 5 months of 2021.

Mid February 2022: The In-person Race at Ft. Bragg is cancelled

I was in disbelief when I first heard the words coming from the other end of the phone. I inquisitively yet choppily dribbled out, “Because of COVID?”, which was met by a solemn reply, “No, because of the escalating situation between Russia and Ukraine.”

We have had races canceled due to the weather. We also once had a race canceled due to a fire. And, yes, a pandemic has also prevented mass usage of porta-potties by sweaty bodies. But this was the first time we had an event canceled due to, in essence, war. To be fair, it does make complete sense as the race is staged at Fort Bragg and the bulk of the extensive volunteer team for the All American Race Weekend are soldiers, not to mention the majority of the participants are also associated with the military. Needless to say, considering the extensive planning that goes into a race and the mounting situation overseas, they had no choice but to cancel. What is happening to our world?

                     John Butler pointing at ARE events

As race day drew closer, the forecasters at least seemed to agree on one thing: the storm wouldn’t intensify until late morning/early afternoon. 10 1/2 years earlier, NYS Parks forced the cancellation of our Hairy Gorilla Half Marathon & Squirrelly Six Mile less than 24 hours before the start due to the forecast, of which what ultimately did transpire was a fraction of what was feared. It was the first race ARE owns that had ever been canceled, some 8 years after we began putting on events, and I will never forget that feeling of emptiness on what should have been race morning. The course was already marked. The course was already decorated. Everything was ready. Alas, I sat alone in Uncommon Grounds that morning, aimlessly chewing a bagel, floating along in a state of I’m supposed to be somewhere else. And so were 600 other people.

The biggest priority for every event is the safety of those attending, which includes not just the participants, of course, but all personnel, volunteers, and spectators. Nearly all of our events have at least one ambulance present, and for larger and/or longer events, we integrate and involve extensively with medical teams to monitor the course and ideally be available expediently to attend to medical needs. These medical needs can relate to a host of causes, from those that are always present in an individual to the effects of heat and also physical injury. Safety, of course, includes a lot more than having medical help; it includes doing our best to control external factors such as course markings and delineations to ideally prevent those not in the event from interfering with it. To this end, police are often involved that assist with road closures and/or dedicating sections of the road to the race. Among the myriad other nuances that can be described here, it should not be lost on anyone that regardless of our efforts, there is always some inherent risk, both individually (i.e., a medical problem) and on a whole (an external factor). From cars to wildlife, we can’t prevent it all. But we take these items into account and implement a plan to mitigate risk. Indeed, taken to an extreme, if one desires “no” risk in their life, it’s probably safest to build an underground bunker and never leave it.

And so, in those final days before March 12, 2022, as I consulted with the emergency management team that was assisting with the event, I was blessed with a vexing conundrum: I could hold the event. Indeed, they had the authority to cancel it, but they were telling me, “No, it is OK to hold it. If you want to cancel it, that’s your choice.”

Personal responsibility. I realize that in recent times, this phrase has become charged. I do not refer to it with any deeper meaning than the reality that it surely is someone’s choice if they want to attend a race. Some of our participants literally live at Mohawk Harbor. Part of our arrangement with Mohawk Harbor, and surely our extensive appreciation for them welcoming us and being so accommodating to our needs, is that they appreciate that our events are extremely convenient for their residents, and add value to living there. Someone walking from their apartment 300 yards to the start line has a much different transportation risk than a registrant from Saratoga.

Looking at the data in ZippyReg, the average registrant was traveling 6 miles from their house to attend the event, with 75% traveling less than 20 miles. And depending upon their finish time (i.e., anywhere from 26 minutes to 79 minutes), they also would potentially be leaving the event in varying degrees of weather.

While it is not lost on me that when someone pays for something, there exists a compulsion to “get” it - and that a large reason for canceling events, especially in warm conditions, relates to a combination of increased risk for all participants and a resultant reduction in the expedience with which medical staff can attend to those needs, it can be so hard to decide what to do. No decision ever makes everyone happy. And, of course, no one shows up to an event thinking that’s the day they need to go to the medical tent or will end up in a fender bender.

The volunteers were maximally on my mind. We had 50 people signed up to help make the race happen. 10% of those on-site would be those volunteering their time to literally stand in the elements; ultimately getting snowed on as they directed and cheered, fixed in one spot, as the runners went by.

Indeed, I realized the pressure that all of them would feel to still show up. If I canceled the event, it reduced the risk to zero. When I emailed them a couple of days before, I was curious if I’d receive a reply from any about not attending, which surely would have been OK. To that end, in those final days with the storm’s approach well known, we were still getting more volunteers signing up. Internally, I assigned them as “utility”, which typically means (and is shared with them) that they are to visit the Volunteer Coordinator on race morning, who will assign them to a location for which the pre-assigned person no longer will be attending.

On a deeper level, it’s fascinating to me. While some runners are contacting us to ask if the race is canceled, other people, with no obligation to the event whatsoever, are contacting me asking if they can still sign up to help. Also, we still had people registering. We even had day-of registrants!

48 hours before the race, we updated the event website to give participants the option to join us virtually through the following weekend. We created a virtual, customizable bib and made the updates within the ZippyReg Registrant Portal to accommodate this.

I spent a lot of time at the venue and on the course in those final two days. A team of us worked on removing all the standing puddles on the bike path, and the day prior was all about setting up the venue. It was eerie to be setting up on such a beautiful day, knowing what was coming. Oh, if we could only hold the race tonight. Earlier in the week, I had also thought about moving up the start time of the race, but for a host of reasons, it wasn’t feasible - and, part of that, of course, remained the uncertainty of the storm’s timing that far out. (Is it going to start at 3 a.m., 7 a.m., 11 a.m., etc.?)

On race morning, as cars pulled into the garage, I was also reminded of the varying degrees of preparation we take for driving in these conditions. Some arrived in 4-wheel drive SUVs, while others in small sedans. As a race director still holding the event, are we to require the type of vehicle one uses to attend? (No, that’s crazy - but just further illustrating the variety of decisions we individually make about our own comfort level or simply the realities of our own situation. Should I carpool with someone with a "safer" car?)

During my commute to the race, other than a brief drizzle, it was dry. Upon arriving, the sky remained gray but still. Ah, if we had only moved the start time to 7 a.m.! Indeed, I thought that more with a non-practical grin than a firm conviction; there are so many moving parts to an event - and working in daylight is generally always better and more efficient than the dark, among other related aspects - and so I then put my head down and got to work with the rest of my team because today was race day.

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