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  • Writer's pictureWILLIAM HAZEL

Why Lazarus Lake's Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee is the Perfect Model for Virtual Racing

As the COVID-19 Crisis spread across the US, it left both runners and running race organizers scrambling to unriddle the mystery of how to keep the sport moving forward. Since the transition I’ve seen one stand-out virtual race up close: The Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee 1000K run organized by Barkley Marathons guru Lazarus Lake.

My familiarity stems from the fact that my wife signed up. For the purpose of this article, and because it’s her name, I’ll call her Mindy. She saw the race announcement and couldn’t get her name on the list fast enough. I was surprised, for we’ve never done anything within the ultra-running community before, other than my considering running a local 50K back in the heady days before the virus, (BV), shut down the world. She was a bit disappointed that I didn’t join her, but I still wasn’t making the virtual run transition, and decided my running would focus on getting away from it all, vs trying to keep up with a race schedule. We follow the Barkley, know Mr. Lake’s legend, and are thrilled for her chance to race in one of his own events. With over 19,000 entries, it would appear Mr. Lake hit the virtual race nail right on the head.

We live in a large running community in the Hampton Roads region in Southeastern Virginia. There are several active race organizers, plus a large nonprofit running club, as well as numerous neighborhood private groups. On any given weekend, during the BV period, there were multiple races and long group runs to choose from.

No one in our area, however, has figured out how to create a genuine virtual run of interest.

Most make the very basic mistake and anchoring the motivation in making social media postings. I’m supposed to spend my $40 bucks to run the virtual 5K, get my swag, and post my amazing achievement for my many followers to heart. The problem, of course, is that we’re doing this every day without spending the money.

Others attempt to make the run about raising money for a great cause. Our local Tidewater Striders had success with a recent 5K that raised over $2K for feeding hospital workers. It was a fantastic idea, a well-executed event, but the total funds revealed modest participation. Especially given the number of local runners in our area.

Runs are hard things to pull off. I researched having a virtual race to raise funds for our small nonprofit during the crisis shut down. When I was managing a little museum, as cool as it was, it didn't rate among local emergency agencies directly dealing with the crisis. I looked into having the race give all the funds to those in need, but the numbers on paper never produced enough cash to cover costs. When I saw the lack of participation our local running club was having, I knew the museum would never attract enough runners to make it work.

The virtual 1000K works because it offers a few simple requirements for success:

It’s Hard.

I’ve yet to find a virtual race that’s so perfectly sculpted with difficulty. It sounds simple; virtually run across the entire state of Tennessee (It’s actually a little further.) The distance is a tad over 1000K, or around 634 miles. That’s about 24 marathons. In four months.

My wife was signing up for something that would keep her on schedule, almost every day, until the end of August.

That’s hard. That’s a challenge. It’s genuine and any runner knows it. Do the math and you realize an average of over 5 miles per day is needed for the next 16 weeks. That’s actually a higher rate of training miles for a novice to intermediate marathon training schedule, which would have you logging between 350 to 500 miles, depending on how you like to train. Sign yourself up for that kind of mileage and, like a marathon or even half marathon, you are committing yourself to your running.

Keep in mind that the majority of folks that signed up for the 1000K are not ultra-runners. Yes, ultra-performers jumped in, knocked it out, and even took the option of running back, to do a 2000K. The race, though, wasn’t designed for them. It’s designed for runners like Mindy and me. It’s for the almost 60 million other runners in the US, the everyday, get out there for the health of it, find the next race to train for runners. That highlights another strong point of why it’s a great race.

It’s A Shared Challenge.

There is something very special about lining up in the start corrals for a major race. It’s more than the miles you are about to run, it’s about the thousands of other runners you are sharing the experience with. You run the same course, share the same mile posts, hear the same music from the same bad DJs.

Again, it’s shared because it’s hard. All of us in those starting line corrals BV knew we were sharing something of reasonable difficulty.

A look at the Social Media community page for the race, and you immediately understand that Mr. Lake has figured out how to create that same shared route, see the same mile markers challenge in a virtual, online community. And sustain it for months.

One other element that should be noted by every other race organizer trying to figure out how to create virtual running success:

You See Where Your Money Goes.

From the very beginning, Mr. Lake has shown where the $60 entry fee has gone. He’s showed the nonprofit the excess proceeds funded. He doesn’t just show us the t-shirts, he shows the people in the warehouse packing them. We see the faces and the smiles of the people our money is employing. It’s a powerful message.

A last element is a very special part of the race that I’ve never seen implemented:

You’re Part of a Story.

Mr. Lake has created the perfect antagonist, the buzzard. The buzzard is simply a fictitious character that runs the required 5 point something miles per day required to finish the 1000K by the August 31 cut-off date. Suddenly Mindy is not running miles by herself. For months she was chasing the bird, feared the bird. The dark winged, circling villain salivating for its next roadkill. Recently, she caught the bird, and has since put the squawking menace behind her.

Notice that Mindy is no longer simply racing, she’s become the protagonist of her own story.

It’s brilliant fun. Every day you see the buzzard on the list. Perfect simplicity. The ultra-runners had a character of their own, called the Gingerbread Man. A cookie cutter creation that was always in the lead. The ultra-race had no winner. Gingerbread Man won. The ultra-runners tried to catch and pass him anyway. Again, simplistic, spirited fun.

A contrasting example comes from a local running company’s recently organized virtual run for the Hampton Roads area. Using our telephone prefix, 757, as a mileage goal. The prefix is an overused colloquialism by many area businesses, so the message is already wandering. It’s a fun idea, but it’s missing the important stuff.

It’s not hard. The challenge is 75.7 miles for the 31 days. That means you need to average only 2.44 miles a day. That’s a smaller average than even a novice half marathon schedule. If I signed up, I would run less miles than I would on a normal week. As the outline offers another cloying story of ease, the shared challenge, the fuel that powers community building, has little energy.

Mindy still has two months of running ahead of her. She’s stoked to keep it going. She already has the goofy t-shirt with the buzzard on the back and is more than determined to put the 1000K sticker on her journal cover. We’ve got the map of Tennessee on our fridge, highlighting the miles as she goes. She’s working hard, loving the running, laughs at the struggle with the bird, and is experiencing a true virtual running race. She’s more motivated than during her last half marathon training.

There is nothing adventitious molding the Virtual 1000Ks success. It’s a carefully calculated formula created by a runner who’s keenly aware of what runners need. We’re lucky. The mind that created the Barkley Marathons; what is, without debate, the most unique ultra-running challenge on the planet, brought his creative wisdom to average runners.

The Barkley can’t be replicated. It’s a true one of a kind. The Virtual 1000K, however, is a model of excellence easily duplicated. I hope that race organizers take notice.

Make it hard. Run a shared route. Show us where our money goes. Make it a story.

The running community needs more genuine events like this to share during this unprecedented time of crisis and hardship.

We don’t need easy. We don’t need social media opportunities. We need genuine virtual races. We need to run. We need to race. And we need to connect with others doing the same.

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