The Mid South gravel race is known for often-inclement weather and challenging conditions, but this year’s mud wasn’t the most daunting element of the event. The rapidly escalating concerns about the spread of the coronavirus cast a pall on the March 14 event, which may have been the last notable bike race held in the United States for the immediate future.
In the days leading up to the event, race promoter Bobby Wintle and his crew followed the news like the rest of the country, but with the perspective of those who were bringing a large group of people together.
“Tuesday of this week I was resigned to anything I was forced to do from government advice,” Wintle told VeloNews the day after the race on Saturday. “I was prepared to be canceled.”
Around the world, major and minor races were being postponed or canceled.
Wintle said that in the days and weeks leading up to the event, he and his team were in “constant communication with our mayor and city manager.” Stillwater is overseen by City Manager Norman McNickle and Mayor Will Joyce. Communication between the race promoter and city officials peaked on the Wednesday and Thursday before the event.
His team talked through the logistics of the event as they pertained to a large group of people gathering in one place; in particular The Mid South team and city officials studied the expo area and whether it presented a risk. Ultimately, Wintle said, the city manager gave him the green light to allow vendors to set up tents on one block of Stillwater’s Main Street.
On March 6, eight days before the race, the organization sent out an email to registrants with a link to the current CDC recommendations regarding transmission risk and travel. On the 11th, The Mid South sent a second email encouraging people who felt sick to stay home and providing information about hand-washing and hand-sanitizing stations around the event venue.
On Thursday the 12th, the day that many people were due to arrive in Stillwater, the race promoters sent a final update, detailing more actions that the event would take, in concordance with local officials. The email stated that there would be no Bobby Wintle hugs, his signature finish-line greeting for all event finishers.
The email also noted that the race would offer registration deferrals for 2021. The rest of the email reiterated the importance of hand washing, limiting physical contact, and avoiding travel if ill or in close contact with immunocompromised people.
Event manager Sally Turner said that, while requests for deferrals had been slowly trickling in during the prior days, her inbox exploded after Thursday’s email.
“It’s wild, but we’re doing the best we can,” Turner said on Thursday. “We totally respect everyone’s decision to stay home.”
People trickled into Stillwater on Wednesday and Thursday with most arriving on Friday. More than 90 people participated in the 50k running race Friday morning, and about that many gathered outside of a coffeeshop for the SRAM/Zipp pre-race coffee ride. People light-heartedly greeted each other with elbow bumps and foot taps. Until race start on Saturday morning, it was still unclear how many people would actually be in attendance; Wintle later confirmed that 1,209 people of the 2,200 registrants started the 100-mile event.
VeloNews interviewed multiple participants in the days before the event. Concerns over the global pandemic were on the top of people’s minds, yet fear of the inclement weather and potential for mud were also a worry.
According to Turner, the race often experiences up to a 10 percent no-show rate, due in part to people’s aversion to the mud in bad weather years. Saturday certainly met that criteria, as nearly an inch of rain fell steadily overnight Friday and into the first hour of the race Saturday. Nevertheless, Wintle said that the feedback he received as finishers crossed the line had a noticeably different tenor than in years past.
“The thing that I’ve been blown away by every year but this year more than ever, people told me thank you,” Wintle said. “They just kept thanking me. And they told me good job instead of me telling them good job. They were congratulating me for putting on the event.”
Wintle said that the fruition of The Mid South this year was fraught with challenges that began when he announced that the race would be re-branded from Land Run 100 last fall. Despite criticism from locals and longtime supporters, Wintle remembers telling his team, “we just have to get to race day, we just have to get to The Mid South.” They never could have imagined what race day would bring.
What riders who stayed at home said
A number of riders, particularly those who were planning to fly to the event, opted to stay home. USA Cycling marketing director Lindsay Goldman was one such rider.
“While I love bike racing and any opportunity to suffer and have no intentions of stockpiling toilet paper, the reality is that my choice to travel to a mass start event puts my daughter, husband, and local community at risk,” Goldman said. “I don’t actually know how concerned to be about the real health risks – it’s hard to make sense of all the information available amid widespread panic – but no bike race, fun event, or great moment with friends matters more to me than health, family, and avoiding unnecessary risks that could harm others.”
Elite gravel racer Amity Rockwell, who was a favorite for The Mid South, also decided to stay home, initially citing prudence around airline travel and transmission risk.
She later posted on social media, imploring race directors to cancel events and riders not to attend them, to help curb the inevitable spread of the disease.
“This is not about you weighing the risks for yourself and making decisions based on those personal assessments,” Rockwell wrote.
What participants said and did
While about a thousand people who registered did not show up, more than 1,200 people still raced in the main event, with another 300 or so doing the 50k run, 50k run/100-mile ride, and 50-mile ride events. And many of those people had a similar story: they were already in Stillwater or en route to Stillwater when the tenor of the situation in the U.S. went from cautionary to national-threat level.
Many of them said they changed their behavior in terms of not touching other people or their own faces, and washing and sanitizing their hands often. Many avoided going to the expo, or hanging out in bars the way they would have in a normal year.
Russell Pickavance from Austin, Texas, drove to the event.
“Obviously we are all paying attention to the [coronavirus] situation,” Pickavance said. “For us, it was the fact that the event is outdoors. We were already on the way when it escalated, so we just decided to come. Half the people that we know didn’t come. At this point it’s a very personal choice for people as to what is best for them.”
Dr. Bennett Hook had traveled to Stillwater from Mobile, Alabama, where he works as a gastroenterologist in the Mobile Infirmary. He had recommended to a friend with a baby at home to not come, but he himself raced.
“The risk is bringing a bunch of people from different areas, who potentially have had exposure and didn’t know it, to one place,” Hook said. “It’s usually the exposure of being in an enclosed area in close proximity that is the risk. Here, the biggest risk is the expo, much more than the race itself. I don’t see the race itself as being much of an issue.”
Hook said that the hospital where he works is recommending that visits to patients be minimized, and that he was planning to limit his exposure to his own father, who has had a liver transplant.
“I will probably just talk to him on the phone for the next couple of weeks,” he said. “Or until we can figure out what’s going to happen.”
On Sunday, the day after the race, the Oklahoma governor declared a state of emergency.