Dublin Marathon cancellation came down to numbers and logistics

Huge distance to cover and medical staff needed meant organisers had no guarantees

Of all the challenges around organising a big city marathon - and there are many - one thing remains a constant: the distance of 26.2 miles, 42.1km, or around 138,000 feet has to be covered, no matter what the entry numbers or indeed the pace.

Jim Aughney has faced a lot of other challenges in his now 24 years as race director of the KBC Dublin Marathon. From dwindling runners and the loss of a headline sponsor to a demand for entries that far out-stripped supply, resulting in a part-lottery system of entry in advance of the 2020 event, set for the traditional October Bank Holiday weekend, and which quickly became a 25,000 sell-out.

When Covid-19 forced the cancellation of that event in May of last year, the hope and expectation was that by October 2021, the world might have returned to a level of normality that would again accommodate such mass participation outdoor events. Indeed in many cases and not just sporting ones it already has. Only for Aughney, organising the Dublin Marathon still had that constant challenge: the distance that needed to be covered.

So for the second year running they crunched the numbers and still there were more questions than answers, more risks it seemed than guarantees, and ultimately trying to put on an event over that distance simply didn’t make sense. After exploring several options as to what exact shape and form the 2021 event might take the decision to cancel outright was made on Wednesday morning, less than four months out from the race date of Sunday October 24th.

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Aughney detailed this decision to The Irish Times on Wednesday afternoon. Originally giving themselves until June 25th to make a call on this year’s race, the board decided to sit on it until July 15th, only when they met again last week the risks were still too high and the guarantees still few.

Vaccination programme

Beginning with vaccination: even if the expectation is the vast majority of the population will be vaccinated by Dublin’s date of Sunday October 24th, is there any guarantee? That risk is also compounded by the fact that many of the Dublin’s medical staff are currently tied up in the vaccination programme.

“All key stakeholders were engaged during the process, but we went into every meeting and all we looked for was fair and honest prediction and guidance,” said Aughney. “So there was no ultimatum here, it was our decision.

“Running the event with 5,000 runners, or 10,000, the costs were going to be the same and the risks were going to be the same. We were pushing for as many runners as we could, but reducing the number of runners wasn’t decreasing the overall risk. There is talk of 100 per cent vaccination by October, that’s the hope, but there’s no guarantee.

“Look at the concert in Kilmainham at the weekend, people were in social pods. As things stand, that would be a requirement for us on the marathon route. With the scale of this event, we don’t just square off Merrion Square, it’s 26.2 miles around the city to consider as well. We worked that out as 124,800 barriers. There’s no certainty at this point that won’t still be the required.

“If we only did one side of the route that’s 62,400 barriers. What do you do with the other side of the route? There were some things we could cater for, but a lot of risks around the things we just can’t. People’s health, number one. We’re being told there could be up to 1,000 cases a day by September. Plus our medical staff are also in the vaccination programme at the moment. If the vaccination programme wasn’t finished we’d have no medical staff. I could go on like that...”

Application

There is no compensation here either. Aughney confirmed that the Dublin Marathon, a not-for-profit event, received nothing of the Government's €70 million compensation package for sporting governing bodies in 2020, despite the losses of last year and despite submitting an application through Athletics Ireland.

With several other big-city marathons already declaring revised race plans from the spring to this coming autumn, Dublin’s chances also looked good. The Boston Marathon, typically held in April and with over 30,000 runners from all over the world, announced plans for a limited 20,000-entry race on October 11th. The London Marathon is now set for October 3rd, the organisers there opening up 50,000 entries, most of which were decided by lottery, an increase of more than 7,000 on the previous finisher record.

Aughney also engaged with those races and their models, “and who knows if those events actually will go ahead, even though they are still planning for them.”

Again it came down to that distance: “And you may have less spectators, with 5,000 runners, but again they still have to run 26.2 miles. And one of the real lifting factors for everyone is the support out on the road. Even if you asked supporters not to come out, how could you guarantee that?”

All entries for the 2021 KBC Dublin Marathon will be valid for the 2022 race. For those who do not wish to avail, a full refund option will be available.