New York City Marathon Returns with 33,000 Runners on Nov. 7: What Will It Look Like?

Race director Ted Metellus shares how New York City plans to hold a marathon with 33,000 people after last year's cancelation due to COVID-19.
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NEW YORK — The 50th running of the New York City Marathon will take place on Nov. 7 with a modified capacity of 33,000 runners, New York Road Runners announced on Monday.

“The marathon is back,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared in his Monday news conference.

The 2020 edition of the race was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. In recent months, New York Road Runners has slowly been testing smaller-scale races to prepare for the return of the country’s largest marathon. The New York City Marathon typically sees about 55,000 participants, but after consulting with local and state officials for months, Gov. Cuomo announced it would come back at 60% capacity to allow for less potential crowding on the course.

Runners who registered for last year’s race were provided options to get a full refund or defer their entry for 2021, ’22 or ’23. NYRR said that 54% of runners selected to run this year’s race, and as a result of guaranteeing entry to the ’20 marathon hopefuls, a lottery drawing will not be held for this year’s race. Registration will open on June 8.

The New York City Marathon is one of six World Marathon Majors that will be held this fall. The Boston Marathon, which was moved from April to Oct. 11, also reduced its field size for 2021. Boston and New York are implementing additional COVID-19 protocols, including touch-point elimination, social distancing at the beginning of the race with a scalable time-trial start formal and required proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test result in order to compete.

Sports Illustrated spoke with New York City Marathon race director Ted Metellus on Monday after the announcement. The following interview has been edited lightly for clarity.

Sports Illustrated: Can you take us through the moment when the green light officially was given for the marathon to come back in this capacity?

Ted Metellus: It had been an ongoing conversation with the state and the city since December of last year. It was us planting the seed of “What will the marathon look like in November 2021?” We were also looking at what we’ve learned and applied from our Return to Racing events, these smaller-scale races that we started having in September, which painted the picture of necessary health and safety guidelines and operational things. This consisted of time-trial starts and added pre-event communication with runners on what time they had to be on-site for their start wave.

We looked at all of the data and examined crowd density to put together a health and safety document before presenting it to the city, state and department of health. We had meetings with them every 30 days to go over our plans and logistics while answering all of their questions. We met on Sunday and learned the announcement was imminent. We were getting prepped for a press conference and it was a bit of a scramble but one that we were prepared for.

The team and I called it “baby watch,” like when you have the go bag ready in case the baby is ready to pop out. We had all the necessary tools and resources in play so everyone knew exactly what they needed to do when the call was made.

SI: I’m guessing there were different tiers to the scenarios you planned for like a best-case scenario, a B plan, a C plan, etc. Which tier does this fall into?

TM: This was our A plan. This is what we had the assumptions for. None of us were fortune-tellers. None of us back in December would have seen where and how far our country, our city and our state has gone in the battle against COVID so we needed to plan quickly. Our assumptions looked at a reduction and we presented that to the department of health and the state while explaining what the participant’s journey would be. We made lots of assumptions and had those Plan Bs, Plans Cs and so on. It was the A plan that was ultimately selected.

SI: Lots of people have been holding out hope for this race to happen. When was the last time you had a thought that the New York City Marathon wasn’t going to happen?

TM: I don’t think I ever had that thought. Not to sound overly optimistic or confident, but I was fully aware of the challenges that exist. It wasn’t a question of if the marathon was going to happen but how is the marathon is going to look?

SI: Why 60% capacity right now? What's the difference between allowing 33,000 people and 50,000 people to run a race?

TM: We were planning based on where we were and how we continued to evolve in regards to health and safety COVID communication. Anywhere that’s had a mass gathering has had a modified field whether it was basketball games at the Barclays Center or baseball games at Yankee Stadium or Citi Field. All of them had a modified field size to it and that’s consistent with everything you’ve seen nationwide. That was the planning that we went forward with. It’s a balance between the knowns and the unknowns.

SI: Is there still the chance we could go back up to 55,000, or is 33,000 going to be the sweet spot for this year?

TM: That’s our finisher number and that’s the sweet spot that we would like to move forward in. It’s so tricky because things have moved so quickly and so positively in the state with health and safety, but we still need to be conservative to be safe.

SI: Visually and experience-wise, what’s going to be different about the race-day experience if you’re a runner?

TM: If they’re a runner, there’s going to be some modifications for obvious reasons. We’re looking to minimize touch points that runners have. It’s all the things tied to health and safety. At the start line, while we have less participants, we’re still going to have the same number of toilets that we would have had for 50,000 participants. The baggage operations will be modified and changed. On-course aid stations we’re still modifying with the department of health. We’ll still have the same number of medical stations and resources on the course, but things like sponge stations and bananas will be eliminated.

SI: The New York Times reported that participants will not have to wear masks while on the course. The NYRR website on Monday said: “Starting in June, NYRR races will require face coverings at the start and finish areas; runners will be strongly encouraged to wear a face-covering on course.” Is that being revised?

TM: The material and information that was posted was prior to the CDC announcement. In the state of New York, we can’t make any adjustments until we get guidance from the state’s department of health and what their guidelines will be. Once we get some clearer guidelines on what that will be, we will make the necessary modifications.

SI: When I’d see past photos of the New York City Marathon with runners packed on the Verrazano Bridge, it feels a little weird to see all these people without social distancing and no masks. Just like it felt sometimes odd to see people shake hands in movies. It feels like a different time. Have you ever had those moments, too?

TM: Yeah, I have! I definitely look at it now, smile and wonder, “O.K., what is that going to look like in 2021?” Factoring in that we have a slightly modified field size that should allow for a bit more of a flow. We’re going to have more time at the start and the back end to allow for the flow and for the participants to run and finish safely. It’s wild to think that, but again, we’ve been planning since September and looking at a lot of elements that we will use come November.

SI: What’s the message you hope the marathon conveys to people who come out on the streets or cheer or watch on TV?

TM: New York is back. It’s hope. It’s resilience. New York is one tough town. Seeing where we were 20 years ago with the marathon being held two months after 9/11 and now having the marathon come back this year, it’s that little beacon of light that the city is back. It’s also the 50th running of the marathon and to think of the generations of people that have been a part of the marathon in some capacity is going to be special.

SI: You’ve had Olympians and Spike Lee serve as grand marshal of the race in recent years. Dr. Anthony Fauci for grand marshal 2021?

TM: [Laughs.] He’s a New Yorker and he’s a runner. That’s a great suggestion. We’ll look at that as far as who we can have. If there’s anyone else that should be recognized on a global level, it’s our frontline workers. It’s all of those people that kept us alive, well, moving and fed will be the grand marshals out there because that’s the universal sign of love for people that kept us going.

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