I was one of 22,000+ registered runners and walkers in the virtual RAT
Race who needed that kind of motivational message occasionally this
summer. Those wise words were near the end of one of Gary's best
articles yet, and he's written many of them online and in print for
COVID-19 began ravaging the world in late 2019/early 2020. Lockdowns
in March and April in this country, and the uncertainty of how long the
pandemic would last, made it pretty clear to running race directors
around the globe that they were going to have to cancel their events in
the spring, summer, and possibly longer.
That left a lot of frustrated runners who had big race goals this year.
Above and below: signs of
the times in Peachtree City; Don is standing
next to my favorite mailbox
"post" in a nearby neighborhood. (Summer, 2020)
Someone who lives close to this
big tree burl on the PTC cart path dresses
it up with seasonal themes. This
was the patriotic costume in June and July.
specter of no foot races for an unknown period of time didn't concern me directly since I
no longer run or even walk in these events, but it did matter to Jim.
What matters a lot to Jim also affects me.
He was planning to walk a few
ultra-distance races from the spring to fall. Without the certainty of
any live races to train for, he needed motivation to put in longer miles
than just walking the dogs. He wanted to be ready in case there were
any real races later in the year, especially A Race for the Ages (ARFTA)
Jim and Sandra Cantrell, Gary's
wife, at the 2018 ARFTA race.
Sandra was RD that year because
Gary was walking across America.
Enter the concept of virtual races and other athletic events, and how
that affected our summer activities.
Just like all the virtual classes and virtual meetings that were
quickly set up for kids and adults so they could continue to learn and
work more safely in their own homes, runners soon had the option of
walking or running virtual foot races in their own neighborhoods, or
even on a treadmill in their own house -- including the
long-standing Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta and half a dozen spring
Walkathon events that Southeastern Guide Dogs relies on for many of its
Flyer for the live SEGD Fort
Myers, FL 2020 Walkathon before it went virtual
"LAZ" TO THE RESCUE
One of the smartest, most creative people we know is Gary Cantrell
AKA Lazarus Lake or just "Laz," the wise man I quoted at the top of this
page. His whole post was an excellent essay on why today is the best
day of your life, so make the most of it. I copied and saved it on my computer.
Gary has been running, walking, and directing unique ultramarathon
events in the southeastern United States since the 1970s.
He was one of the first ultrarunners I met when I began running
distances beyond the marathon. He lives in Tennessee and I was living in
Georgia at the time (I'm back now after an 18-year absence).
Jim and I have run some of his events and have seen him at others.
Here's a photo of him that I took at the Hinson Lake (NC) 24-hour race
in September, 2009. That's a dragonfly on his hand:
Gary's a bad-ass, veteran ultrarunner who did a
transcontinental walk two years ago but he has a soft spot in his heart
for animals, as you'll see at the end of this entry.
His most (in)famous creation is The Barkley, a nearly impossible
trail to run and claw your way through at Frozen Head State Park in
Tennessee. Very few people from around the world have ever finished it. It's
gotten a lot of publicity so most ultrarunners know about it.
He also directs several other unique events that are challenging but
can realistically be finished by runners who train for them.
Great shirt design for us aging
runners who are still out there putting in the miles,
even if we have to walk them now.
I bought one of these to support his vendors.
Gary was the brilliant mind who was first, or certainly one of
the first, to come up with the idea of creating a long virtual journey
run to give runners like Jim a goal during the pandemic.
His event, the Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee, would cover 1,000
kilometers/635 miles across his home state. All the entrants
would be running and walking wherever they do their normal daily
runs/walks, but they could track where they were virtually on the course in
Tennessee as they accumulated their miles.
The starting point was west of Memphis and went diagonally across the
state to its farthest northeast corner:
To appeal to more than just ultrarunners and people who have done
multi-month journey runs, Gary allowed four months -- 123 days
-- from May 1 to August 31 to get those miles, an average of "only"
about five miles a day.
To up the ante for ultrarunners, especially
those who were now out of work due to the pandemic, he had other goals
like 1,000 miles or out and back. Little did he know how many miles some
of those runners would accumulate in four months.
Gary enlisted the help of his family and a few other tech- and social
media-savvy friends before announcing the race to the public.
Above and below: front and
back of the bright yellow shirt all the
mail after they signed up for GVRAT; everyone wanted to stay ahead of
Gary and his management team all thought this novel idea might appeal to a grand total of
perhaps 200 runners, so the tracking system to record distances and
locations along the course as runners accumulated miles was based on
that estimate. A Facebook page was created for entrants to post photos
And at some point well before Jim and I even heard about it,
registration was opened on the
How Jim and I both missed any announcement about this event remains a mystery
to us, but we didn't find out about it until May 2, the day after it began! And
by then there were over 15,000 people signed up from six continents!!!!
That came as a huge surprise to Gary and his management team, who
originally thought maybe 200 people might be interested, so they were
very busy scrambling around for the first few weeks to accommodate all those
people. I'm a little surprised they didn't cap the number of
Early in the pandemic I saw
several different inspirational signs like this and
small rocks with similar message
along the PTC multi-use paths I was walking.
It took a little while to increase the capacity of the tracking
system exponentially, monitor hundreds (sometimes thousands) of comments
and questions every day on the Facebook page, and attend
to numerous other details like where to produce over 20,000 shirts and
medals/buckles for entrants on those six continents.
Meanwhile, participants on six continents were all starting to
accumulate their miles near their own homes while the pandemic lingered
on. There were as many different goals as entrants.
THE ELUSIVE GINGERBREAD MAN
Despite the challenges of this wildly-popular event, the team managed to keep up with
all the moving parts during the summer and
Gary was even able to finish 1,000 miles himself by the end of the race.
Many people, including Jim, used Gary for their "rabbit" (pacesetter) rather than the
virtual Gingerbread Man, who was designed to never be caught, as
you can see at the bottom of my race number in the next picture.
Jim saw the value of entering the race as soon as he caught wind of
it on May 2. I had to think about it for a couple hours, but did
enter that day, too. As you can see from my high number, we were late to
During the 30 years I was training for marathons and ultras, I was used
to running and walking 40-60 miles/week. "Only" 35 miles/week required to
finish this virtual event would have been a cinch back then.
That was then. This is now.
I haven't been able to run since 2009, and in the past three years I
haven't been walking as much as I did when we were RVing all over the
continent and I had interesting new trails to hike every day.
Even though I enjoy our large network of paved multi-use trails in
Peachtree City and walk the dogs every day, I still needed some
motivation myself to get out the door on hot, humid summer days and the
whole concept of doing another journey run/walk, even virtually,
Don loves to climb up those steps
to the slide but in March and April the playground
equipment, picnic tables, etc. in
our city parks were roped off due to the pandemic.
It helped that the local parks and trails that were closed during
part of March and April due to COVID re-opened in early May. That gave
us more options for places to walk.
We also took Holly and Don up to Sweetwater Creek State Park to hike
during the summer. I don't think any of the Georgia state parks ever closed
their trails during the pandemic, just the buildings.
Don and Holly take a break above the old textile
mill ruins on
a warm August morning at Sweetwater Creek State
I usually walked Don but sometimes I took Holly or Casey with me early in the
morning while it was cooler, then did more miles solo. Jim did the
same, usually walking both girls at once.
I worked up to 17.2 miles for my longest walk and went places on
the cart path that I'd only previously ridden with my bike or driven in
the golf cart.
Running, walking, riding golf carts . . . it was
good to get outside on the cart path
during the pandemic. Scenic Lake Peachtree is
I knew I was "finished" when I passed 635 miles/1,000K on August 4 but I
kept recording my mileage with the race until I had 700 miles before the
official end of it on August 31. I averaged 6.625 miles a day and
had several weeks over 50 miles in July and August. My weekly
totals ranged from 39-55 miles.
It took me 96 days to reach my goal.
I placed 4,691st overall and 2,432nd female out of 22,646 entrants from 78
countries. I was about halfway in the middle of the female age 70+
group, just walking all my miles.
I lost about 10 pounds without even trying! That wasn't my goal, since
my weight is good, but it was nice to have more muscle definition in my
old legs again.
Jim maintained an average of more than
eight miles a day and "kept Gary in sight"
as his pacesetter so he could get the special award for the 1,000-mile
completion (a pin). He reached 635 miles in 69 days, then virtually
turned around and went backwards on the course until he hit his second
goal of 1,000 miles.
He also walked all of his miles, as did many
other entrants. Ultrarunners were a minority of the participants.
GVRAT was just what Jim needed to train for his third ARFTA 72-hour
race on Labor Day weekend. That's one of Gary's popular races. It will
be held in person this year but in a different, safer format with only
sixty entrants. I'll feature that live event in September and The
Endless Mile in October in another entry.
Participants who completed the virtual 1,000k/635-mile point-to-point
trek across TN in 123 days or less had their choice of a fancy buckle or
medal. Jim and I both chose the buckle:
Neither of us wear the 100-mile buckles we've earned previously so I
doubt we will wear this one, either.
Entrants like Jim who ran or walked 1,000 miles between May 1 and
August 31 received a commemorative pin. There were other awards for
runners who went out-and-back 1,270 miles one or more times.
THE INEVITABLE IMITATORS
By August GVRAT had attracted more than 22,000 registered participants from
about 80 countries. Antarctica was the only continent with no runners.
Most entrants paid $60 to enter the race. Do the math!
It didn't take long for other race directors to take notice of the
enormous popularity of this event. They wondered if they, too, could
make a lucrative living by either turning their cancelled live races into virtual
ones, or creating new virtual events that would appeal to the masses.
In early 2021 these events are still popping up all over the world
because the pandemic has only gotten worse, not better. But Gary
was the most successful. He's a frugal man who has kept
entry fees low for all of his races and he lives a modest lifestyle. He
did not personally make a killing on this race.
He paid his staff well. Although he didn't have to provide food at
aid stations or rent porta-potties and equipment, he had
other business expenses like paying for and shipping 22,000+ race shirts and all the awards
that were won.
Casey rests in a little park
along the cart path
during one of her walks with me.
This race kept several small race-related businesses IN business that
would have otherwise gone OUT of business this year with no live races
for which to print shirts or produce medals, buckles, pins, trophies,
and other products.
Additional race-related products were
offered for purchase like the cool "old wolf" shirt I bought that I
showed earlier in this entry.
I like that one better than the official yellow race shirt included in
the entry fee.
Gary also donated a generous sum of money to local
non-profits like the animal shelter.
A GREAT ESCAPE
was incredible to watch GVRAT unfold on Facebook every day! I
loved seeing photos from all around the world where people were doing
their runs/walks -- old castles in the UK, gorgeous mountains in
Europe and New Zealand, peaceful forests in Scandinavia, lush greenery
in tropical settings, the Mediterranean seaside.
This was my
favorite international photo from the summer, posted by a runner in
That photo made me smile all day! This race was a great "escape" for
many people, especially since international
travel was banned or severely limited during the summer.
It was fun to read as many GVRAT Facebook posts and comments
as I had time for. Some were quite humorous, others inspirational.
Some asked for advice on how to get out the door every
day to run or walk. I was surprised how many people signed up for this
challenge who had never walked or run over a mile. Others had never been in
any type of foot race. The motive was often to stay fit or lose weight during
the pandemic and many people needed motivation to stick with it all summer (and
hopefully for life).
Some folks were cancer survivors or struggling with various other
types of serious challenges. Gary and others often wrote inspiring messages to try to keep
everyone going so they could meet whatever goals they had. He wanted
everyone to set the bar high and succeed.
I took Holly for some trail miles
at Line Creek Nature Area on
her third birthday, June
2. I let her get into the water a couple times.
Some legitimate ultrarunners who apparently had a lot of time on
their hands not only ran out-and-back on the virtual course in the
allotted time -- 2,000+ kilometers or 1,270 miles -- but a
couple of them went out-and-back FOUR times!
All entrants submitted their own distances each day so it was
possible to cheat but the top men and women are respected runners who
had nothing to gain by doing that. It would have only ruined their good
Jim and I kept busy all summer 1) getting in our miles so we could
stay ahead of the virtual "buzzards" behind us on the rolling cut-offs and 2)
reading quite a bit of what was posted on the GVRAT Facebook page
because it was so entertaining and full of information. We knew several
of the ultrarunners who posted.
Don poses next to the mule
sculpture at Line Creek Nature Center. (6-17-20)
I'm so glad I decided to enter the event. It helped get my mind off
the pandemic because focusing on my mental and physical health was being
proactive instead of reactive. I used some of my old training techniques
like alternating hard (longer or faster) days with easy days (shorter or slower).
Nothing has been said about whether another GVRAT will be offered in
2021, although people are clamoring for it already.
Even before GVRAT was done Gary and his team conjured up an even
bigger virtual event that spans the globe, the Circumpolar Race Around
the World (CRAW). This virtual relay race covers 20,167 miles/48,550
kilometers and twelve regions on all seven continents.
The two shirt designs are pretty cool:
Teams of up to ten people have 16 months from September 1, 2020 to
December 31, 2021 to complete the distance using mileage from any form
of human-powered energy, including walking, running, cycling, rowing,
skiing, skateboarding, etc.
No, we haven't entered that one but you can read all about it at this
link. Go for it!
Next entry: Jim's autumn ultra walking events -- A
Race for the Ages (ARFTA) & The Endless Mile
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
Casey-Girl, Holly-Holly, & Dapper Don
© 2020 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil