Runners make their way down Route 77 in Cape Elizabeth at the beginning of the 2019 TD Beach to Beacon 10K road race. Beach to Beacon was canceled last year because of the pandemic, and race officials are meeting next week to discuss whether the event can be held this summer. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

We’re approaching the time of year when runners get anxious about their Beach to Beacon registration window, which traditionally cracks open in mid-March and slams shut a minute or two later.

Of course, we’re also nearly a year into the coronavirus pandemic and running races have virtually disappeared from Maine’s roads.

That may change in the coming months.

Organizers of the Beach to Beacon 10K Road Race in Cape Elizabeth will meet virtually Monday night to discuss the possibility of holding the event this summer. Founded in 1998 by Olympic marathon champion Joan Benoit Samuelson, Beach to Beacon is Maine’s largest road race. After drawing nearly 6,500 runners in 2019, the race was canceled last summer.

“We’re exploring every possible option,” said David Backer, the race president. “If we were to put on a live event this year, it would be a very different event, without a lot of celebration and gathering and dinners and post-race awards. All of that, I think, wouldn’t be feasible.”

Of course, any such live event would require a permit from Cape Elizabeth and blessing from the state. Maine’s COVID-19 safety guidelines for road races, last updated on Sept. 1, discourage organized racing events. Outdoor gatherings in Maine are limited to 100 people by executive order of Gov. Janet Mills.

Even so, there is optimism among some race organizers. Events such as the Old Port Half Marathon & 5K in June, the Bridgton 4 on the Fourth in July and the Maine Marathon in October have set dates and have been accepting registrations. The Old Port event, scheduled for June 5, is the only road race to file a 2021 permit application with the city of Portland, which held 11 races on its streets in 2019 and only two, both pre-pandemic, last year.

Runners head for the start line at the beginning of the 2018 Old Port Half Marathon in Portland. Last year’s race was called off because of the pandemic, but registrations have already started for this year’s race, scheduled for June 5. John Ewing/Staff Photographer

Bridgton race director Bill Graham said he already has 431 registered runners, about a quarter of them deferrals from last year’s virtual event.

“We’re feeling like there’s a possibility we’re going to run this race,” Graham said. “There’s ways to work this. Runners are very disciplined people.”

Graham said his race would be fully compliant with “whatever the governor and the governor’s team are telling us we should be doing on the Fourth of July in road races.”

In response to a question about the viability of road races this year, Kate Foye, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, said her agency and the state’s Department of Health and Human Services are reviewing public health protocols as spring and summer approach.

“The goal of this review is to consider the latest science on COVID-19 and progress with vaccinations and to determine what protocols could be adjusted to support the dual aim of protecting public health while promoting economic activity,” she said, adding that any adjustments “would be announced in the coming weeks.”

Part of that review process is to consider the experiences of other states, Foye said. A nearby example is neighboring New Hampshire, which published guidelines for a return to road racing last summer.

One organizer, Millennium Running, has put on 37 in-person events in New Hampshire during the pandemic, involving more than 11,000 participants.

John Mortimer, Millennium’s founder and owner, said he worked with Gov. Chris Sununu’s task force on developing guidelines for socially distant road races. Millenium started small, with 5-kilometer races of no more than 100 runners, setting off at 10-second intervals to avoid crowding at any point before, during and after the race.

“Mass starts in our guidance are not permitted,” Mortimer said. “We developed the time trial format, which is not new to sport, just new to mass start road races.”

After working out the kinks with smaller races, Millennium scaled up its efforts and by October held a half marathon with more than 1,000 registrants, all of them from within New England. Mortimer said it took three hours to start the entire field. In November, the Manchester City Marathon and Half Marathon attracted a field of 1,800.

By seeding the field, starting the faster runners early and giving everyone their own time to check in and get to the line, organizers averaged a runner starting every 10 seconds and a runner finishing every 19 seconds. Mortimer said something similar could be used for Beach to Beacon, particularly with longer daylight hours available in early August.

“Effectively, you could go from 7 in the morning until 8 at night and just keep running them all day long,” he said. “In this format, if you start over a longer period, finish over a longer period and report to the site over a longer period, all the critical logjams are mitigated.”

Mortimer believes his format, which now is starting two runners every 10 seconds, can be scaled up to approximately 4,000 people in a day, “which is pretty good for a pandemic race,” he said. He also said he knows of no virus transmissions from any road races in New Hampshire, which discontinued contact tracing efforts in early November.

Bob Dunfey, race director of the Maine Marathon, Half Marathon & Relay, took part in one of Millennium’s races, a four-mile affair in Bedford, New Hampshire. He said he received email instructions telling him specific times to park, to pick up his bib and to be at the starting line.

In 2019, the Maine Marathon had 741 finishers and another 1,800 finishers in its half-marathon. This year race’s, which starts and ends in Portland’s Back Cove, is scheduled for Oct. 3. Portland Press Herald file photo

“There were still people starting as I was finishing,” Dunfey said. “You hardly see any clusters (on course). There was just a constant line of people. Everybody I knew in the race felt totally safe. It showed there’s a way to do it.”

Dunfey said he worked with fellow race director Gary Allen of Cranberry Island and wrote up safety protocols similar to those used in New Hampshire, with additional enhancements. They sent them to state officials in Maine, “but they hadn’t been ready to talk to us,” Dunfey said.

Backer, the Beach to Beacon president, said a decision will have to be made by the end of March on whether to proceed with a live event this year. He noted some outdoor events scheduled for July (such as the Yarmouth Clam Festival and the Peaks to Portland swim) already have been canceled or announced as virtual.

“We’re going to be forced to make a decision one way or another before we know what the state of the world would be on the first Saturday of August,” Backer said. “We don’t doubt that there is a pent-up demand, but only under conditions of safety.”

Nancy Goldstein, 62, of Falmouth has not run in a road race since completing the 2019 Beach to Beacon, her 22nd in a row. She keeps up her fitness by jogging on Route 88.

“I’m definitely itching to get out and do something,” she said. “My guess is that they would have to scale back the size and maybe do a staggered start. But if they can do it safely, I’m all for it, because we need to get out and start to be able to do things again.”


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