Boston Marathon returns with fewer runners, more masks

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Painter Bryelle Gomes, of Brockton, Mass., organizes stencils, Wednesday, Oct 6, 2021, while working to complete the start line for the 125th edition of the Boston Marathon, in Hopkinton, Mass. The race is to be run on Monday, Oct. 11. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

BOSTON (AP) — In addition to a medal, some water and maybe a banana, volunteers will be handing out masks to the Boston Marathon finishers as they leave the socially distanced course and disperse into the city’s bustling Back Bay.

With an indoor mask mandate in Boston, race organizers have ordered 200,000 of them for their staff, volunteers and runners who didn’t slide them onto their arms or into their pockets when they got off the bus in Hopkinton and took off for Copley Square.

That’s just one of the changes when the first-ever fall Boston Marathon hits the streets Monday following the cancellation of the 2020 race and a six-month delay in ’21.

“It’s been more than 900 days since we last ran together here,” Boston Athletic Association President Tom Grilk said at a safety briefing on Thursday. “While the streets remain the same, pretty much everything else is different.”

The biggest changes are a field that shrank by more than a third — a total of 18,252 people are expected — and a new, rolling start: Instead of an athlete’s village in Hopkinton, where runners typically stretch and grab some last-minute calories and liquids, and corrals where they wait for the gun, they get off the bus and go.

Pierre d’Hemecourt, one of the race’s medical directors, said the result should be more space at the start and on the course.

“There will be less milling around in Hopkinton. Use the bathroom, get water, immediately start running,” he said. “The race itself will be much more protected because the athlete itself will have much more room to social distance.”

Originally scheduled for April 2020, the 125th edition of the Boston Marathon was first postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, then canceled for the year — the first time since 1897 that no version of the race has been run. The 2021 race was postponed from April for six months to give the pandemic more time to abate.

Now, 30 months after Lawrence Cherono and Worknesh Degefa broke the tape on Boylston Street, the world’s most prestigious road race is back.

At the safety briefing — usually held indoors but moved outside this year to the plaza in front of the historic Trinity Church — d’Hemecourt said a COVID medical advisory panel began meeting in August 2020 when it wasn’t clear if the event would return in its usual April slot, move to the fall or be canceled for a second straight year.

Their plan started with making sure everyone participating in the race is either vaccinated or tests negative for the coronavirus. Runners will be required to stop by a tent to verify their vaccine status; unvaccinated runners can take a rapid test that would allow them to pick up their bib number.

Masks will be worn indoors, including on the buses to the starting line. D’Hemecourt said about 95% of the runners are vaccinated, and everyone working in the medical tent will be.

The finish line medical tent will also be stocked with extra equipment to avoid the need to transfer some cases to already overburdened local hospitals.

“We’re doing special things like extra crutches so somebody with a stress fracture doesn’t need to be sent to the emergency room,” d’Hemecourt said. “They can be evaluated … given crutches and sent on their way.”

The marathon’s first fall race is also expected to luck out on the weather, with forecasts of temperatures in the 50s and 60s and a chance of rain in the morning.

“We’re going to have a beautiful date, so that helps,” said Samantha Phillips, the director of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. “Sometimes in April the weather can be a bit unpredictable.”

The unexpected unpredictability for public safety officials: the possibility of a Red Sox playoff game about a mile away. The ballclub would meet the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 4 of the AL Division Series, unless one of the teams sweeps.

“It’s very much on our radar that we could have these co-occurring wonderful events,” Phillips said.

Although COVID-19 was the main topic at the news conference, authorities also promised they remain vigilant at the site of the 2013 terrorist bombing. Participants and spectators passing through checkpoints will be prohibited from bringing in not just weapons, flammable liquids and backpacks, but also large blankets and bulky costumes.

Drones are also banned.

“As in past years, the public should expect to see a significant law enforcement presence along the route,” Phillips said. “We want to encourage spectators to attend and cheer on the marathon participants. The weather looks like it will be beautiful. But remain aware of your surroundings.”

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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