Area YMCA feeling very ‘fortunate’
Like it was for the rest of humanity, the calendar year 2020 was a brutal one for runners and walkers competing in racing events across the country.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, major marathons such as the Boston Marathon could not be held, and the pandemic also wreaked havoc on smaller events like half-marathons, 10K and 5K road races in just about every community across the United States.
With all that taken into account, the Blair Regional YMCA can boast a feather in its cap. The YMCA’s annual seven-event Community Challenge Wellness Series of road races was completed in its entirety, although doing so required race officials and competitors alike to make some significant adjustments and sacrifices.
Staggering starting times for groups in the various races, postponing and rescheduling a couple, and making one — the November Turkey Trot — a virtual event, enabled the Blair Regional YMCA to get through its entire Challenge Wellness Series.
And the area racing community’s willingness to adhere to strict COVID-19 safety protocol, as well as the help of area police, firefighters, and community volunteers, all factored in the YMCA pulling off a successful year amidst the chaos of the pandemic.
“We were extremely fortunate,” said Frank Kopriva, the Blair Regional YMCA Senior Program Director, who is in charge of coordinating the race series. “Without the support of the local community — whether it be the Altoona police, the Hollidaysburg Borough police, the Geeseytown Fire Department, the Altoona Fire Department, the (Hollidaysburg) Phoenix Volunteer Fire Department — along with all of our community race volunteers, it wouldn’t have worked.
“Also, if the running community had not bought into the guidelines and the rules to make our races as safe as possible, these races wouldn’t have happened,” Kopriva added. “The running and walking community really showed how much they care about each other, and they didn’t take being able to go out (and participate) for granted. The racing community understood and went along with everything that we were asking, because they too felt a social responsibility, and they wanted to make the effort to make things safe for everybody.”
Due to the initial infiltration of the pandemic, the Challenge of Champions Ken Brumbaugh Memorial Race, which usually kicks off the Series in late March, was postponed until September 26 this year, and the Diamond Dash, run throughout Hollidaysburg in May, was postponed to October 31.
The July 4 races marked the first event on this year’s card. Unlike in previous years, when all the runners in the July 4 event started at the same time, the starting times for this year’s event were staggered according to the divisions of competition, with all participants required to wear masks before starting the race, and also, after they had crossed the finish line.
In a further move that was designed to prevent people from congregating, no awards ceremony was held after the July 4 race, or after any of the other events in this year’s Series. Instead, the finishing times for each runner and walker in each of this year’s events were posted on the Blair Regional YMCA’s website.
Kopriva said that the Blair Regional YMCA used the July 4 races as a benchmark for future races in this year’s Series.
“The July 4 races were our first event in this year’s Series, and we did the July 4 races as a trial,” Kopriva said. “Because the people respected and took care of each other, and followed all the necessary precautions, we were able to do the other races.”
The Canoe Creek Triathlon running, walking, cycling and swimming event was held as scheduled on Aug. 1, as was the half-marathon in the Hollidaysburg area on Oct. 3.
The Turkey Trot was run virtually after a second COVID flare-up in late November had eventually prompted a mid-December government shutdown of restaurants and bars to mitigate spread.
Participants in the Turkey Trot were given the option to either walk or run the corresponding course distances on self-designed routes, then report their times to YMCA officials.
The provisions for the Dec. 31 Twilight Race were the most stringent in the series, with participants required to wear masks during the competition itself, rather than just before starting and after finishing – as had been the case in all of the other Series races.
Participants were staggered in groups of six, with each group – or wave – of participants departing the starting blocks at different times to eliminate congregation.
“As much as we did for the five in-person races leading up to (the Twilight Race), that one was even stricter,” Kopriva said. “If we wouldn’t have been able to run it on the closed course at Lakemont Park, we wouldn’t have been able to hold it in person.”
Veteran area runner A.J. Kelly, 39, of Altoona, participated in all seven of the Challenge Series events this year, taking first-place honors in three of them and second-place honors in the other four.
“It was definitely a bit of a challenge this year,” Kelly said. “The number of competitors was down, and we had to wear masks before starting and after finishing in the races, and then, in the last race on New Year’s Eve, we had to wear a mask the entire time while running, so that was probably the biggest challenge of all.
“One of the races, the Turkey Trot, went virtual, so that was kind of a little bit of a loss,” Kelly added. “But we managed, and we still got all the races in. It was great that the YMCA was still able to have the races, because so many others (across the country) were cancelled.”
What 2021 will bring for the world in general, and the Community Challenge Series in particular, is anybody’s guess. Vaccines to fight COVID have been released, but won’t be available to the general public for months.
Even then, question marks will remain.
“Hopefully, the numbers (of competitors)will go up, and there will be less restrictions,” Kelly said of the 2021 Challenge Series. “Hopefully, nothing gets cancelled, because they’re going to be starting back up again in March, and who knows how things will be then.”