Runners, cyclists gear up for in-person races after 2 years of COVID-19 cancellations

A number of popular races, like the Toronto Marathon and Sporting Life 10K, are set to return this season after the pandemic forced their cancellation the previous two years.

Toronto Marathon, Sporting Life 10K, DVP bike ride all set to return

Melissa MacKinnon is pictured with her husband, Dan (right). (Submitted by Melissa MacKinnon)

It's been two years since Melissa MacKinnon last ran in the Toronto Marathon — and she's ready to lace up her shoes and be part of the crowd again. 

While running is in some ways a solo sport, MacKinnon said there's nothing like the camaraderie and adrenaline that comes from a big group of people. 

"Complete strangers, running together, but you're united," said MacKinnon, 56, who ran the half marathon at the event in 2019.

"It's a wonderful community."

MacKinnon should be in luck this year as organizers with a number of popular Greater Toronto races plan to once again hold their events in person. If most COVID-19 public health restrictions are lifted by then, the events will have a huge impact with thousands taking to the streets. Almost 8,500 runners registered to compete in the Toronto Marathon, which is slated to go ahead May 1, the last time it was run in 2019. 

On Mother's Day, Yonge Street will shut down for the Sporting Life 10K, which is hoping to register 15,000 participants this year. 

And in June, the Don Valley Parkway (DVP) and part of the Gardiner Expressway will close for a massive bike ride, though the event has changed hands, and will now support the Baycrest Foundation rather than the Heart and Stroke Foundation. 

Cyclists are pictured at a 2021 cycling event in support of the Baycrest Foundation. (Submitted by Bianca Franzone)

While this is the first year Baycrest has hosted the DVP bike ride, president and CEO Josh Cooper said he expects a strong turnout.

"I think right now people are tired of virtual events and they want to get back in person," he said. "They want to see other people, they want to shed their COVID lockdown and they want to get out … and have these tremendous events take place again." 

'The situation is fluid'

Jay Glassman, race director of the Toronto Marathon, is also expecting a lot of interest this year — both from long-time runners and newcomers who picked up the sport while gyms were closed down. 

Still, Glassman knows from experience how quickly plans can change. He had to cancel the 2020 marathon about a month and a half out — leaving him with piles of unused shirts and medals. 

"We all realize the situation is fluid … You just have to plan for all kinds of different contingencies," he said. 

Runners are pictured at the starting line of a Toronto Marathon event prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by Jay Glassman)

In response to the pandemic, some races are limiting the number of registrants to allow the runners to physically distance. All of the events will also require participants to be fully vaccinated.

Still, others have chosen to postpone their return altogether. The Burlington-based Chilly Half Marathon was set to go ahead in-person in March, but was cancelled last month due to uncertainty stemming from the Omicron variant. 

"After extensive consultations, we have received advice from the medical community that hosting an in-person run is not in the best interest of the health and safety of our participants, volunteers and local community," organizers said in an e-newsletter, adding the event will still go ahead in a virtual format.

Impact on charities

The return of in-person races isn't just a big deal for runners and cyclists, it's also momentous for the non-profits who rely on these events for fundraising. 

"They've been under the gun for the last couple of years: how do you provide the programs and services without the income?" said Richard Powers, an associate professor at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, who noted these events also raise an organization's profile. 

Runners are pictured at a Sporting Life 10K run prior to the pandemic. (Submitted by Melanie Lovering )

Caley Bornbaum, a director with Campfire Circle, said it's been tough. Her organization typically receives about a quarter of its annual operating revenue from the Sporting Life 10K. 

"[That] obviously has an impact on the programs that we can provide to families on a regular basis," said Bornbaum, whose organization sends kids affected by cancer to summer camp.

Bornbaum expects many organizations are as relieved as hers is to see the return of their flagship events.

"I think industry-wide ... it brings that little sense of normalcy that I think we have all been missing over the last few years."

As for Melissa MacKinnon, she's not only looking forward to a return to normal: she hopes the last few years of the pandemic will change the sport of running for the better. 

"It's wonderful to see the people have picked up the sport," she said.

"I know it's been a way for people to cope with the pandemic … I hope it becomes part of their lives."

Runner are pictured at a Toronto Marathon event prior to the pandemic. (Submitted by Jay Glassman)


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