Ryan Hite turned to a different sport for inspiration when trying to solve the problem of a crowded marathon starting line during a pandemic.
“We were looking at it almost like a golf course, because golf is allowed right now,” said Hite, who as self-proclaimed “chief endurance officer” of the running event company Negative Split is the race director of the upcoming Coeur d’Alene Marathon. “We asked, ‘How can we make this like a set of tee times for runners?’ More or less, that’s what we’re doing.”
Over three days beginning Friday, the 1,700 or so participants who’ve signed up to cover 26.2 miles (or shorter distances, including half-marathon, 10K and 5K options) mostly along the shores of Lake Coeur d’Alene will begin in waves of eight people, the largest permissible group allowed by local health officials. They’ll start at running intervals – no starter gun, no jockeying for position on a crowded street or trail. Spectators will be able to track their athletes via smartphone app, and instead of the traditional paper cups of water handed out by volunteers, there will be tables of bottled water and other refreshments along the course for runners to grab and go.
It’s all in an effort to keep marathoners socially distant, while at the same time delivering something close to a normal race experience. Like other sports, competitive long-distance running was stung by the health requirements necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19. Spokane’s own Bloomsday, and major marathons in Boston, New York and Chicago, were all either postponed, canceled or moved to a virtual format as the pandemic began to grip the nation earlier this spring.
The Coeur d’Alene Marathon, traditionally held at the end of May, also postponed its race. But Hite and his team worked with the Panhandle Health District, whom the race director praised, to come up with a way to pull off a rarity across the country – a live sporting event with hundreds of participants.
“We have runners that have trained hard and tried to get to their goals, and we want to provide that celebration of their achievements,” Hite said.
The other major consideration was financial. The annual marathon serves as a major fundraiser for the North Idaho Centennial Trail Foundation, the nonprofit responsible for maintaining 23 miles of the recreational trail from the Idaho border to Higgens Point. In the past five years, proceeds of the race have raised tens of thousands of dollars to maintain the trail. The path comprises about 90% of the marathon course, Hite said.
It’s also a major draw for those considering competing in the annual race, said Tabitha Kraack, the foundation’s executive director.
“It is amazing to run next to the lake for so long, out to Higgens Point and you start in McEuen Park,” said Kraack, who plans to compete in the marathon this weekend. “It’s just got that really fun small town, but downtown, feel.”
Proceeds from this year’s race will be used for maintenance, as well as a long-term plan to light the Centennial Trail bridge over the Spokane River at the state line, Kraack said.
The location and relatively small number of entries make holding the Coeur d’Alene race possible, whereas other races have had to cancel. The number of entrants is a little bit below what organizers were expecting at the beginning of the year, but rebounded nicely after the race was originally put on hold in May, Hite said. The 1,700 figure is less than 5% of those who finish Bloomsday, the 12K race that signals the unofficial beginning of spring in Spokane, and that much of the course keeps runners on the Centennial Trail means prolonged traffic control won’t be necessary.
Travel is also not a big problem, as many of the participants come from surrounding areas, Hite said.
“We do draw in some out-of-town travelers, but when you’re pulling people all across the country, it makes it more challenging,” he said.
The Coeur d’Alene race will be a trial run for in-person events Negative Split hopes to hold in Washington next month. The Windermere Marathon, which follows a course on the Centennial Trail north of I-90 through Liberty Lake, Greenacres and Spokane Valley, will be held on Sept. 5-7 in much the same configuration, although starting groups will be limited to five runners per local guidelines. The Negative Split half-marathon, based in Kendall Yards, is scheduled for the end of September. Both events have received approval from Spokane Health Officer Bob Lutz, Hite said.
Kraack, who’s ran marathons in the big cities but said she loves her hometown race the best, is excited for the return of that competitive feel that has been lacking in virtual offerings during the pandemic.
“The best part about is to have a race,” she said. “No one’s having a race right now.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.