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The Cool New Science Grandma’s Marathon is Using to Get Runners Back to the Start Line (Safely)

Race directors plan to host the 45th Grandma’s Marathon in June using crowd science software to implement social distancing.

With most of America’s largest spring marathons either canceled, virtual-only, or postponed for the fall, Duluth, Minnesota’s Grandma’s Marathon could be the largest return to endurance running since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Race directors are hoping the event will go on June 17-19 as planned.

Confidence of that happening was raised thanks to the help of Marcel Altenburg, a crowd scientist and senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK. Altenburg has been working with race directors on modeling and optimizing the crowd flow so that racers can safely social distance in every aspect of race weekend. 

From buses shuttling racers to the start line 25 at a time to mask mandates everywhere but on the course, the team has seemingly thought through every moment with safety in mind.

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The software Altenburg developed is called Start Right. It uses a mathematical algorithm to predict and control the flow of movement. In the past, it has been used to help create a seamless race experience for some of the world’s largest races for tens of thousands of people.

For the Berlin Marathon, the London Marathon, the Chicago Marathon, and others that Altenburg has worked on, it was more about weekend flow than it was social distancing, says Zach Schneider, marketing and public relations director of Grandma’s Marathon. “So, he just repurposed his algorithm to help with the problem at-hand, which is, ‘How do you keep runners as safe as possible as they work their way through your event?’” 

The 45th Grandma’s Marathon will not get close to past numbers, but the 9,500 participants expected for the weekend (split between the 5K, half marathon, and full marathon) is still larger than we’re accustomed to since the spread of COVID-19 was deemed a pandemic in 2020.  

Following the race day plan, the Start Right model shows that runners will have a minimum of 12 feet distance between them and other runners throughout the entire race, and up to 20 feet possible at some points. The model checks participant density at all points along the course, including the start and finish lines, aid stations, and the most narrow points along the way. 

For the marathon and half marathon, runners can expect to be able to social distance within their starting corrals. They will be released onto the course from separate lanes, staggered five at a time. Masks will be required at all times except while racing, including in the starting corral. 

The model, however, does not account for human behavior. “What Marcel’s data shows us is that our event from start to finish and our race course is set up in a way for success. It will allow for that distance, but we’re still going to rely very heavily on our participants, our volunteers, our staff, everyone involved with the weekend to maintain that level of personal responsibility,” says Schneider.

And since the COVID-19 pandemic has been so fickle and unpredictable, directors still have cancellation policies and contingencies in place, just in case. (See their 2021 cancellation plan here.) “We believe that our modified race plan addresses a lot of the issues that we know are going to be part of this. Those conversations with our state and local officials are ongoing at this point. But we are optimistic that we will have some form of the in-person event this year,” says Schneider.

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He also hopes that optimism translates to every runner who is itching to race. “Even if you’re not signed up for our event, if you’re signed up for another event later in the summer or into the fall, just to have some sort of optimism that these things can go on is important. I think that Marcel’s data shows us that there is reason for optimism here.”

Until then, the public still needs to follow CDC guidelines to keep the spread of coronavirus under control. “If people want it to happen, we just need to continue to do the right things from now until June and hopefully beyond that for other races, too,” he says.