This summer, during COVID distancing, I decided to run 1000 km as part of the Great Virtual Run Across Tennessee. Over the past three months, I ran 665 miles, traversing virtually the distance from west to east across Tennessee. I’m now heading back across TN, though I will likely not make it much further as the event ends on August 31. It’s still a pretty major accomplishment, and by far the furthest I’ve run in a three month period.
The race is organized by the same crazy folks who run the Barklay Marathons, the subject of several documentaries due to the oddball nature of the race. It’s a group well-versed in endurance racing and adapting to new and challenging circumstances. Because of this, they were well equipped to pull off a great running event while others weren’t sure how to deal with COVID. With the endorsement of Laz himself, a total legend in the endurance running world, it had to be a good event. When my running idol, Francis signed up for it, I decided the additional motivation for the summer when every race was canceled would help me. Plus, I’d already be training with some long runs for my 50k in September.
Back in January, when 2020 still felt like a normal year, I decided my goal for the year would change from running marathons to trail running and longer distances. The goal I previously targeted was running all of the world major marathons, and while I still want to, I knew with a newborn I wouldn’t be running Japan, nor would I qualify for Boston any time soon. So instead, I set my sights on a 50k and trail running. I’ve always enjoyed spending time in nature, especially hiking, and some of my favorite runs have been in the woods. While I am nowhere near as fast in the woods, and still suck at rock scrambles, I wanted to teach myself not to focus on the pace and time, but on the experience more. I figured endurance races would push me there.
So back in June I signed up for the GVRAT. I wished it could have been for real across Tennessee as I really enjoyed visiting Nashville last year and running there. It was my first visit to TN, and I would have liked to experience more of the state, especially the mountains in the east. But in the time of COVID, a virtual race was a better idea and I could run it at my pace and in relative safety here. I wouldn’t get to experience the confusing scavenger hunt of the Barklay Marathons and traversing hills and mud as seems to be the case every year, but I could at least get a taste of Laz’s madness.
Throughout June, July, and August, I ran mile after mile, racking up 150-200 miles each month, or anywhere from 20 to 40 miles per week. Some of my most memorable runs at home involved wildlife encounters like running across a black bear looking through some of of neighbor’s garbage, a coyote crossing the street in broad daylight, and startling a family of raccoons. A bit further out, I had my best runs crisscrossing the trails of Saddle River Park, heading out from there for a four hour slog through parking lots of two malls in Bergen County and two small downtown areas I had never seen before. In order to get a sense of the course for my 50k, I looped around Wawayanda State Park and a bit of the Appalachian trail one weekend for another four hours for my best trail run by far, encouraging me about finishing the 50k before sunset.
My runs during the 1000k will always exemplify running and life during COVID to me. Early on in June, many of my runs were marked with resentment and anger at the hikers who didn’t wear masks in the crowded park. More recently masks are present very regularly. I’ve also encountered more friendliness and camaraderie during COVID from hikers and runners all sharing the experience of the outdoors providing the only time outside of homes in months. I even began to become friendlier myself, stopping to provide directions to lost-looking hikers - who always seem to get lost in the same place - as well as offering to help some mountain bikers fix a tire and offering my gratitude to forestry service workers who were taking care of removing downed trees after the storm. During my 1000k, I stopped being a grumpy runner walled off by sunglasses and headphones to a woodsy hippie with long hair and a bandana who stops to give directions; a sage of the woods. I like that version of me.
I even started to get the dog out for runs more often. While he won’t go on hour long runs or the four hour ones, he loves a one mile jaunt up the street in the morning. I then drop him off for the rest of my run and he sleeps the rest of the day. He’s even shaped up, maintaining under a 10 min / mile pace now from the point when I used to have to pretty much drag him home on the second half mile. Not bad for a ten year old dog.
My favorite part of the race organization itself was the website that shows actual progress on a map throughout TN. Each day I enjoyed watching my virtual self progress from town to town over country roads in Tennessee. I learned of the existence of numerous small towns I’d never heard of and kept comparing my progress with others as they crossed the state faster. Eventually I made it to the border with Virginia and counted down the miles to the finish. Then I immediately started on my way back across the state. I won’t make it all the way back, but I’m ahead of several thousand others.
When I finished, I received a congratulations from Laz as well as a 1000k sticker which puts those 13.1 stickers to shame, and a belt buckle; my first. Belt buckles are to ultra marathons what medals are for other races. Started as a tradition in the legendary ultra marathons out west like Western States and Leadville, belt buckles are proof of a special kind of crazy dedicated runner. While not the same as completing an ultra marathon in a single session, I’m still proud of the accomplishment of running this much in a few months, and think the buckle is the perfect recognition of that achievement. I just need to figure out how to actually get it on my belt.
I’m not done running yet, and I’ll soon be looking for my next big running goal for the fall and winter, even though I told my wife I’d take a bit of a break to ensure I don’t leave her alone with three kids for four hour stretches on weekends. I mean a 50 miler isn’t really all that much longer than a 50k, right? But even so, I thought the GVRAT 1000k was the perfect event for motivating my running throughout a tough time for runners and motivation in general. I am very grateful to the organizers for putting it together and making it happen in challenging circumstances.