Is VIRTUAL here to stay?

Virtual running is not new.  

Virtual sport is not new.

But today, as the world is gripped in lockdown, virtual running is taking off like never before. 

Runner’s World, way back in 2015 asked the question, ‘Are Virtual Runs the Future of Racing?’ In an article by Alison Wade.

‘Virtual Racing is not a new concept. Postal races—in which competitors mail in their times to be compared with others—began decades ago. But advances in technology have improved runnersexperience of events from their own treadmills, and as the sport has grown, so has interest in this alternate way of racing.’

The joy of virtual is quite simple, you participate wherever you can, when you can and in many scenarios, in any capacity. It shows us that our need to belong, to be part of something is very strong, even if we are doing the sport alone and virtually.

‘Remote entrants received a downloadable bib, finishers certificate, and the races official swag…’

Some races reach capacity, London Marathon would be a good example. Virtual can allow someone to run a route at the same time as an official race on a virtual course using an app that simulates the course.

To be honest, many of us now have some form of tracking device, be that a watch, phone or additional gadget. Many subscribe to an app on their phone, be that on Android or Mac that allows us daily to update a training session. Strava being an obvious one but so many others exist.

Technology used to be something that was feared, but now it is embraced. 

Regina Jackson of ‘Will Run for Bling’ created in 2013, said to Alison Wade, ‘Many of those who run our races have busy lives and are attracted to the fact that they have nine days to complete each race. Others are drawn in by the fact that they can break up the run into shorter segments and still get credit for completing the race.’

But times are changing…

As races throughout the world are being cancelled or postponed, race directors have been looking for opportunities to retain their market, inspire the audience and still provide engagement. Equally, runners or sports people who desire an event and community have pursued alternatives. Interaction, that sense of belonging and the need to participate a driving force.

So, the transition has been seamless, and, in some scenarios, it has exploded to a level that one would have struggled to comprehend just 4-months ago.

A prime example being the recently started (May 1st) ‘The Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee 1000km’which allows participants to travel across Tennessee (virtually) from may 1st to August 31st. Quite simply, you have 4-months to cover the distance by any means and daily you upload your distance (even if it is a zero) and via an interactive map, your dot is moved along the route.

The above is brought to us by Gary Cantrell aka Lazarus Lake of the famous Barkley Marathons and Bigs Backyard Ultra. Now, Laz is like the Pied Piper, people love him and love his crazy ideas. However, I don’t think even he could have anticipated that a 1000km virtual run would explode like it has. As they say on the sign-up page, ‘To complete, the race will require only a hair over 5 miles per day…  and those who want a little extra on their plate, you can do the out and back version – 2,000 kilometers!

The numbers are phenomenal, $60 entry fee and currently over 17,569 participants. There is a charity element too for ‘Feeding America/ Tennessee’ – the donation page is showing a current revenue of $96,533. And now, there is even a ‘Doggie Run Across TN for Animal Shelters’ with a sign up of $30.

Depending on viewpoint, for now, virtual races and challenges are filling a gap that many of us are missing as we are forced to social distance and lockdown. As restrictions ease, and life starts to return to some normality, I can’t help but think an element of virtual will exist at a greater level than before January 2020.

As one runner has told me, ‘I race for the atmosphere, being around hundreds with a similar passion and then testing myself at the same time and on the same course as everyone else. I like the meet up before and the post-run gathering. It’s more than running, it is community. So, racing is really important for me and many others. However, the virtual world has opened my eyes to a new way of training. I love the fact that maybe I can run across Tennessee in 4-months and the great thing is, should I get an opportunity to race, I can use that mileage too for the virtual challenge.’

One thing is for sure, in the ultra-running world, a challenge is a challenge, be that real or virtual. Recent months and weeks have shown us that imagination is the only limiting factor.

In Spain, friends Kilian Jornet, Pau Capell and Tofol Castanyer created an indoor challenge. Fueled by the lockdown that did not allow them to run outside, with the help of Albert Jorquera, Jordi Saragossa and Maria Fainé, they created ‘YoCorroEnCasa’ translated to IRunAtHome. With just a week of planning, they brought over 7400 people together, all running ‘in the home’ and in the process they raised €82,940 for charity – they did not take a euro. I followed their example and did the same in the UK on April 18th with IRunAtHome raising £20,000 for charity.

Taking inspiration from Lazarus Lake, Dave Proctor (who holds the 100-mile treadmill world record) took the ‘Backyard Ultra’ format and made it into a virtual event using technology such as Zoom and YouTube to bring runners together, from all over the world, to run 4.1667 miles every hour, on the hour. Over 2000 signed up. The challenge was to see who would be, the last man or woman standing in the ‘Quarantine Backyard Ultra.’ After 2+ days, ultra-running legend, Michael Wardian emerged victorious with 262.5-miles beating Radek Brunner. Notably, Michael ran outdoors using a loop of road around his house, whereas Radek ran on a treadmill. 

Listen to a podcast interview with Michael Wardian HERE

 Salomon runner, Ryan Sandes was locked down in South Africa, but that did not stop him. Taking on a personal challenge, he ran 100-miles in and around his house is 26-hours and 27-minutes. Article here.

And on May 16th, 100-mile world record holder, Zach Bitter, will look to set the 100-mile WR on a treadmill with a virtual run that will be streamed live for the full duration of approximately 12-hours. He encourages people to join him on their own treadmills and experience the journey.

 Racing will return. The trails (and even roads), the scenery, the landscape, the mountains and fresh air will bring us back to start lines. The need to share a journey and experience, to test one’s self in real time is something that is primal. The need for physical interaction, before, during and after a race is something, we all need. 

It’s unclear when virtual racing made the leap online to a mass audience. Some race directors say it evolved from runners requests many years ago to participate in physical races from afar. Regardless of the original origin, this year, virtual racing has exploded in popularity.

Virtual is here to stay and no doubt, at a far greater level than when this year began.

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References: Active.com here Runners World here New York Times here The Washington Post here

Mountain, Ultra, Trail and Skyrunning Review of 2017

As a year comes to a close, I always like to look back and consider the highlights of the year, not only personal highlights but global highlights of the running world.

It is a daunting task at times.

The running year is now so full that it can be difficult to remember what happened just weeks ago, never mind months ago. So, with this in mind, please consider that this article is my thoughts and not a definitive highlight of 2017.

Having said that, I am going to make some huge mistakes and I am going to miss some key people, races and performances.

I welcome you, the reader, reminding me of what they are – please, just be nice!

So, let us look at 2017.

I was considering going through chronologically and in all honesty, it may have been the better solution to the task at hand, however, I have just gone on impulse! 

Western States was won by Ryan Sandes and I have to say, it was a sweet victory for the South African who over the years I have considered a great friend. Ryan was my first ever interview on Talk Ultra podcast and I love his story. The non-runner who became a runner who eventually won Western States. It’s a dream story. While on the subject of Western, we also need to mention the ladies champ, Cat Bradley. While all the top contenders faded, Cat ran a sound and solid race to take the biggest win of her life. It was no one-off, something she has proven recently by setting a FKT in the Grand Canyon – Rim – to – Rim – to – Rim fastest known time in 7:52:20

Francois D’Haene racing in China, April 2017

Francois D’Haene is the best 100-mile mountain runner in the world – end of the story. The dude has been nailing it for years and when Rob Krar won 3 100’s in one year, so did Francois. The Frenchman has consistently dominated the distance and when the trail has vertical, he is almost unbeatable. In 2017, he elevated himself to a new level firstly beating the ‘unbeatable’ Kilian Jornet at UTMB and then setting (obliterating) the FKT for the John Muir Trail. He also ripped MIUT (Madeira Island Ultra Trail) apart, and the previous CR set by Zach Miller. Without doubt, Francois is the male ultra-runner of the year in my eyes. We just need to see him at Hardrock 100 now!

Andrea Huser blows my mind constantly. She is the most impressive and consistent runner in the ultra-world and I often ask the question, if she raced less, would she win more? She has a string of top results but often has missed the big win. But when you race as much as she does, you can’t help but just nod in respect.

Caroline Chaverot was unbeatable in 2016 and 2017 started with some issues, issues that she has battled with throughout 2017. Despite this, she won Hardrock 100. It was a great victory and not one without controversy… she left her bleeding pacer on the trail for others to help. Just recently she rounded out her year with a win at Saint E Lyon in France – the classic November night race.

Ida Nilsson and Tim Freriks kicked off their seasons with victory at Transvulcania. Ida’s win was to be expected, but Tim’s win was a revelation. The ‘cowboy’ then went on to set a FKT in the Grand Canyon. Ida continued her great running throughout 2017 and then the duo turned up at San Francisco 50 and both won again – they topped and tailed the year and we can expect big things in 2018!

Jim Walmsley and the PR machine in many ways signified a new era in the sport of ultra-running and not all for the better in my opinion. The hype around the 2017 Western States before the race pretty much had Jim with his buckle, the Cougar and a new CR. The reality was very different. Jim then went to UTMB and showed signs of learning the craft. He watched Francois and Kilian and paced his day. It eventually went wrong but he rallied and closed out strong. A definitive moment for Jim and I was well aware that this would be a turning point for his 100-mile future. He then confirmed he would run on Reunion Island at Raid de la Reunion! While I can admire the decision, for me, it was always going to be a questionable decision in regard to his ‘professional’ development. But I am being judgmental and I hope not in a negative way. I ‘get’ that Jim wanted to run on the island but the step-up from UTMB was huge and despite leading the race, he eventually dropped around the 100km mark. It has been a huge learning year for the fast man and I still hold true that up to 100km, the guy is pretty much un-matched. I am looking forward to seeing him nail 100-miles in 2018 (maybe 2019) and when he does, watch out, it will almost certainly be super-fast and mind blowing. 

Kilian Jornet pretty much was missing from the mountain, ultra and trail calendar for the past 18-months and rightly so. He had set targets on the final summit of his Summits of my Life – Everest. A failed attempt in previous year and then Nepal earthquakes had put things on hold. No bad thing. Kilian learned, progressed and then finally summited Everest twice in one week which blew the minds of the whole world. Of course, anything so amazing has questions raised over it and rightly so. Just recently an article appeared and Kilian responded. Read HERE. More will come to light in regard to Everest and ultimately one has to assume the Everest film will answer all questions. Post Everest, Kilian started running again and won a super-fast Sierre Zinal, he won Hardrock 100 with a dislocated shoulder, placed 2nd behind Francois at UTMB and won Glen Coe Skyline. In the winter, he has had operations on his shoulders and now is in recovery and waiting to get back into the SkiMo season. Kilian has nothing to prove in my eyes. What does 2018 hold? Who knows really, ultimately, Kilian is at the top of his game and he will go where his heart takes him… expect a Zegama appearance, a Hardrock appearance, maybe the Bob Graham will be on the cards and maybe he will be back in Scotland for Glen Coe. Who knows? Whatever the path, he will inspire.

Camille Herron won Comrades, wow, it is the holy grail of road ultra-running. She then followed with a DNF at Western States and Leadville and I, and others, was left wondering what had happened. Oh, my word has she put the record straight. In recent weeks Camille has set a 100-mile world record 12:42:39, a 100km USA track record 7:36:39 at Desert Solstice and then went on to run for 12-hours and set a 12hr All-Surface World Record 92.708 miles. She is the new Ann Trason and arguably, she will be in for a shout as ultra-runner of the year.

Courtney Dewaulter can push Camille close. This lady won Run Rabbit Run (again) this time losing her vision in the final 10km. She then went on to win Moab 200 (actually 238-miles) outright and then recently ran 250.079km / 155.391 miles in 24-hours setting an American record. Wow!

Nuria Picas came out of the wilderness of 2016 and quite rightly, finally won UTMB. Nuria was unstoppable for many years but the big loop around Chamonix had eluded her, I firmly believe she can consider her career complete with this win!

The UK’s Dan Lawson flew around the Gobi Desert to win with a new CR at the 400km Ultra Gobi. Dan is the UK’s hottest prospect at the long game, particularly when you consider past runs on the Grand Union Canal and 2nd at the iconic Spartathlon.

Marco De Gasperi pioneered the way for Skyrunning on Monte Rosa in the early 90’s and has had incredible journey as one of the most respected mountain runners in the world. Finally, in 2017, Marco became the Skyrunner World Series (SWS) champion after an incredible season of consistent running and podium places – a true inspiration.

Maite Maiora moved up several notches in 2017 and was a dominant force on the Skyrunning circuit with a string of victories and podium places. 2017 was her year in the sky! But let us not forget Ragna Debats, she had an amazing full season and triumphed over multiple distances in addition to a great run at the IAU World Trail Champs. Also, Sheila Aviles came of age… a name to watch in future years! For the guys, keep an eye on Jan Maragarit.

UTMB had arguably the greatest male line-up of elite runners ever and it turned out to be great show down and we saw the confirmation that US runners are getting UTMB. Tim Tollefson was again flying the flag with a 3rd place. It is only a matter of time until we see an American win the big dance around France, Italy and Switzerland – will it be 2018? It could well be if Francois d’Haene and Kilian Jornet don’t run.

Hillary Allen has represented the USA in Europe for a couple of years now and once again she was doing so in 2017. However, it all fell apart, before my eyes, at Tromso SkyRace in Norway. She fell many meters, bounced on the rocks below and came away with some serious injuries. Thankfully, the recovery process has gone well and I wish Hillary well for 2018.

Ruth Croft has been in the mix for some time and I think it is fair to say that her victory at ‘Templiers’ in France recently has elevated to the New Zealander to a new level for the coming year… what does 2018 hold for this lady?

2017 most certainly has been a FKT year – Iker Karrera, Darcy Piceu, Francois d’Haene, Tim Freriks, Cat Bradley, Alicia Vargo, Rickey Gates and so many more have all taken the Fastest Known Time discipline to new heights but I wonder if ‘Stringbean’s’ FKT on the Appalachian Trail is the one that should have had more press and coverage? He soloed the AT quicker than Karl Meltzer and Scott Jurek and without help, but, relatively slipped under most radars. Read here.

Jeff Browning crushed the 100-mile distance in 2016 and did so again in 2017, he is a great ambassador for the sport.

Luis Alberto Hernando is for me, arguably one of the most talented runners in the world. But he is a quiet guy who in many ways, keeps himself to himself. He races hard and crushes the competition. In 2017, he once again became IAU World Trail Champion on a course that he, and many others said, didn’t suit him. The guy is pure class!

The UK’s Damian Hall came to running late in life (not that he is old) but he has slowly and surely chipped his way through the ultra-ranks and this year just missed the top-10 at UTMB – an incredible result.

Tom Evans broke on the scene by placing 3rd at MDS Morocco and in the process set a new benchmark for UK based runners to aim for. He followed this up with some other solid results in 2017 and I, like many others, wonder what 2018 holds in store.

Rickey Gates ran across America. Nuff said! Read here.

Ueli Steck, the Swiss Machine, died on the mountains and left the mountain world devastated by his passing. Here.

Alex Honold free soloed El Cap in arguably one of the most awe-inspiring and risky climbs in the history of the sport. It is quite literally, off the scale and beyond comprehension. I know it’s not running but it is without doubt worth a mention! Here.

The infamous Barkley once again served up another serving of spine tingling history with John Kelly finishing and Canada’s Gary Robbins left wiped out on the floor in tears. You can’t make stories like this up.

Gary Cantrell (Lazarus Lake of Barkley fame) organised a race that went through his garden, The Big Backyard Ultra. Every 60-minutes, runners set off on a loop. During the night, the loop changed. The principal was simple, you keep going till one man or woman is left Standing. Well, Guiiiaume Calmettes was that man in 2017 running 245.835 pipping Harvey Lewis. 

Rachid Elmorabity once again won Marathon des Sables in Morocco proving that he is the greatest multi-day desert runner in the world at the moment. Elisabet Barnes, 2015 MDS champion once again returned to the sand pit after missing victory in 2016 and was unstoppable with a dominant and impressive force of sand running.

MDS Peru followed on the 32-year traditions of its Moroccan big brother with the first edition in Peru’s Ica Desert. This was the first time any event was allowed permission to take place in this amazing National Park. It was great first event with Morocco’s Rachid Elmorabity and France’s Nathalie Mauclair taking the top honours.

Michael Wardian did what he always does, run and run and run throughout 2017. But he kicked off the year with a world record running 7-marathons on 7-continents in 7-days. The guy just continues to impress.

Best shoes of 2017? Well, this is well and truly a can of worms and I can only answer from a personal perspective. The Nike Air Zoom Wildhorse 4 here blew my socks off and is now my favourite day-to-day trail running shoe. For when it gets technical, gnarly, muddy and I need an aggressive shoe, the VJ Sport iRock2 here has set a new benchmark for me in regard to grip.

Best clothing? inov-8 have continued to impress me with not only excellent run shoes but appeared to match. They now have a really specific line of products (including packs) that make them an excellent one-stop shop for anything that you would need for a messy and muddy 5km fell run to the tough and challenging 100+ mile UTMB.

Best moment of 2017? That is a serious toughie but maybe Ryan Sandes finally taking that WSER top slot. I know how much he wanted it and he didn’t have an easy journey obtaining it. Huge respect! But hey, I have been inspired by so many in 2017.

On a personal note to conclude:

For me, I started travelling in January and I stopped in December. Yes, I have been on the road for 12-months and I consider myself to be truly blessed for the opportunities I have had to follow my dreams and make a living from it. I never take it for granted! While I could go into the details of each trip, I won’t. Every race is documented in words and images on this website and my social channels and you can find out about them should you so wish.

INSTAGRAM here

TWITTER here

FACEBOOK PHOTOGRAPHY here FACEBOOK TALK ULTRA here

PHOTOGRAPHY WEBSITE here IMAGE SALES here

Don’t forget Talk Ultra Podcast which has documented this sport HERE

BUT, and this is a huge BUT. My passion, and my work calendar comes at a price. I have a son, a family and an amazing partner, Niandi. They have all been neglected in 2017 with my travel and race coverage. It’s a dilemma and one that keeps me awake. I struggle for answers but I want to say THANK YOU for the support to all those people who mean the world to me, you know who you are.