In Karen Maitland’s novel, The Company of Liars, a deceitful band of hawkers, storytellers, artists performers, rune-readers, healers and magicians make their way from village to village as an incomprehensible pestilence causes townsfolk to lock themselves away in fear and survival becomes the common denominator to all. The central character Camelot is a purveyor of relics, faked religious articles that may bring the seller a meal and the recipient hope. This novel was a very appropriate Audible listen whilst virtual racing during lockdown. Those virtual races that restored so much hope in me and delivered vitality, urgency and determination to me, were also a conjuror’s trick, an exchange of money and energy for virtually nothing. A few times this Summer I have bought – or committed myself to what might appear to be snake oil purchase of an imaginary event, but just as exhausting as a real event. But like real races, not all virtual experiences are equal.
It has been a fascinating process. On notable occasions my virtual events have come to celebratory fruition in a real setting. I have chosen the events and set up my own further parameters to make sure that none of them have felt the same nor presented a repeat of the same challenge.
At their peak – Endure 24, Race to the Stones, Manchester to Liverpool – I have felt immensely rewarded. At their worst – Back Across Tennessee – I have seen the vacuous Wizard of Oz uncloaked.
These are the Virtual Races I have undertaken.
- The Grand Virtual Race Across Tennessee
- Centurion One Community 100 mile and 50K
- Endure 24 NHS
- Manchester to Liverpool 50
- Race to the Stones 100K
- Back Across Tennessee
- The Accumulator
- The Lockdown Frolic
Let’s take a look at these virtual races at a basic level, to understand what they have – or haven’t – done for me, how accomplished they have made me feel and what there has been to learn.
The Grand Virtual Race Across Tennessee (GVRAT)
I will deal with Back Across Tennessee later.
GVRAT has been a race for RATs in a time of plague. 19,500 have taken part, called to the cause by the pied piper of running, Lazarus Lake. Lockdown provided lovable Laz with a broad church for his cultish following. The man behind the most exclusive and elusive event in Ultra, those Barkley Marathons, suddenly flourished a the most accessible event, one which anyone could enter, anyone could join. All you needed was a real race fee payable of $60. This was a high end virtual event, purported to have expected about 300 entrants. But given desperate need this event took off ‘virally’. The entry page was shared and shared. The sharing, triggered wave after wave of entry. Some people enthusiastically signed up their dogs. There was madness in those imagined suburbs of Memphis. We were all shook up about it.
We signed up because one of our gods called us to do so. At last a chance to play in a same virtual room as Laz. Once you had entered, you could truly say ‘I am participating in a 1000Km race directed by Lazarus Lake’.
The GVRAT organisation team seemed, at first, a little taken aback by the attention their project had garnered. The early attempts at collecting the participant’s mileage and representing it were slow and badly realised, but everyone was patient. Our god would eventually deliver what was at least a detailed daily updated progress chart with route map.
There were, at first, possibly under the burden of expectation, some sounds of discontent coming from Mr Lake, concerns about how he was going to afford to send out so many participant t-shirts to such a huge following.
These mutterings and the clunky user interface could not undermine the genius thinking behind the project that allows anyone who can complete at least 5 miles of running or walking each day to stack up a distance that sounded phenomenal. RAT competitors have between 1st May an 31st August to complete a 1000K/ 635 mile journey.
The name Gary Cantrell chose for himself, Lazarus Lake, evokes the Bible and Dr Seuss in equal measure and his chosen look, the beard, red hat, plaid shirt and smokin’ Camel evokes a bedevilled Santa Claus. It is intensely beguiling. But the look would not work if he could not deliver. GVRAT has been interspersed with motivational mantras from the man, and it is hard to imagine better chosen epistles of encouragement. Laz has a magical level of guile and instinct, to know exactly what his audience is looking for, and he frequently reveals a dove from his sleeve exactly when they least expect it and precisely when such a miraculous reveal is needed.
Me? I completed GVRAT in 40 days averaging approximately 15-16 miles per day and so ‘ahead of the triple buzzard’ an e-pacer bird designed to keep the quicker paced participants interested in pushing themselves. It meant that if I continued at that mileage I would complete the journey 3 times before the end of August. My 40 days put me in 240th place out of the 19,500 participants globally.
This GVRAT was worth it for me because it gave my running an epic focus during lockdown. It was especially useful when the real-world rules governing exercise were at their strictest. It got me used to running every day, and that in itself was responsible for a transformation of sorts in my ability as an ultra runner. GVRAT made me a better runner.
Centurion One Community 100 mile and 50K
This event, form Ultra Running events business Centurion, came about when GVRAT had already been in progress for 3 weeks and I had the end of that in sight.
This was the first UK-based virtual event to appeal to me, and it did so by pulling on the Community spirit. As people started signing up – and the charity started to roll – I realised that this was my mob, my tribe. I had never done a Centurion event though I have an entry this Autumn for the Wendover Woods 50, but I know many runners that have embraced Centurion, and they are my kind of people.
Everything about the way that this virtual event was presented appealed, from the choice of distances to enter, the laid back evidence requirements, the NHS Charities fundraising and the fund to provide entries for those that could not afford entry and more. 5K, 10k, Half Marathon, 50K, 50-mile and 100-mile options meant even young children had a realisable distance to try to accrue in a week. 3950 entered with the 100-mile week being the most popular, generating 1000 entries. At least a couple of astonishing loons saw it as an opportunity to fit in all the events in a week. I entered the 100-mile week, finished it in 4 days and so entered the 50K as a single run trail trial.
Best of all though were the incredible stories, inspiring achievements and amazing photographs that lit up the social media pages all week. It was quite an outpouring. For some, to be out running at all is something of a miracle, and there were many real tears shed by those who read the pages.
This event saw the spirit of ultrarunning made available to partners, friends and families. And yet some very serious times were laid down by those who had seemingly stuck at their training just in case an event like this popped up.
My own result – a respectable 6 hours for my hilly trail 31 miles, a hot day on 100-mile tired legs.
Endure 24 NHS
This one jumped out at me. Endure 24 (Leeds) had been on my event list for 2020 and once it was cancelled this virtual rendition was a must. Free to enter with a donation to the NHS, this one was a very pure virtual event embraced by both the relay team runners and soloists who had entered the pair of running festival Endure events, typically hosted each year at Reading and Leeds. Endure has a reputation for being social running at its best and it was clear that the 2020 cancellations had left a huge hole in participants’ calendars. Endure is social running with a challenge, the challenge – of course – how far can you go in 24hrs, from noon on Saturday to noon on Sunday? The organiser, Chris Sumner even threw out the teaser of a T-shirt for the virtual event to anyone who could complete 100+ miles in the 24 hrs allotted. Of course, I had to go for it.
Setting out my kit on Saturday morning, and an aid station next to my garage by the street, I contemplated the event ahead. I had chosen a route in keeping with the event itself in that it was a 5-mile loop with one teasing ‘Heartache Hill’. It was also the Chippenham Harrier’s Thursday night Winter club run route, a pavement lap of some off Chippenham’s busier roads – the ones that are lit up at night. It is a dull route even if you have never run it before. Few Harriers would willingly repeat on a June weekend, but it was also one that needed no explanation to anyone who fancied sharing some of my miles. Sharing miles was something of a forgotten treasure. Only just before Endure, England restrictions were lifted to allow up to 6 runners to join each other for a socially distanced run…
So, this relaxation in restrictions and dropping infection rate meant that it was no longer taboo to run 100+ miles and you could think about doing so in limited company.
The upshot? One of the highlights of my running career, and one of the most enjoyable exhausting things I have ever done. I set a target of 20 laps or more of the Harrier’s winter club run. The excitement built on Facebook first. A few fellow Harriers had volunteered to join me through the night and the early morning when ultra runners often reach a low ebb. Once I was underway, Vicki, supporting me from home, started to update two Facebook groups, the Harriers and Endure. Online momentum built with virtual support escalating as the hours past and by Saturday evening this had transferred into real support with waving and shouts of encouragement from cars, an impromptu drinks station that just popped up on Hardenhuish Lane, and, at 8pm, a friend on a bicycle who dropped in on my shoulder. Then Marion and Jack turned up and ran with me for a mile or two – a special moment as Marion and Jack are foster carer and foster son, and they had promised to make my event medal. And here they were, running with me. Then there were photographers too, as Arthur Watt, already part of my night crew, arrived with the long lens and Neil Perry, iCaptureSport, arrived too. I was able to step it up a notch to pose for them both at that stage.
I won’t embarrass everyone by naming them all here, but some legends put in some big mileage with me through the night, especially helpful from midnight to 4am where I had a predictable crash, feeling cold and nauseous. One thing no ultra-challenge had come up with before was a midnight change of kit sitting on my own bed, after 60 miles of running. That was quite an aid station to get out of, shivering into the night, only for Neil to arrive again for night pictures – so I had to at least look like I was running.
At daybreak, as I knew it would, everything felt better again and by now the social media whispering campaign had really taken off. By 7am there were 4 of us running and soon after that never less than the allowed group of 6 until the end. The run became a chanting and cheering jamboree, a release of tension for us all to be running together again for the first time in weeks. My laps times started to come down again and I passed 100 miles at 20hrs 55 mins, not my best, but not bad, the road surface proving a little unforgiving as my glutes tightened. But there was music and encouragement from some of the houses now, after all I had been past them 20 times with an increasingly raucous carnival.
Marion and Jack reappeared, told by Vicki that I would be calling it quits at the end of the 105 lap. A welcoming committee had appeared outside my house. We made a sprint for the line, and I actually felt like I was sprinting – perhaps I was, it looks as if I am in the pictures. I received my congratulations, but there was time – easily – for one last lap, and I didn’t want this to end. So the victory lap was brought forward and off we all went again, revelling in the glow of this Sunday morning in Chippenham.
The medal ceremony was an emotional affair. Jack presented me with a beautiful handmade and heartfelt momento of my run and I hung it around my neck basking in the pride of the moment, and knowing that we had completed something really special. For the first time in my adult life I felt like I was a part of a community. This feeling was in no way virtual.
There were 111.5 miles on the clock, by 6 miles the furthest undertaken by any solo runner at this year’s Endure. There was a chunk of money pledged to the NHS Charities too. But the biggest reward by far was the feeling of acceptance amongst my neighbours and friends.
Manchester to Liverpool 50
If Centurion has the dominant 100-mile and 50-mile races in the South, GB Ultras carries that mantle in the North, and equally this organiser has built up a superb community. Though a southerner, GB Ultras is the community that I know best. I completed Beacon’s Way 100 with them last year, too many epic hours on that astonishing trail to feel anything other than immense gratitude to their tireless gang.
M2L 50 was on my original event list for the Easter weekend, and I recced the route with my GB Ultras friends back in January, so the event cancellation was a sad blow and one that I gave some thought to for virtual replication. M2L is a waterways route between two important cities of the North, joining two places of historical note, Man Utd’s Old Trafford football stadium and Aintree racecourse. So I created ‘The Trans Wiltshire’ working out that you could cross the entire county in 50 miles east to west by starting at Hungerford’s fabled antiques shops on the Berkshire side of the border and finishing in Somerset at Bath Abbey. I would do so by following the Kennet and Avon Canal all the way until reaching Bath. Bath Abbey is also the end of the Cotswold Way, a route I have walked, so I understood that surreal experience of emerging into the heritage Georgian cityscape after hours of greeny blue. Running through Liverpool’s backyards behove a city of cultural grandeur, so this seemed very much like the closest I could get to that in my area.
Vicki dropped my off in Hungerford. To make this a different challenge for me, I ran self-supported from the pack. She wryly noted that I was looking a little hollow when she picked me up 10 hours later from outside the Abbey, but kind weather and a glorious route, together with the online camaraderie from GB Ultras made this another special occasion.
As a footnote, a week later GB Ultras were shocked by the sudden death of two runners in their community. In a move that is typical of the man, organiser Wayne Drinkwater immediately announced that his next virtual races would donate all profits to the families of the pair. I added a virtual half marathon to my itinerary in recognition of this. Many in the community had emotional days adding their miles to the #forjon and #forpaul cause.
Race to the Stones
I rarely go back to the same event twice, have the tourist’s bug for seeing somewhere new, so choosing to run Virtual Race to the Stones – by doing so along the actual real RTTS 100KM course flew in the face of that. I have now been on the Ridgeway a few times – some sections of it more than others. RttS had been my first ultra – in 2018. How long ago that now seemed.
RttS gets its name from its dramatic ancient route that ends up in a glory of Neolithic symbolism amongst the standing stone rings at Avebury.
This time I would run RttS for companionship, as a confidence gift to Chippenham Harrier James Scott who had been entered the real RttS. It would be double his longest mileage in a single run. For me, it would be a chance to run the route better than in 2018 and to understand how much difference 2 years’ experience has made.
This virtual rendition was free to enter, yet nicely supported by Threshold Events. Some people bothered to get annoyed with a slightly frustrating event reporting app, but really, for a free event, his seemed a little churlish.
For James I suggested we attempt 12 hours something to 13 hrs something for time. I felt that would be achievable for him and set him a beatable target if he runs the real race in 2021. For me it would be a chance to banish my 13.53 2018 time in which I struggled with nutrition under a blazing 27 degree day.
We were amazingly well supported by Vicki who was our driver-aid station, giving us access to a full banquet and kit change at 15, 30 and 45 miles.
Of course, running together is often ill advised on an ultra as you are inevitably running at a compromised pace. Though on this occasion, with James keen to learn about the distance and me not wanting to overdo it, the plan worked well.
There were times when one of the other of us had a bad patch and James became especially in need of a reset and refuel at 45 miles. You could tell when the going got tough from the silence. When clubmate Mark Barnett ran out to meet us some 8 miles from the end, my patella wasn’t tracking properly and I was holding James back… but when it slotted back in as I jumped a route rut I was running freely again, he was reaching for the finish, struggling with both nutrition and the relentless mileage as we finally descended into Avebury.
Our final time? We went by James’ watch, so 13.00.09. Mine reached the distance at 12.58 I think. Either way it was right on my sketchy plan. Happily too, with the knee temporarily sorted, I felt relatively fresh at the end. I think beating 12 hours would be a realistic target for me another time.
And we did get to those awe-inspiring prehistoric Stones. In true RTTS fashion we had looped them for the photoshoot before searching for a finish line – in this case dictated by Garmin as we tried to work out where to run those crucial last couple of kilometres. Seeing James sprint gloriously away to the imaginary finish line in the gathering Avebury darkness will be an abiding memory.
Back Across Tennessee (BAT)
I was committed to the idea of BAT before realising that Laz and the gang would have the audacity to ask for an entry fee for it.
$30 later, I wondered just what I had done allowing myself to be relieved of actual money to hit the continue button.
I hadn’t been promised anything for my efforts, and the event organisers hadn’t done anything to enhance the experience.
I’m not going to dwell on this for too long. GVRAT was a magical experience. GVBAT was certainly unnecessary.
But having even a treacle-slow miles and progress logger has been more motivational than nothing. And I was in 140th place and still ‘ahead of the triple buzzard’ when I completed my journey BAT after 40 more days so the RAT-BAT done in a symmetrical 80.
The Accumulator is a hardcore virtual challenge thrown down by the UK’s champion of hard ultra challenges, Mark Cockbain, an incredible athlete with a nuts following and an online catchphrase of ‘DNF’.
In The Accumulator you are challenged to run the mileage or more than the date you are running, in a single effort. So, a 1 mile run on the first of the month through to 31 on the last. That is, to use the current linguistic cliché, ‘punchy’ mileage in the last week and the challenge is one of both time and resources. You need to be good enough and dedicate enough time to it to get to finish it.
Mr Cockbain emits a low tolerance for excuses. Mine is that I wasn’t specifically targeting The Accumulator, so instead of having low daily mileage for the first half of July, I ran RttS at 62 miles closely followed by a marathon. As the miles hit 18+ I started to struggle with knee tracking issue that also been evident on RttS and the marathon. With The Accumulator I couldn’t find the time each day to repair and recover – even resorting to a grim ice bath in a bid to try and hasten the process. If The Accumlator had been something more than a bonus target event then I might have risked injury and pushed on, but I was failing early and bailed out on day 22. I sheepishly asked Mark to honour me with those 3 letters, DNF.
You can’t do a half-hearted Accumulator and succeed. But with the prospect of real events just around the corner I prioritised repair. It has been amazing to watch the successful runners reporting their mileage and taking themselves through a catalogue of pain barriers. The Accumulator event was also held in May when a well-known runner I have since come to know and train with, Allie Bailey, slotted in a 100 miler split across midnight on 29-30th May to insanely elaborate this exhausting challenge. Allie rose like the undead to complete the Accumulator with 31 more miles on 31st May to complete a remarkable effort, powered by Capri Sun from the Co-op on that last sunny day.
On the plus side for me, I think – hope – that I have learnt how to prevent the knee tracking issue rather than attempting to cure it mid-challenge.
I do feel kind of obliged to get a finish in a Cockbain event one day. The runners he attracts are wonderfully nutty pain whores and there’s nothing quite like ‘the hard stuff’ anywhere else.
The Lockdown Frolic
If the Hard Stuff of Mark Cockbain pares away the frills, White Star Running is at the other end of the scale. It loves frills. This Dorsetshire race organiser is famed and adored for its high camp love of life, its glorious ribbons on colourful medals, its songs, its laughter, its tutus, unicorns and gin. This is running at its most Epicurean.
White Star’s Giant’s Head marathon was on my list but the Giant caught COVID. When lockdown in Europe looked a prospect, anticipating some cancellations ahead, I joined White Star for a muddy, joyous Larmer Tree marathon to keep my 202020 event schedule on track.
The Lockdown Frolic would be its virtual companion.
In normal circumstances White Star’s Frolic events bring groups of friends together for a carnival relay weekend. To recreate a flavour of that, virtually, White Star created a madcap scavenger hunt which included the task of singing My Delilah along the way, whilst photographing a list of stuff ranging from vegetables to dinosaurs.
My plan had been to run a marathon on the day, but I cut it to a half marathon walk following the knee tracking issue. My partner Vicki and I headed South from Wiltshire with our dog Kezzie for a walk in the Dorset villages and a finale in West Bay on the Jurrassic coast. It was a moody, rain-spattered day and as I rousingly rendered Delilah descending the steep cliff path I wondered who else had Frolicked in this blustery squall…
Everyone had. Just search Lockdown Frolic on Facebook for the whole garish story. FB was a total mess of delirious tutu clad unicorns giving full vent on vocals. Some had run 60 miles some barely one, but everyone had embraced the White Star spirit. It was a remarkable show of influence from White Star, alongside a much-needed outpouring of love from a community of those who just love running through cowpats. COVID has denied these huggers of hugs but The Lockdown Frolic was quite a sign off for this period of virtual running.