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- The Los Angeles Marathon is still on for this Sunday, despite serious Coronavirus concerns.
- To keep participants safe, public health officials recommend runners keep a distance of at least 6 feet between each other.
- Here, we do the math to determine just how feasible that would be in a marathon with approximately 20,000 participants.
Despite coronavirus-related cancellations and work-from-home orders around the U.S., this Sunday’s Los Angeles Marathon is still on. In a statement, the race’s health officials suggested instead that attendees self-police using an idea called social distancing. This is when you intentionally put space between yourself and others to act as a buffer.
From the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (our emphasis in bold):
Those planning to attend should engage in social distancing – a term used to stop or slow the spread of a contagious disease – and keep a distance of at least 6 feet between you and another person who is not your family member or friend. Please do not share food or water bottles, avoid shaking hands, and frequently wash hands or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, particularly before eating, after using the restroom and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
How would this buffer work in practicality at Sunday’s race? Well, in the strictest sense, there’s no way it possibly can. But for the sake of doing some math, I’ve assumed that people are kept 6 feet apart from one another after all, without narrowing that distance or breaking the rule. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does include social distancing among its specific coronavirus recommendations.
Are runners at a higher risk than the average person? According to our friends at Runner’s World, runners and endurance athletes are generally less at risk from viruses like this. The exception? Those who are overtraining or who have just completed a race.
“When you get to the high end of training and/or a postrace situation, then you are more vulnerable to infection,” David Nieman, Dr.PH., a health professor at Appalachian State University and director of the Human Performance Lab at the North Carolina Research Campus, told Runner’s World. “For example, after a marathon, runners are six times more likely to get ill with a respiratory infection than in people who didn’t race, because in a race you will always push harder than you would in training. This causes a lot of stress to your immune system, which increases your risk of coming down with an infection in the coming weeks.”
So if a race depletes their immune systems even briefly, they could be more likely to experience complications from coronavirus that anyone in their regular daily life might be carrying.
All of this is serious, and Public Health’s suggestion to exercise social distancing seems very daft. So let’s crunch some numbers to see what it would take to really do it.
In 2019, there were 20,040 runners who finished the L.A. Marathon. Race officials have said that just 0.6 percent of registered entrants this year are from countries with “do not travel” advisories, and these runners will have their entries deferred. Using those numbers, I estimated.
The L.A. Marathon begins at Dodger Stadium, where runners typically group into five corrals on a four-lane road that runs alongside the stadium’s outfield side. I used Gmaps Pedometer to estimate the width of that road to be about 44 feet, which fits with general street size guidelines. How many runners can fit, 6 feet apart, on this stretch of road?
Let’s begin with a basic square arrangement.
Seven runners fit across the width of this road, with very little leftover space. We’ll line up all 19,920 runners in rows like this, with 6 feet between each row.
So our 19,920 runners form over 2,800 rows of seven, making a total “start length” of about 3.77 miles. Jeff Dengate, Runner’s World‘s Runner-in-Chief, tells me most races like this are shoulder-to-shoulder in the starting corrals, so this would be a gigantic change. Basically, one runner is taking up the space usually occupied by more like 40 to 50 runners.
I had one additional whim for how to fit more runners into the starting space. What if we staggered them so the rows were 6 feet apart in triangle form?
This means the rows are about 5 feet (it’s 5.2, technically) apart instead of 6. Of course, it does also mean every other row holds just six runners instead of seven.
So there are more than 200 additional rows, but that’s balanced out by how much the length decreases—to a total of “just” 3.48 miles. These runners would need to wind around a uniformly four-lane road that enclosed a circular area over a mile across, which will be many times around the 0.15-mile-wide Dodger Stadium.
If everyone comfortably fit somehow, their rolling start would take hours. Runners would need to follow highway merging procedures when they bottlenecked from four lanes down to two, and even drivers can’t agree about how to do that. The only thing that wouldn’t be a huge issue is timing, because chip timing means each runner can be measured personally from start to finish.
Running a marathon is hard enough, and these challenges would only make the feat that much harder. To any marathoners running this weekend, good luck—and please stay safe.