The Great Southern Endurance Run (GSER) is a 100K in Atlanta, Georgia that travels from the top of Kennesaw Mountain to the top of Stone Mountain. It’s a small, iconic grassroots race that tours many of the highlights of the great city of Atlanta. This race is the brainchild of a local and well-respected race director (RD) here in the Atlanta area, Thomas Armbruster and 2020 would be its 6th year.
I watched the race from afar each year until one of my best running friends, Rebecca asked me to crew her and her husband Michael as they ran the race in 2017. That could be another whole story, but she finished first place overall and set the course record. The next year in 2018, I crewed her again and yet again she finished first overall and bested her course record. The next year when the local runners began discussing running the race in 2019 but the RD had not yet posted the event, I felt for them. GSER had now gotten into my blood even though I had only crewed the race, not run it. I reached out to Thomas imploring him to continue with the race and promising that I would step in and help him put it on hoping that would convince him to go ahead with it. So, in 2019 I worked with Thomas as his co-RD and began to appreciate the race from another perspective. Again, in the fall of 2019 the runners began to discuss whether their favorite spring race would be back on the calendar. When it didn’t seem to be happening, I finally made an offer to take over the race, continuing on with Thomas’ vision for the race and a strong desire to not let this race fade away.
The vision for the race was for it to be an adventure run through the city of Atlanta seeing many historical and other fascinating sites that many times go unseen. So, with Thomas’ blessing, I was handed the baton and took the reins to continue the Great Southern Endurance Run. It was later than usual when we finally got it scheduled on Ultrasignup and many runners had already made other plans, but there were still plenty that wanted to run it. GSER has always been a small family vibe race. I had a new logo created and was working with a local vendor for swag when everything came crashing down with the Covid-19 Pandemic. I immediately changed signups to waitlist only and continued to have a few sign up. Then the cancellation of races started to happen, shelter in place orders and many businesses closed to wait out the peak of the virus. What was that going to mean for GSER? Occasionally a runner would reach out and ask about the race. My plan was to wait it out. When the Georgia Shelter In Place orders came from our governor, GSER was just on the other side of those dates. That gave me hope and I wanted everyone to share that hope. Traffic was being limited on some of the trail routes and especially the Atlanta Beltline. I knew I couldn’t be reckless, but I wasn’t willing to cancel the race just yet.
Then came the virtual races. Along with races being cancelled, pushed to later dates or deferred to next year there came the virtual options for the cancelled races. In fact, my big spring race was also turned into a virtual race, but they would also be rolling over entries to the next year’s race. For many reasons you can read about in that race report, I decided to run my big race as a virtual which meant self-supporting for a tough 100 miler. I learned a lot doing that and knew for sure I did not want to turn GSER into a virtual event. I also knew that due to the way the race was set up, it could easily be rescheduled by just pushing the date out a few weeks and not completely moved to later in the year. Then things began to open up in Georgia, the “Land of the Free”! Not everyone agrees with how our governor is handling things but that’s not the point here. You might not agree with me in continuing to go forward with our race, but overwhelmingly the runners did agree. So, let me share what I did, how I did it and see if we can find a way through all this.
Once I decided to have the race as scheduled, I offered runners the option to rollover to next year if they were not comfortable with running it this year. I did not want to pressure anyone to run the race if it wasn’t something they were completely comfortable doing, no apologies needed. I let the runners know that my primary goal would be to provide safety for them and the volunteers, and I began to work through what that might look like. I felt certain I could do it. I also wanted to offer hope to runners. Hope that we would find a way through all of this, hope that races would come back, and hope that there could be some sort of return to normalcy. I knew from the runners who reached out to me, that they really wanted this. It meant as much or more to them than it did to me.
Swag from Southen Terminus GA
I posted on the GSER Facebook page that most of the runners belong to, invited the waitlisters to join the race and also opened up a couple of extra spots. I felt certain there would be some that would not want to run it. It was a small race but with so many other races cancelled, a few others might be looking to grab onto this bit of hope.
Now to get to work. Another thing in all this that was extremely critical for me was to support small businesses. I reached out quickly again to my vendor who I had been talking with about swag, we finalized a new plan and moved forward very fast to pull that together. Southern Terminus also creates some of the most beautiful handmade wood pieces such as bowls, boxes and boards. I wanted to offer a practical and useful award and asked if there would be time to make a cutting board that was engraved on one side for the top male and top female awards. Supporting this small business and these friends really added an extra bonus.
So how would I safely support runners for this race? What was that going to look like? First you need to understand a little bit about this race. It’s more of an urban adventure type run with very limited support of a few aid stations. It’s intended to be a run that you carry some cash and enjoy places along the route, although some sections are a little more desolate as far as gas stations or stores. Normally there are 4 aid stations over the 62 miles it takes to get from start to finish. This year my main goal would be to keep runners safe and that meant trying to keep them out of going into places along the way as much as possible. Many businesses were not open and fast food restaurants at this point were only open for drive thru. So, the first decision was to add 3 additional aid stations for runners.
It seemed pretty obvious to me that the aid stations should be set up with prepackaged foods. That’s really not as difficult to provide as it might sound. Yes, it is more expensive for sure, but maybe even a little easier to offer a huge variety as lots of prepackaged snacks. Along with food being prepackaged, I would provide Crustible peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bananas and Clementine’s, nothing cut but available for runners to take whole. Drinks needed to be the same way. There would not be jugs of water with spouts and possible contamination areas by too many sweaty hands on them. So, I provided individually bottled water and sodas. Again, more expensive for certain. In a large race just the transport of these type of containers could be challenging as they take up way more room. One huge downside, the amount of trash is huge in comparison. As an ultra runner and outdoor lover and enthusiast, this sort of goes against my beliefs. Tough times like this force us to have to choose, and my clear choice was the safety of all the runners and volunteers. In order to put on the race, I didn’t see any other choice.
Distanced Start Line
This race is easy with social distancing as it’s very small and spreads out over 62 miles. While there could be a gathering at the start, there was still room to spread out and keep a clear distance. To add to everyone’s safety, I reached out to a friend who had been furloughed and was making face masks for a little income. I immediately placed an order for enough face masks for all my volunteers and every single runner; yes, every runner. This isn’t a trail race in the woods, this is an urban adventure through communities. My goal was to keep runners from needing to go into places along the way, but I wasn’t stopping them from doing so. Some pathways may be crowded as parks, trails and pathway systems in our area are all open. Providing each of them with a mask (when they checked in at the start) would give them a way to cover their mouth and nose should they need to enter a store or business or feel they were in a crowded area. It was given to them in a zip lock bag so they could carry it with them and easily access it.
Runners were all sent final race instructions which told them about the masks and asked that they wear them and social distance at the start line. Everyone was more than happy to comply with that request. I also let them know how the aid stations would work. There would be a tub with snacks and lots of choices between sweet and salty, crackers, chips, candies and much more. I had told the runners to reach out to me with any personal requests and I would make every effort to add those things to each tub. My goal was for the race NOT to be self-supported but it was self-serve. Volunteers were there to see that each runner was safe and taken care of, but from a distance. Each aid station also included hand sanitizer and wipes for the runners and volunteers to use. Many volunteers used their face masks and stayed back. They cheered on the runners, helped support and encourage them. This could be something that slows down front runners but I offered them fair warning. It takes a bit longer when you have to fill your own pack using bottles of individual water. It’s just how it works. I also highly recommended runners use a pack in this race due to the limited access to businesses and not run off handheld bottles. In addition, having a crew might also be a great choice, if possible. There was lots of communication and I felt like I had tried to think through as many details as possible. Just prior to the race, I even had a Zoom call asking for more input on what I might be overlooking which included a nurse who gave some great advice.
I feel this race was more about the planning. The actual race pretty much followed as it usually does. Runners checked in and worked their way to the start line at the top of Kennesaw Mountain. They distanced themselves and wore masks for the most part. We started just a couple minutes after the scheduled time as a few were still coming up the last short section to the top. A quick well wish of having a great day and the runners were off and going.
Photo by Ben Gray
Our aid station workers all followed the simple guidelines of being there to see that the runners got aid safely, wearing masks or at a distance. We checked runners in at every aid station to keep track of them, following the front and the back of the race. The day was pretty hot and most were not yet acclimated to the heat. I’d have to guess that while many runners had not really been able to put the miles in to train for a 100K distance, I think most just wanted to get out and enjoy the day. It was here on the streets of Atlanta, free to run and experience the day, they could have some sort of normalcy. In the end, whether they finished or not, they were all super happy and very understanding with how the race went. The overall course record dropped by just over 35 minutes, and female runners came in second and third overall. This is a classic race that brings out the local speedsters especially among the women who have held the course record for a couple of years.
New Course Recorder Holder showing his award
Custom made cutting board by Southern Terminus GA
Related to the Covid virus, I feel like we covered our bases pretty well. There is probably a certain risk we will all be taking for months to come just stepping out of our homes. Eventually we will all have to do that and make the decision for ourselves as far as what we are comfortable doing. At this point in time, I personally think runners need some hope. Hope that their races will not all be cancelled and hope that things will return to “normal”, whatever that might look like post Covid-19.
What didn’t work so well? Other than some small race issues more do to me directing this race for the first time and throwing in extra aid stations, I think our safety for the runners and volunteers was very good. Supporting a race this way is much more expensive with everything being individually packaged but I guess RDs will have to make some adjustments for that if they plan to provide aid. Bigger cost I think might be the individual water and drinks and certainly the amount of trash is greater with providing prepackaged food. The majority of this race was not on trail but rather through town. I’m sure each race will have to be evaluated a little differently.
So, a short run down of changes due to Covid-19:
1. Added 3 additional aid stations
2. Provided prepackaged food
3. Individually bottled water and sodas
4. Face Masks for Aid station workers and runners
5. Social distancing at the start, using masks or buffs as well
6. Recommended packs with bladders to limit the need to refill at each aid (avoiding extra touching etc. of water hydration pack)
7. No post-race meal (this might be more specific to my race and being immediately after Shelter In Place orders ended in our state)
8. Hand sanitizer, hand wipes and gloves at each aid station
9. Aid stations were self-serve keeping volunteers from touching more things
Trena Chellino, GSER Race Director