Runners on the Arlington Memorial Bridge during the 2016 Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run Credit: Kelyn Soong

Phil Stewart understands the pressure. In the 30 years he’s served as race director of the Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run, Stewart has prepared and planned for all sorts of unexpected incidents that could have impacted the annual D.C. road race, but the 2021 edition, scheduled to take place Sept. 12, has proved to be unlike any other he has organized. The 10-mile race, which is being held in September rather than its usual April date, is the first of several large in-person road races set to return to D.C. in the coming months. The COVID-19 pandemic forced races to be canceled or go virtual for the majority of last year.

“I’ve been directing this race since 1991, and I think it’s fair to say this is probably the most stressful year that there’s been,” Stewart tells City Paper.

Then there’s the fact that the delta variant has is spreading across the country, causing local governments to reevaluate their safety protocols. In D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser reinstated an indoor mask mandate in late July. Rules for outdoor activities may differ. Fully vaccinated fans attending games at Nationals Park and Audi Field, two outdoor sports venues, are not required to wear masks while outside but are required to wear one at indoor areas, regardless of their vaccination status, unless they are actively eating or drinking. Nationals Park has a capacity of 41,313 fans, while Audi Field holds a maximum of 20,000 people.

The Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run is one of the most popular road races in D.C. and typically draws an international field of nearly 20,000 participants. More than 17,000 runners finished the 10-mile race in 2019. The in-person event was not held in 2020. Stewart says about 9,500 people registered this year for the 10 mile race and another 1,500 to 2,000 runners registered for the 5K event, but he believes there will be a higher no-show rate than previous years. Stewart predicts based on “pure speculation” that it’ll be closer to 7,000 or 7,500 runners for the 10 miler.

“That’s one of the challenges of this … is that there’s so many times when we’re having to speculate on things that there’s absolutely precedent for, so it really makes it hard,” he says.

Runners will have to wear masks at the start and finish line, but not during the race. This policy, Stewart says, came after to the National Park Service announced last month that it would be “requiring visitors, employees, and contractors to wear a mask inside all NPS buildings and in crowded outdoor spaces, regardless of vaccination status or community transmission levels.” NPS has not responded to a City Paper email asking about any additional protocols and precautions that runners and spectators should follow for the Cherry Blossom races.

“Our races are entirely on National Park Service property, and so we take our guidance from them or abide by whatever their standards are,” Stewart explains. “And they have not given me any directions as far as spectators go.”

While the general registrant for the races won’t need to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test, the 50 or so runners signed up for the elite men’s and women’s fields will need to provide both. The 2021 Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run will serve as the USATF 10 Mile Championships, and this year’s race will be headlined by Olympic bronze medalist Jenny Simpson, who is making her debut at the 10-mile distance. Fellow professional runners Diane Nukuri and Natosha Rogers join her on the women’s side. Local elite runners Susanna Sullivan and Bethany Sachtleben will also compete. Chris Derrick, winner of the 2018 USATF Half Marathon Championships, and 2014 and 2015 Cherry Blossom champion Stephen Sambu headline the men’s field.

This year’s race will have the traditional six waves at the start, but there will be reminders of the pandemic throughout the course. Hand sanitizing stations will be present and race volunteers will all be wearing masks. Water stations will be more spread out than usual and Stewart says runners will not be encouraged to linger at the finish as in previous years.

Metro will open on 5 a.m. on race day after the race received a special dispensation by WMATA, according to Stewart. How Sunday unfolds could impact subsequent in-person D.C. road races this fall. Pacers Running’s half marathon is scheduled for Sept. 19, followed by the Army Ten Miler scheduled for Oct. 10 and the Marine Corps Marathon on Oct. 31. The Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon, usually held in March, will be on Nov. 13.

“It’s exciting to be the first opportunity for runners who have gone a long time without a major race in the area,” Stewart says. “It’s exciting to be able to offer them that opportunity, [but] it also has its challenges, just trying to make everything work, and so there also is some pressure in that as well. But I think on the balance we are excited to be sort of the gateway event back into a fuller road racing season.”