This summer, I ran the length of Tennessee and back. I climbed Mount Everest. And I walked the Camino de Santiago through Spain. All without ever leaving the borders of West Virginia.
Like many others, the COVID-19 pandemic had thrown a wrench into my summer plans. My trip to Italy, booked two years ago, was postponed till 2021. Suddenly I found myself working from home full time. Restaurant dine-in services were closed. My gym was closed. Summer festivals were canceled. I was still getting exercise through virtual classes, but I was having a hard time motivating myself to get out for my daily run or walk.
That’s when I read about a crazy event. The Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee 1,000K (1,021.68 kilometers, to be exact) was the brainchild of Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell and his friend, Steve Durbin.
Lazarus Lake is the colorful organizer of the infamous Barkley Marathons, arguably the most difficult trail race in the United States, if not the world. (Nearly half of all Barkley races have ended with NO finishers.)
Knowing this might be my only chance to participate in a Laz event, I signed up. I was intrigued by the premise of tracking my progress across virtual Tennessee via a map and Google Street View.
While the things I loved about “real” races — meeting up with friends, crowd support, aid station food (mmm, melted Gummi Bears) — might not be present at a virtual race, I thought at least I would have some motivation from the online group.
And, boy, did I ever. Some 19,000 runners in more than 70 countries came together for this event, sharing photos of the places they were running or walking, from dirt roads to suburbs to mountain trails.
But the stories were even better. Many were recovering from illness or injury or the loss of a loved one. Others were bringing their dogs or spouses or kids along on the journey. And the daily inspirational musings from Laz always brought a smile to my face.
Inspired by all this camaraderie, I easily met, then doubled, my daily mileage goal. To avoid drudgery and risk of injury, I switched routes and shoes often, alternating between running, walking and hiking. I ran loops through my South Charleston neighborhood. I strolled along the boulevard in Charleston. I hiked at Little Creek Park, Coonskin Park and Kanawha State Forest. And, on weekends, I took day trips to the New River Gorge, the Elk River Trail, the Greenbrier River Trail and a bunch of other state parks.
My goal was to get out and get some fresh air while avoiding crowds and virus hot spots. I found I could easily do this if I stuck to the lesser traveled trails.
So, instead of that trip to Italy I had been planning, I camped out a couple nights near Seneca Rocks and hiked North Fork Mountain. With its stunning overlooks, it’s easily one of the most beautiful trails in West Virginia.
Inspired by this new reality, so to speak, I signed up for additional races. (With virtual races, you can double dip: That is, use your daily mileage for multiple races.)
I tackled the Skratch the Sky Vertical Everest Challenge, which was based not on mileage, but elevation gain. Participants competed to “climb” 29,000 feet — the height of Mount Everest — during their daily runs or hikes.
I walked the Camino de Santiago, a 480-mile pilgrimage across Spain known as the Way of St. James. I even downloaded a travelogue so that I could read about The Way as I made my own pilgrimage thousands of miles away.
Before summer’s end, I had accomplished all my virtual goals and crossed the length of Tennessee twice.
And, yeah, I cleaned up on all the race swag — T-shirts, buffs, bumper stickers, commemorative maps and pins, medals and even a belt buckle — but the gear was secondary to the feeling of accomplishment I had at the end of the day.
Now that virtual races are the new reality and I’ve found the online running community can be just as supportive as real-life friends, it’s time for a new challenge: I’ll be joining a team to complete a 30,000-mile relay, the Circumpolar Race Around the World.
See you in a couple of years!