Grandma's Marathon planning for in-person race using 'crowd science'

Tom Hauser
Updated: March 05, 2021 07:18 PM
Created: March 05, 2021 06:38 PM

During the pandemic you often hear public health officials and politicians talk about "following the science" when it comes to preventing the spread of COVID-19. Organizers of Grandma's Marathon in Duluth have taken that advice to heart as they devise a plan to run in-person races on June 19.

"We're basically in the middle of a complete redesign of Grandma's Marathon weekend," said Zach Schneider, a spokesman for Grandma's Marathon. "Very few parts of the race weekend will look the same as a traditional year and that starts with the race itself."

The event is already scheduled to be at 50% capacity for the marathon, half marathon and 5K races, or about 9,500 runners.

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Grandma's will use "crowd science" to keep people socially distanced on the racecourse. They'll do that with the help of a "crowd scientist."

"All eyes worldwide are on Duluth if it goes ahead in June," said Marcel Altenburg of "Start Right," a company that specializes in "race flow dynamics" with the software it developed.

The software was initially used by the Berlin, New York City and Chicago marathons and is now being applied specifically to Grandma's course, one Altenburg said is ideally suited to social distancing during distance running.

"It is a point-to-point course along a stretch that makes absolute sense," said Altenburg, who is based in England and is a senior lecturer in crowd science at Manchester Metropolitan University. "If you look at it on a map, it's not like a Mickey Mouse course that we call it in the city where maybe the people at the finish come back into the start," he said.

For Grandma's, Altenburg took data from the finishers of the 2019 Grandma's races and applied them to an algorithm he created that performs millions of race simulations.

"We cracked the code of the marathon," Altenburg said. "That made us be able to take all the data out and throw in Grandma's data. The algorithm would then learn what is the course? What are the normal Grandma's Marathon runners?"

With that simulation, he can create a plan to send runners onto the course with the goal of keeping them at a safe social distance of 12 to 20 feet while running. To achieve this, thousands of runners will be sent off just five at a time over nearly an hour and 10 minutes.

"The system would create Grandma's Marathon runners, the exact people who will show up, basically," Altenburg said, using information about typical race finishers. "Then, we can change anything, layout or time, and the system will tell us where are the people over the whole day."

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Masks will be required on the buses to the start, in the starting corral and at the finish, but not for runners during the race. The buses will also be limited to just 25 runners each.

It's fascinating science and might be the key to getting state approval for Grandma's to be one of the first major marathons in the world to be run during the pandemic. However, it won't be the usual Grandma's experience for runners or fans of the race.

"We know the big top tent in Canal Park where we have our beer garden and our entertainment, that's not going to be part of our plan that we present to the state," Schneider said. "We're not planning to have any spectators allowed in Canal Park or up and down the racecourse."

That is the status now, but that could possibly change over the next three months based on whether there's a dramatic improvement in the pandemic.

Grandma's organizers hope to decide whether the in-person race will be held as far in advance as possible so runners can adjust training and travel plans. Last year, the race was 100% virtual.

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