Great Virtual Run Across Tennessee (May 1-17, 2020)

May 1, 2020 was a Friday. Like most weekdays for the last few weeks it was supposed to start with some speed training before work. My running experience is ad-hoc and informal. I’ve never trained with the goal of getting faster. I guess I assumed that as your ran more, you just got faster. After lots of running last year that didn’t seem to be happening and I needed a goal in life so plans were made to try to run a fast 5k. I hated it. Running fast hurts in your lungs, your vision fuzzes, sometimes there’s the taste of blood in your mouth, your legs feel ponderous. Then, because you’re training, you do it again after an insufficient respite. I wanted out but had just been committed by a friend to training blocks of at least three weeks. If I were going to quit without finishing even one block, I needed a way of saving face.

Sitting on my stairs, suited up to go running, I pondered the Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee that was starting today. Instead of logging my sprint work-outs as my daily mileage in the race, what if I ran easy, fun half-marathons through local parks on varied routes? Wouldn’t that be better than mechanically pounding a painful pace into the regimented routes I used for speed training? Yes, yes it would. A little over two hours later I’d was cruising home to finish up a meandering 14 miles.

Unfortunately, miles 13-16 tend to be where I get my second wind. I started doing mental math to see how long it would take to finish the 1000km virtual race. Still a long time. What if I ran a full marathon every day? Less than a month but precision isn’t my strong suit when doing long division in my head. Then I realized that a 50k every day would finish in 20 days. Easy math. Dangerous math. I showered, breakfasted, worked, and then went out for 18 miles to pick up my first daily 50k. I ran out of water and started counting down the miles one at a time. Then by quarters. Then by tenths. Easy math. Difficult math.

Hobbling around that evening, I explained the plan to my housemate. He looked at me limping from a right hip which felt like it was trying to slip out whenever I pulled that leg forward and expressed concern. Did I have to do this? I told him that tomorrow was the weekend so I could walk the miles. This whole virtual race across Tennessee thing feel like a good idea anymore.

May 2 started like a typical Saturday hike. I filled a daypack with food, water, an insulating top, and rain layers. The weather predicted light rain. Within 15 minutes of walking out the front door, that rain started. I put on my the experimental rain garment I’d brought to test on this walk. Think of it as either a poncho with arms and a bulge for your backpack or a very loose, oversized raincoat with space for your pack. The looseness was acceptable for walking but didn’t feel conducive to speed which was OK because I had all day to walk counter-clockwise around Lake Sammamish and then figure out how to pick up ten or so extra miles.

The light rain came and went making it a little hard for me to decide when to take off the raingear. However, constantly evaluating the state of the weather was a distraction which helped the miles pass. Endurance, an audiobook about the Shackleton expedition also helped.

These long weekend walks would present opportunities to get take-out from restaurants as though they were aid stations. I’d been using the draw of a burrito to pull me through the first 21-ish miles around the lake. As I drew near, I was worried that the rain would interfere with the touch screen on my phone so I wouldn’t be able to order online. Instead, I called to place an order. A voice recognition system for the national franchise answered but gave up when trying to understand my credit card number. It put me through to the restaurant itself which informed me they didn’t take orders over the phone. Apparently, you can just walk in to restaurants and order during the shutdown, it’s only the sitting and eating which is banned.

When I got home and assessed the day’s damage, it appeared that my hip issue was gone but I had difficulty flexing my left foot up due to a pain in the front of that ankle. The fridge was nearly empty so I drove to the store and hobbled around leaning on the cart, checking my shopping list thoroughly at every aisle and section to make sure I wouldn’t have to make more than one lap around the store. I wasn’t sure how I was going to keep walking tomorrow.

May 3, being a Sunday, put me in the mood to approach the day’s miles like a Sunday stroll. I walked around the north of Lake Washington via the Sammamish River Trail, Burke Gilman Trail, and 520. The weather lacked rain but the experience was nondescript. I finished Edurance and started Grant, a biography of Ulysses S Grant and let my mind hike the highways of history while my feet padded along the paths of the present.

The left-ankle issue wasn’t a problem by the end of the day, despite having been an issue in the morning. Instead, the muscle in my right shin ached at the end of the day. Fortunately I didn’t notice it during the actual walking. Blisters had now formed on inside of my right big near the toenail and on the front of the ball of the foot between the big and long toes. I rarely have to deal with blisters and so hoped these would go away overnight after being drained. It was not to be.

The only other person I know who was doing the GVRAT sent me an encouraging text after I’d finished for the day and was stuffing my face while doing digital chores so I could get to bed in time to fully rest while still getting up early enough to run before work. Given that I’d heard about the run through two channels, I’d expected to know more participants. Despite the contact being brief, it was good for my spirits. Motivation is a funny thing.

May 4 was a Monday which meant I had to work, which meant that I had to run instead of walk. 16 miles before work. 16 miles after work. Getting started required small shuffling steps to loosen the joints to the point where I could use a running form. The all-encompassing nature of this event was becoming clear. I felt pressure to to average at least 10min/mile so I could finish by 9:30am so I could shower and eat before work at 10am. After work, I needed 10min/mile so I could finish in time to shower, eat, and dispatch with correspondence and do minimal chores. Staying up late would just mean stealing time from the next day’s run.

Other than blisters, which had grown despite having been drained, I felt hopeful at the end of the day. Despite sore feet, stiff joints, and tired muscles, nothing was structurally wrong with my body. It was a sign that my body might be learning to manage the strain instead of breaking under it. I had expected that, like a through-hike, injury was most likely to strike early before the body could adapt to the rigors of high daily mileage. I felt hopeful about the rest of the event. Plus, I was 20% of the way through my plan.

May 5, a Tuesday, brought challenges which were more psychological than physical. Having survived the opening days without injury, I now had to face the monotony and slow degeneration which would take place with so much of the race still ahead. My pace was starting to ebb as a knocked off four mile laps around the neighborood, four in the morning and four in the evening.

I used the least mentally engaging course available to increase the likelihood of slipping into flow or getting lost in my audiobook and having the time pass without the weight of the future seconds, minutes, hours, and days crushing my mindset. The first mile would feel good. The second would get me to 1/8th. The third to 3/16ths which still felt positive, like an ant plodding persistently past lines on a ruler. I’d continue this way, ticking off progress within the current lap then trying to only look at the total lap count when I passed my condo association again. I ran clockwise in the morning since the shorter east-west slopes were run downhill which helped wake me up and in the morning I’d have more energy for the long, shallow uphills on the north-south oriented edges of the route. Running counter-clockwise in the evening provided some variation but also meant I got to spend more time and distance in a downhill stride which felt like a reward where I could build up motivation for the shorter climbs to recover the elevation. By any accounting in absolute terms, there was little elevation change – about 250ft per lap – but when your heart isn’t in it, you notice the little things. At this point, I was still finishing each run with a second wind which brought me in at a faster clip over the last mile or two for a roundly positive cascade of post-run emotions.

I’d now finished 25% and was feeling good. Just three more times what I’d already done. Seemed possible.

May 6, Wednesday, was a pivotal day in the run. Despite significant IT issues on the race website, I was checking my place daily, usually by whatever means was simplest and most reliably. The map which was supposed to show our position on the course had placed us in a straight horizontal line across North Africa and North America at different times. After the spreadsheet behind it all available had to be presented as a static webpage due to overload, I used that until the it stopped being updated in favor of a list with bare statistics for each runner. At this point, it was being updated every several hours and so runners who recorded mileage early in the day moved up sooner. I seemed to be recording my mileage late in the day and so would try to guess my actual position by seeing where I’d fall after my mileage for the day was included. Much to my surprise, I was usually finding my name on the first page of results and after compensating for whose mileage had and hadn’t been recorded, I was usually just short of 10th.

Like any race, I’d expected people to start at very different paces than the ones which they would eventually settle into. Having found myself settling so close to the front and with enough of the race still ahead that a small change of pace could make a big difference in time and position, I set a new goal: 36 miles per day. According to the mental math I did while running repeated rectangles ’round the neighborhood, doing a extra lap in the evening on weekdays would let me finish a day early. If I could pull big weekend mileage by walking for as long as possible, then I might even be able to finish on Sunday, May 17th in time to settle back into work the next day without the additional stress of five or more hours of running per day.

That extra lap that evening was difficult. It took longer to get to half way, throwing off the mental game I’d built to keep the weight of the future from crushing me.

May 7, Thursday, was difficult. In the evening run’s description on Strava, I wrote, “Pro Tip: Ground beef & kale based curry is not a good pre-run meal. I’m not quite sure how I didn’t wind up walking but by the end it was about that slow.” Aside from poor choices in pre-run meals, I’ve been running out of water. It turns out two 500ml soft bottles aren’t enough for 16 and 20 mile runs so I hit on an ingenious solution: use my home as an aid station since I pass there every 4 miles. That might also reduce the frequency with which I had to nip down a side trail to water a bush.

May 8, Friday, the cumulative exhaustion is setting in. A major source of motivation is the thought that I’ll get to walk for the next two days. I’ve been skipping out of work an hour early to get running so I can finish by nightfall. My per-mile pace has fallen to well over 10min/mile.

May 9, Saturday, is the start of the second weekend. A big mile day is key to bringing the finish date in towards May 17 so I load up my day pack and set out to walk around Lake Washington clockwise. Officially, public parks are supposed to be open but at one point, I wind up walking on some railroad tracks with an “Active Railroad” sign to bypass a locked gate through which I see people strolling. A about half way around the lake, I hit gold – a public restroom that’s open – so I don’t have to use my blue bag in public. It’s near a beach full of sunbathers. I don’t spend much time on beaches and so it’s not really obvious to me whether people are acting any different due to the social distancing rules. Lockdown is strange.

Grant is still the audiobook I’m listening to; it’s 48 hours long. I break up the day with a phone call to a friend. This is my first voice conversation with someone besides my housemate since starting the GVRAT. I’ve scheduled a phone first-date for Sunday and need to see if I can walk and talk. The answer is well enough for a friendly catch up, not well enough for a date.

Late in the day, the walking is getting hard despite being on flat asphalt paths. Through-hikers know that road walking is hard on your body. The goal for the day is 50 miles and I realize about 36 miles in that the route I’ve chose is at least several miles longer. Out comes the map app and I wind up using turn-by-turn directions to get me the last 8-ish miles home via backroads instead of following the Sammamish River trail. Night is falling while I’m still an hour away and my housemate texts to ask if I’m OK. I reply with an ETA and he says he’ll call off the choppers.

I’m not in good shape when I get home. I’d been out of water for the last 6-8 miles, probably because I’d put delicious fake orange juice powder in my primary reservoir and so drank it too fast. The blisters, for which these long walks are worse than running, are not longer possible to drain. Some are three deep. I cut them off with scissors, clean the newly exposed skin, and let them dry. I’ll pack them with cotton and tape over them for tomorrow’s walk. I fall asleep on my back, despite being a side sleeper, as I have for the last several nights, because the muscles on the side of my hips (the hip flexors?) hurt so much that they keep me awake if I sleep on them.

May 10, is another “Sunday stroll”. It’d be far too hard on my body to try for another big day so I set off for a counter-clockwise tour of Lake Sammamish hoping to get ice cream at a small, independent convenience store in the first few miles and a burrito for a late lunch about 22 miles before having my phone date in a park and finishing off the day with an out-and-back up the Sammamish River Trail for 36 miles. The convenience store is closed but I get the burrito, stuff it into my face, and flop down under the shade of a tree at 3pm for the phone call, glad that my date won’t be able to see my disheveled appearance and beard still wet with burrito juice. The connection is poor. Ironically, we’d both tried to take the call from parks. We reschedule for 4pm and I hoof it home. Two hours later, I sign off with, “I’ve got another 12 miles to walk before sundown”, though I’d forgotten to account for the walk home and fortunately only have 9.5 which I make by sundown. We’ll trade a few text messages over the next few days before going silent but I get several excellent audiobook recommendations since Grant is finally done.

May 11, the final Monday, is a major psychological milestone. From here out, each day of the week will be the last time I have to run or walk on that day of the week. Checking things off like that is a huge psychological boost. Additionally, my speed is back up. I’m running out of athletic tape for my blisters and have switched to gear repair tape since I don’t have time to get to as store.

May 12, the final Tuesday, is hard psychologically. It feels too early to be having trouble keeping it together. Scabs have been forming where I’ve cut off some of the blisters and each time I go running, the first mile is spent breaking them in and softening them up so I can run properly without feeling like there’s a pebble under the front of the ball of my foot.

May 13, the final Wednesday, is saved largely through the realization that I can walk the Friday evening miles and so after finishing, I’ll only have to go running three more times.

Since I’ve been running the same route morning and evening for two weeks now, I’ve begun to recognize faces and trade waves with the regulars. When this started, runners rarely passed me. Now the only runner who doesn’t is an older asian guy with a big smile who wears a visor and if it’s cold in the morning, socks on his hands. I also enjoy encountering another older asian guy who walks for exercise, sometimes with his hands raised as though in a sign of victory while listening to what sounds like classical music. Such characters.

May 14, the final Thursday, is held together on the grounds that it’s my last full day of running. My pace has fallen off but doesn’t I manage to keep it under 11min/mile. I decide I don’t care about efficiency anymore and take a long tour through a nearby park, out to the 520 trail, and back through Microsoft HQ, instead of my standard neighborhood loop. It’s slower since it rolls a little and requires thought now and again but the change is good.

With the closing weekend coming up, I’ve been studying the daily position and mileage of the runners around me. The updates now come out after everyone has posted their daily mileage and so show me somewhere from 12th to 9th. Everything had been pretty stable but Claudia from Great Britain put a 100 mile day and jumped ahead and so now there’s someone younger than me ahead of me, a first. It’s a guessing game as to whether she’s going to have a slow day which will bring her average back in line as has happened with anyone else who posted a 100 or if she’s going for a big finish. Going through the previous daily mileages for all of the runners around me, it’s clear that 3 to 5 runners could finish might finish on Saturday. My guess is that a Saturday finish will make it very likely that I finish top 10. A Sunday finish strikes me as leaving a top-10 finish up to a coin flip. Whatever strategy I pick, I’ll have to start executing it on Friday despite only having data from Thursday morning, almost a day behind.

May 15, the final Friday. I check the positions list first thing in the morning and get an error page indicating type of error on the web server which I haven’t seen playing around with simple websites in high school. How did Claudia follow-up her 100? Is anyone else showing signs of pushing for a finish? After grinding out the morning’s run on a new set of shoes which cushion everything wonderfully, I’m in a a can-do mindset. The plan is to attempt to close the last 100 miles by walking, starting after work, in four 25 mile laps trying to keep above a 3mph pace which should let me finish before midnight on Saturday. This seems the most manageable way to finish on Saturday, and maybe even get that 6th place which is the best anyone in my pack might take.

I do the first lap as a trip around Lake Sammamish from one ice cream franchise north of the lake to the same one, south of the lake so I can try all their specialty milkshakes. This goes off very well except that my right pinky toe aches terribly as though it no longer fits in the shoe. I can tell that there’s space for it, but only after I’d applied sufficient moleskin to a newly formed blister on the inside of my right heel which was leading to a compensating behavior that had jammed the pinky toe into the side of the shoe. The server error on the position list website hasn’t been resolved when I check around 11pm and so I head out for another lap, deciding to err on the side of going-for-it instead of hoping that everyone keeps pace through the finish.

May 16, the final Saturday, starts by ending in disaster. Attempting to cure my pinky toe, I’d switched back to a pair of running flats which were now too hard on my joints. My stride adapted a little but was about 18min/mile, much slower than the 15-16 I’d hoped to keep this early in the effort. I kept it up for about two miles but the ache in my right small toe hadn’t been resolved and at some point my face started convulsing like it was trying to cry without tears. I had the shoes which had initially pulverized the right pinky toe in my pack and put them on. At least my stride felt better even if the toe still hurt.

After two hours, my headlight switched off suddenly and wouldn’t come back on. While the path was clear, this was disconcerting and didn’t pair well with the ache which was now washing up from my right small toe up to my torso. In my haste to set out, I hadn’t packed an insulating layer and so the slight cold was seeping in and magnifying the ache. Also unexpected were the effects of sleep deprivation. By 2am I was weaving back and forth across the path in the dark instead of holding a straight line. My vision seemed clear, not doubled as usually happens to me when sleep deprivation attacks, but lights in the night didn’t seem to sit still. I considered finishing this lap extremely unlikely but didn’t want to give up just because things were getting hard. In ultra running (nevermind I was walking), things always get hard. This was, however, more painful than anything I’d experienced and so I decided then if my pace fell to slower than 3mph, I would let myself hail a ride home. But my pace didn’t fall and so as I approached the south end of Lake Sammamish I decided I’d pushed through long enough at 18-19min/mile to satisfy my personal need to keep the stiff upper lip. Since I wasn’t going to manage this for another 21 hours, I should taxi home so I didn’t damage myself further. After getting some sleep, I could pick up enough miles to position myself for a finish tomorrow.

Around 3:30am, I hailed a ride after having my credit card declined and having to use my backup. I made a Covid-mask out of a bandana but the driver wasn’t wearing a mask and didn’t seem concerned. At home, I hobbled up the stairs and lay down to die before deciding that I really did need to clean up. While showering, the pinky toe seemed structurally sound but was tender. The toenail was black and there was a blister in front of it. The decision to call off the night lap was probably good as the sides of my butt were sore in a way I didn’t know was possible. Things really had been falling apart.

At 8am I was woken up by a call from the credit card fraud hotline. Around noon, I actually got out of bed, packed a bag, and slowly strolled around Lake Sammamish picking up two milkshakes, a burrito, and conversing with a co-worker who I happened to encounter. All of this while casually wearing the same shoes as the night before but without the pain.

May 17, Sunday, I set out for a walking tour of the I-90 bridge, Seattle waterfront as far as Discovery Park, then returned over 520. A burger franchise’s drive-through didn’t acknowledge my presence when trying to walk through for breakfast so I bought a pan of cornbread and a soda from a grocery store. Diet of champions. The day was beautiful in the best of Pacific Northwest fashion. I almost took a picture realizing that I’d probably mention it this post but decided not to break my tradition of not taking pictures during races. I race to run, or, in this case, saunter. No time for fun.

I didn’t even have to saunter all the way home. My mileage count had ticked more than a mile past the finish when I reached an independent drive-in restaurant and decided to end in time for one last celebratory milkshake and burger. Not knowing that all finishers on a given day were considered as tying, I called my parents to ask them to post my mileage immediately since the recording form wasn’t functional in the mobile browser on my phone. My housemate even picked me up so I wouldn’t have to walk home. Such and easy last day may have been the literal and moral equivalent of walking it in, but it was a glorious walk.

Epilogue

May 18, the day after I’d logged my 1000th kilometer of the 1000km Great Virtual Race across Tennessee, Dad sent me an e-mail with a copy of the finisher page showing my name tied for a 7th place finish on May 17th.

Didn’t catch Claudia or the Gingerbread Man.

Later, I got an e-mail from Laz, the race director congratulating me on the finish, and offering a registration link to virtually run back across Tennessee. I decided not to take him up on the offer.

When the race director says your done, you’re done. Kinda cool to get an e-mail from Laz himself.

I’d had a great Monday getting to focus on work without counting down the hours until I had to run again.

May 20, after I’d been convalescing in the glow of a multiple-day release of tension and endorphins, I get a follower request on Strava from a stranger. I accept and a few hours later, they let me know about a Facebook post from Laz asking if anyone knew why I’d stopped so close to the finish. Apparently this was a 1021.68 km race. Panic set in and few searches revealed this:

Now Laz is saying I didn’t finish?

Reading through the comments, it was apparent that I wasn’t the only one who’d thought that this was a 1000km race. I replied privately to Laz’s congratulatory finisher e-mail to let him know I was OK. Having emotionally finished the race started moving on, I let him know I wasn’t intending to finish but that I liked the suggestion of maybe finishing on the final day. Mom has started so maybe I’ll finish with her. Laz wrote back joking that I’d be lucky to avoid the nickname, “where’s Isaac?” and that to mess with people, I should log a few miles every once in a while.

I’ve never seen myself be the subject of public speculation so it was interesting seeing all the comments wondering about me. I left a comment thanking the stranger who’d reached out to let me know about the thread and informing everyone I was doing well.

There were also several reply chains from someone who’d also thought it was a 1000km race (not 1021.68km) because the actual distance was hard to find. These tended to receive short replies with screen shots of the FAQ showing the offical distance clearly listed and sometimes statements about the importance of reading the rules. However, the WayBack machine shows that course description page (current link, WayBack link) and the FAQ (current link, WayBack link) were cached on May 8th 2020, there was no mention of the 1021.68km distance. The FAQ even states, “In order to earn your finisher’s medal, you’ll have to finish 1000k before September 1, 2020”. The mistake is completely understandable. I made it. Based on his congratulatory e-mail, Laz made it. May people on the Facebook thread made it. In fact, while the course description and FAQ have now been updated, as of May 25, 2020, the race info page (current link, Wayback link) still only lists 1000km. Ultimately, it was my mistake to run only 1000km as everyone who finished before me seems to have figured out that the distance was 1026km, though I’m not sure how they did it.

Conclusion

While the late discovery that I hadn’t actually finished was a bitter coda, I kind of enjoy the idea that everyone approaching the end will march past my slot on the position list and wonder, “where’s Isaac?” A runner who been in the 50km/day pack friended me on on Facebook yesterday to ask if I was OK, and joked that he was only planning on starting back across Tennessee once I’d finished. I let him know he might be waiting a while. We commiserated about the effort and wished each other the best.

I’ve always wanted to know what it would be like to do a marathon a day for an extended period of time. I’m thankful to Laz, Durb, and their team for putting on an event that pushed me to finally do it.

3 thoughts on “Great Virtual Run Across Tennessee (May 1-17, 2020)

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