Yas Mall Indoor Run Race Report: Racing in COVID-19 Times

In recent months, we have been having some sporadic signs of going back to something that resembles normalcy, in Dubai, cinemas, bars, movie theatres and fitness facilities have been open for some time, and in Abu Dhabi, running races have resumed recently with the Abu Dhabi Sports Council launching a series of indoor mall runs at Yas Mall. There were three races in total (expecting more to be announced soon).

I took part in the third race of this series this weekend, and this is a review of the race and how upcoming races might look like. The reality of things is that we will unlikely have mass participation events in huge numbers this year or even until later in 2021, so we will have to make do with what we have now, stay safe and appreciate the current situation. For all we know, if the number of positive COVID-19 cases spikes, we might go on lockdown again (hopefully not).

Registration for the race was on the Inphota website, and there were clear instructions on bib collections, precautions at the race, and the start times for each of the distances. The runners went off in a staggered start in groups of 4, with 30 seconds separating each batch of four. There was a limit of 450 runners in total across all distances (2.5k had a limit of 120 runners, 5k had 170 and 10k had 160).

The email communications after registration were also clear and straightforward, with simple instructions for race day elaborated on the emails, with the route map, details on what to do and not to do in the mall etc. Screenshots of the instructions and the event guide are provided at the bottom of this email if anyone is interested in reading them in more detail.

Getting to Abu Dhabi was a bit of a hassle, my friend and I were turned away when we tried to drive to the DPI laser testing tent on the way to the capital on Thursday night, so we had a female friend join us (“families” are okay to go to the testing tent). A 75-minute trip took several hours in total (!), but we made it eventually. The race was thankfully on Saturday morning so I got to sleep in on Friday till 2 PM (Not a wise idea though as I could not get any sleep till 2 AM before the race… Oh well).

Bib collection was only allowed on Thursday and Friday in Abu Dhabi, for runners coming from outside Abu Dhabi, they had to coordinate with the organizers in advance. A friend picked up my bib and gave it to me the night before the race (she only needed my ID). There was no race pack, just the bib itself with the timing chip on its back.

On race day, each distance had a wave start time. As per the organizers’ instructions for my distance: “10Km runners – please arrive no earlier that 6:20am at the start line area (refer to event guide map) and no later than 6:30am). Runners will be set off from 6:30am to 6:55am in lines of 4 runners at 30-second intervals.”

I got to the mall at 6:20 AM, was in line with a friend by 6:26 AM, and because there were already enough people, the waved started going off earlier than 6:30 AM. As per my watch, I started at 6:35 AM, as per the timing mats, I started at 6:34 AM. This seemingly minor detail is relevant because my official time was 33 seconds faster than my actual time (Official time: 40:19, while the time on my watch was 40:52 minutes). My assumption is that for some reason, I was tracked with the wave that started after me. The total distance I had on my Garmin watch was 10.16km (I use a footpod, which helps in giving an idea about the distance and pace, but it is not 100% accurate).

The below photo shows the staggered start line where we lined up in groups of 4, with each wave starting every 30 seconds with social distancing.

The race organizers’ instructions for arriving to the mall and for finishers of the race were as follows: “When arriving at Yas Mall on Saturday morning August 22, you MUST wear an appropriate mask whilst moving in and around the mall prior to the start of your run and when you have completed your run. Whilst running in your race you can remove your mask but please remember to maintain good social distancing between runners and when passing other runners on the course.

Once you have completed your 10k we would ask that you do the following:

Put on your face mask covering your mouth and nose, move quickly through the finish line chute, collecting your finishers’ medal and then move off and leave the event zone.

You are welcome to remain inside Yas Mall and enjoy a cool stroll back through to Town Square for coffee and breakfast. We just ask that you clear the event start/finish area promptly and as requested by event staff.

Below are the key points that would matter to most runners:

  • No mask required during the race itself, but you had to keep it on you and have it on up until the moment you start running and as soon as you finish your race.
  • The medals were put up on a big rack and runners picked them up themselves (normally the volunteers would give them out).
  • There was NO bag drop off.
  • There was no podium and awards after the race.
  • There were aid stations, however, the volunteers only restocked the water on the tables and did not hand them out by hand as expected in ‘pre-COVID’ times.
  • The floor was not slippery or wet due to sweat. At no point in the race did I feel that I had to slow down to avoid slipping or falling (not even at turns and u-turns).
  • The race was more expensive than previous editions in 2017 and 2018, it used to be around 50-55 dirhams for all distances, but this one was priced at AED 50 for the 2.5k, AED 100 for the 5k and AED 150 for the 10k, but in all fairness, it is well worth it considering how well organized, safe and convenient it is to get there and to park (plus you get free photos on Inphota!). It’s not cheap to organize races, and with all the additional work that goes into it (extra precautions and safety measures, extra volunteers, etc.), it’s justified in my opinion.

Checking the race results page, there were 90 runners who did the 2.5k (the limit was 120), 206 who did the 5k (the limit was a maximum of 170) and 129 who did the 10k (With a limit of 160), meaning that there was a total of 425 runners (I reckon this is why they allowed the 5k to go over the limit).

Now, for my own experience and opinion:

The route was interesting, there were many u-turns and turns, which led to losing momentum and speed at times, but this is expected (this is not meant to be a world record-breaking course, it is a community race in a mall). The marshaling and signage were excellent throughout the course.

For the people seeking high placements and who are competitive, it was weird running with no idea who is ahead of you, where you placed etc. (For example, I was told right after I finished the race that I came 3rd in my age group, eventually it turned out that I was 4th as someone in my age group who finished with a faster time finished after me). It’s a very ‘first world problem for runners’ case, but it is still one that matters to the competitive ones out there (Disclaimer: A podium finish is always welcome, but it’s not the be all and end all). Also this also still happens in normal big races where people go in waves, with some faster runners being with corrals starting later.

What this means for future races: While the staggered start and waves work well for a race in an indoor environment with controlled air temperature and consistent conditions, this would be a challenge for outdoor runs. Would they start in bigger waves than 4 people? Would they start way earlier to ensure that everyone gets to start before the conditions get too hot? If the race takes place in an area that requires road closures for the route, will this mean that runners starting at a later time would still have to be at the race venue well ahead of time? (e.g. Over an hour before the race).

In my opinion, outdoor races for distances up to the 10k distance with a total number of participants that do not exceed 300-400 are likely to go ahead with restrictions, but the logistics of managing any events with thousands of people doing the same distance such as the 10k race at the Dubai Marathon will pose a serious challenge to organizers.

As promised, below are screenshots of the email from the organizer and the event guide: