RUNTRAILS' 2020 JOURNAL

 

  

Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly feeding on Miss Huff lantana flowers in our yard

 

   
 
 
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  HOW WE SPENT THE SUMMER OF 2020: THE GREAT  
  VIRTUAL RACE ACROSS TENNESSEE (GVRAT) 

TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 1

 
"Wake up and hop out of bed. This is the best day of your life, and you don't want    
to waste a minute. Approach the whole day the same way. Yesterday is over.
Tomorrow is not guaranteed. Today, though, today has infinite promise."
 
~ Gary Cantrell, in a motivating GVRAT Facebook post 6-23-20
 
 
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 several decades. 

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.

The 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) in September.


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 donations.


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 participants received
in the mail after they signed up for GVRAT; everyone wanted to stay ahead of the buzzard.

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 comments.

And at some point well before Jim and I even heard about it, registration was opened on the RunSignUp website.

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 entrants.


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 the party:

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, intrigued me.


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 Park.

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 below. (5-19-20)

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

It 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 Chardonne, Switzerland:

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 reputations.

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

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Casey-Girl, Holly-Holly, & Dapper Don

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2020 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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