Last year, the lights of Broadway went dark, renowned museums shut their doors, and perhaps most visibly, 55,000 of the world’s top distance runners were absent from the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge on the first Sunday of November. For just the second time in its 50+ year history, the New York City Marathon was canceled.

Now, as the COVID-19 pandemic gradually stabilizes and NYC vaccination goals are reached, the places and events that make New York a world capital are slowly returning to their prior glory, and that, of course, includes the city’s most famous road race.

The 2021 New York City Marathon is on schedule to bring cheering crowds, world-class athleticism, and inspiring determination back to the streets of all five boroughs. While the course will remain the same, some new rules and regulations will be in place to assure that safety remains at the front of the pack.

For one, all runners will show proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test. Just as with international travel, this globally-renowned event will require a similar level of precaution. Non-vaccinated runners will be expected to wear masks per CDC advisory, but that may change between now and the race’s November 7 date.

Another major change is that the field has been reduced to 33,000 runners — or 60% of the usual contingent. Start times will be staggered to allow for better spacing as competitors make their way to the finish line, also. As usual, elite runners will start at the lead, so expect even more distance than usual between them and the next tier of racers.

Administrative changes to reduce exposure are in place off the track, as well. Runners will be encouraged to check their belongings a day in advance, rather than on the morning of the race. New protocols at the Central Park finish line, where runners meet with friends and family and a large crowd typically forms, are expected to be announced in the lead-up to November.

Officials have yet to announce any changes in regard to spectators allowed. Although crowds have returned to near-capacity at ticketed events like baseball games and outdoor concerts, the massing of people around the race’s barriers will prove a bit trickier to manage. 

Perhaps the most similar scenario thus far, July’s “Hometown Heroes” parade for first responders in Lower Manhattan, saw no restrictions on a crowd the city estimated at around 100,000. There’s good reason to hope that with further vaccinations and fewer COVID cases come November, the 3 million-plus marathon crowd will be back in full form.

Potential participants at elevated risk or those who could not receive a vaccine can still take part without trekking to Staten Island. The 2021 Virtual New York City Marathon offers a chance for marathoners to test their times against the world’s best while running any 26.2-mile route they feel comfortable on. Last year, the GPS-tracked race allowed entrants from every corner of the globe to complete a marathon-length run in their hometowns or similarly safe environs, and over 14,000 took part. It’s certainly not the same as charging down the stretch through Central Park, but for those at risk, it’s the next best way to achieve this goal.

Despite some structural changes, this year’s event promises to be a return to normalcy for New Yorkers and the country as a whole. As the centerpiece of marathon season and a cherished annual tradition, the 2021 edition of the New York City Marathon is not just a race, but a major step toward leaving the COVID-19 pandemic behind.