It’s been two years since Melissa MacKinnon ran the Toronto Marathon, and she’s ready to lace up her shoes and be part of the crowd again.
Although running is in some ways a solo sport, MacKinnon said there’s nothing quite like the camaraderie and adrenaline that comes from a large 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 lucky this year, as organizers of a number of popular GTA races plan to hold their in-person events again. If most public health restrictions related to COVID-19 are lifted by then, the events will have a huge impact with thousands on the streets. Nearly 8,500 runners have registered to take part in the Toronto Marathon, which is scheduled to take place on May 1, the last time it was held in 2019.
On Mother’s Day, Yonge Street will be closed for the Sporting Life 10K, which hopes to register 15,000 participants this year.
And in June, the Don Valley Parkway (DVP) and part of the Gardiner Highway will close for a huge bike ride, although the event has changed hands and will now support the Baycrest Foundation rather than the Heart and Stroke Foundation. .
Although this is Baycrest’s first year hosting 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 come back in person,” he said. “They want to see other people, they want to get out of their COVID lockdown and they want to get out there…and have these great things happen again.”
“The situation is fluid”
Toronto Marathon race director Jay Glassman also expects a lot of interest this year — both from long-time runners and newcomers who have returned to the sport as gyms were closed.
Still, Glassman knows from experience how quickly plans can change. He had to cancel the 2020 marathon in about a month and a half, leaving him with heaps of unused shirts and medals.
“We all realize that the situation is fluid… You just have to plan for all kinds of different contingencies,” he said.
In response to the pandemic, some races are limiting the number of entries to allow runners to physically distance themselves. All events will also require attendees to be fully vaccinated.
Yet others have chosen to postpone their return altogether. The Burlington-based Chilly Half Marathon was scheduled to take place in person in March, but was canceled last month due to uncertainty over the Omicron variant.
“After extensive consultations, we have received advice from the medical community that hosting an in-person race is not in the best interest of the health and safety of our participants, volunteers and the local community,” said organizers said in an email newsletter, adding the event will still be held 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 critical for nonprofits that rely on these events to raise funds.
“They’ve been under fire for the past two years: how do you deliver the programs and services without the revenue?” said Richard Powers, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, who noted that such events also raise an organization’s profile.
Campfire Circle director Caley Bornbaum said it was difficult. His organization typically receives about a quarter of its annual operating revenue from the Sporting Life 10K.
“[That] obviously has an impact on the programs we can offer families on a regular basis,” said Bornbaum, whose organization sends cancer-affected children to summer camp.
Bornbaum expects many organizations to be as relieved as his to see the return of their signature events.
“I think across the industry…it brings that little sense of normalcy that I think we’ve all been missing for the past few years.”
As for Melissa MacKinnon, she’s not just looking forward to a return to normal: she’s hoping the final years of the pandemic will change the sport of running for the better.
“It’s wonderful to see that people have taken up the sport,” she said.
“I know it’s been a way for people to deal with the pandemic…I hope it becomes part of their lives.”