Trail Racing in the COVID-19 Era: Interviews From Bryce Canyon Ultras

Tayte Pollmann’s articles are supported by American Trail Running Association corporate member Nike Trail Running. You can follow Tayte’s adventures on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. If you liked this article, read even more of Tayte’s articles on our website.

The weekend of May 30-31, 2020 the Bryce Canyon Ultras in Bryce, Utah was one of only a handful of U.S. trail races to be held since the start of the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns caused the cancellation of hundreds of events. Utah started it’s post-lockdown reopening on May 1 so this race adhered to Utah’s COVID-19 guidelines and is as an example of what it’s like to race in the “COVID-19 era.”

For this article, I interviewed three trail runners for participated in the 100 mile event at Bryce Canyon Ultras to learn about the specific COVID-19 safety measures put in place for this race, what worked well (or didn’t) and how it was different from a normal race. See also our pre-race interview with the Bryce Canyon Ultras race director, Lyle Anderson.

Devon Petersen, age 29 from Golden, Colorado:

[TAYTE] How did you come to the decision to race and what were your goals?
[DEVON] I wanted to run 100 miles to test my body and mind in ways that I never had before. I’ve heard endurance sports “strip you bare” and I wanted to feel that— to find out what I had in me. If I could get through 100 consecutive miles with a smile on my face, I would inevitably come out enlightened at the finish with lessons learned and stories to tell. My goals were to finish and to be the happiest person on the course. I also think that no other runner ate more breakfast burritos than I did on course and I consider that a win in itself.

[TAYTE] Were you worried about racing when many events were cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic?
[DEVON] I was until Vacation Races went live on Facebook (video replay above) to explain their position. It has been painful to watch races postpone or cancel, especially after so many athletes trained for so long and race directors have poured their hearts into event planning. However, more important than running, we want everyone involved in the race (including the local communities in which races take place) to be safe and healthy. After hearing Vacation Race’s reasons for hosting the event and the precautions they planned to take, my worries went away. The world around us is slowly but surely re-opening and races will go on again. I was confident that Vacation Races had the resources and experience to successfully and safely run a race during a pandemic and be a leading example for other races.

[TAYTE] Overall, how did you like the race and was it what you expected?
[DEVON] It depends what mile you would have asked me that question. At mile 77, I hated everything about it (especially after the 1,000 foot scrambling climbs I ran during the middle of the night!). Today, I’ll tell you it was amazing!

I loved that the race was small and intimate. There were far less participants than originally anticipated. The trails chosen for the course were well-maintained and had unbelievable views. I heard on a podcast once that the Bryce Canyon 100 was the most scenic 100 mile race in the country. I was blown away by the scenery and often found myself saying “wow” out loud.

Everything else was as you’d expect. The staff and volunteers were fewer in numbers than usual, but they were energetic, helpful and encouraging. While I never used anything other than water at the aid stations, they provided a wide selection of grab-and-go snacks. The race was everything I expected and then “s’more”.

[TAYTE] The race organizers put safety measures in place due to the Coronavirus pandemic. What kinds of things were different from a normal race, what worked well (or didn’t) and did it make you feel safer?
[DEVON] There was a one hour rolling start for racers in order to spread everyone out at the beginning. All volunteers wore masks and the food at aid stations was grab-and-go (you couldn’t put your grimy fingers in the M&Ms bowl anymore). All porta potties had hand sanitizer and some of the water dispensers dispensed water with a foot pedal. Honestly, I felt safer the entire race than I do when I go to the grocery store. Everything seemed to work well (though I did miss the M&M bowl).

[TAYTE] Is there anything you’d like to see other races do to help keep participants’ safer?
[DEVON] It would be advantageous to survey or take the temperatures of racers upon arrival to ensure no participants have any symptoms. After the race, it could be helpful to send out a questionnaire to make sure no attendees became sick. I would also like for race directors to think of the local communities and take precautions to account for their safety during the event as well.

[TAYTE] How did it feel to race again?
[DEVON] Liberating.

James Kerr, age 21 from Squamish B.C., Canada:

[TAYTE] How did you come to the decision to race? What were your goals?
[DEVON] I had been training all year for my first 100 miler and I was holding out hope that the Bryce Canyon Ultras wouldn’t be cancelled. I was happy to race, but also disappointed that the race experience would be somewhat different because of the COVID-19 pandemic. There wasn’t going to be the same energy at the aid stations or a lively race expo. However, a 100 mile run is first and foremost a solo experience. I was racing to hit lows and overcome them, enjoy the highs, love the process, and push until I couldn’t push anymore.

[TAYTE] Were you worried about racing when many events were cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic?
[JAMES] I was not too worried. I knew that the races were going to draw a fairly local crowd. 400 people participated, which was around the number I expected. The race organizers also closed registration early to prevent more runners from signing up. This was a good way to keep numbers within a manageable range.

[TAYTE] Overall, how did you like the race and was it what you expected?
[JAMES] It was one of the best experiences of my life. It was my first 100 mile race so how could I not love it? The first of anything always holds a special place in your heart. However, the race did have less energy than other ultras. Race crews were largely deterred from the aid stations to avoid crowding, which diminished the festive atmosphere. The aid stations also didn’t have the foods I was hoping for. From miles 85 to 100 I would have appreciated warm foods.

[TAYTE] The race organizers put safety measures in place due to the Coronavirus pandemic. What kinds of things were different from a normal race, what worked well (or didn’t) and did it make you feel safer?
[JAMES] The start and the aid stations were different. The start was supposed to be rolling from 5A.M. to 6A.M. However, roughly 90% of the racers started right at 5A.M. I myself started at 5:03 just to avoid the crowds. It was really optimistic to think people would start over the course of an hour. We all wanted to start as early as possible to have the extra time in case something went wrong during the race.

I wasn’t too concerned about my exposure to the virus. I’m young and healthy and although I’ve taken the COVID-19 pandemic seriously, I worry less about it now that restrictions have eased.

They should’ve made it explicit that your whole crew can come to aid stations, but only one person can access the food and water section of the aid station. The aid stations need the energy from the crews, especially if there’s a way for everyone to be socially distanced.

[TAYTE] Is there anything you’d like to see other races do to help keep participants’ safer?
[JAMES] I would like to see crew bibs and for full crews to be present at aid stations. There could be several six-by-six foot sections for crews to hang out in. I would also have more sanitation at aid stations.

[TAYTE] How did it feel to hit the trails race again?
It made my year. It felt good to look around and see happy smiling people. I haven’t seen that in three months and I’ve missed that collective energy.

Annie Hughes, age 22 from Buena Vista, Colorado:

[TAYTE] How did you come to the decision to race?
[ANNIE] Racing The Bryce Canyon Ultras was a spontaneous decision. A good friend of mine, James Kerr, reached out to me about a month before the race and wondered if I was interested in racing. I looked up the race on their website and after flipping through a few pictures, I texted him back, “I’m in!” The only question was the distance. I went back and forth on whether to race the 50 mile or the 100 mile as I had plans to race the Leadville 100 Mile in August. I didn’t know if it would be smart to race two 100 mile races so close together. After talking with my coach about my concerns, we decided I should go ahead and race the 100 miler since I can recover pretty quickly. Plus, racing Bryce could offer me some 100 mile experience before running Leadville, which was my main focus. A few days after signing up for the Bryce Canyon Ultras, the Leadville 100 was cancelled, which made me even more grateful for the opportunity to race at Bryce.

[TAYTE] What were your goals?
[ANNIE] This was my first 100 mile race, so my goal was just to finish while learning and experimenting as much as I could. I didn’t have a time or placement goal, I just wanted to finish and run smart.

[TAYTE] Were you worried about racing when many events were cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic?
[ANNIE] I wasn’t worried at all. I thought the organizers took the necessary precautions to safely hold the race. The race directors lost money by holding the race, so it just goes to show how much they care about the sport and the ultra running community by giving runners this amazing opportunity to challenge themselves and push their limits on the beautiful trails in and around Bryce Canyon.

[TAYTE] Overall, how did you like the race and was it what you expected?
[ANNIE] I absolutely loved the race and it was exactly what I expected! It was an incredibly gorgeous and inspiring course.

The aid stations were pretty limited. The only hot food offered was ramen noodles. Everything was packaged, but they made us fully aware of this because that’s one of the things they had to do to safely put on the race. I totally understood, but I definitely missed having better food options— especially in the later miles when your stomach is in a funk and nothing is appetizing.

I personally like mashed potatoes for longer runs, so I utilized the drop bag service to have my mashed potatoes. They tasted great all day long until around 4P.M. (mile 50 or so) when they went sour! Sadly, I took a huge bite and swallowed, which caused me to throw up for the next two hours! I’ll have to remember not to eat any perishables during the middle to late stages of an ultra race.

[TAYTE] The race organizers put specific safety measures in place due to the Coronavirus pandemic. What kinds of things were different from a normal race? What worked well (or didn’t)? Did you feel safe?
No spectators were allowed. There were far less people at the aid stations and the start/finish line. Runners were allowed one crew member who could enter the food and drink areas. We could have one pacer at a time and that pacer had to be wearing a bib. Aid station volunteers wore masks at all times and they would disinfect everything after each runner passed through. To avoid large crowds at the starting line, there was a rolling start. You could start anytime between 5A.M. and 6A.M. Overall, they took precautions to keep everyone socially distanced and safe. I felt very comfortable with the whole event.

[TAYTE] Is there anything you’d like to see other races do to help keep participants’ safer?
[ANNIE] Bryce was a gutsy experiment that allowed for other race directors to see if this socially distanced style of racing works or not. Most ultra races in the U.S. are “low-key” small events, so this style of racing should be possible for these kinds of events. This style might be more challenging for larger, spectator friendly races. At the end of the day, it’s not about the spectators, the food, etc. it’s about running and testing our limits, and I think we can all do that in this new environment.

[TAYTE] How did it feel to race again?
[ANNIE] I was so grateful for the opportunity to race again! There is something exciting and challenging about racing on new terrain. One of the best benefits of racing again is meeting new runners/people who are involved in the race. The camaraderie of a common interest is really special.

Bryce Canyon Ultras weekend features 100 mile, 50 mile, 60 km, 50 km and 30 km races. For full results from all the 2020 Bryce Canyon Ultras races check out their RunSignUp page. You can also find even more photos from all the races HERE.

Editor’s Note: Be safe as we continue to navigate the uncertainty around the COVID-19 pandemic. Please continue to follow the recommendations and updates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) including proper hygiene practices as well guidance from your home state. Also consider reading iRunFar’s COVID-19: A Trail Running and Ultrarunning Community Guide. To track the number of cases in your community check out the New York Times’ Latest Map and Case Count page.

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