Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee (GVRAT) 2020…


 … or "How I kept from going totally insane for four months."

In March it became apparent that the COVID 19 virus was going to have a bit of an impact on trail racing, at least in the spring. In April, it became apparent that I had grossly underestimated the impact. I did a few virtual races by running/walking the streets in the neighborhood, but I needed something a bit more.

Along came the GVRAT

Mr. Lake (not his real name, and I would be surprised if he would even answer to it), or Laz as he is more commonly known, recognized that there was a need for a summer challenge. Mr. Lake has a knack for coming up with challenges. (Barkley Marathons, Big's Backyard Ultra, A Race for the Ages (ARFTA), and others.)

He had already established a very challenging race across Tennessee called the Last Annual Vol State Road Race. It's 314 miles from a spot on the northern end of the state to a spot on the southern end. From Missouri to Georgia. With no aid stations. And a ten day cutoff.

That race wasn't challenging enough for what he had in mind - he wanted something that would take several months. He wanted it to be something that reasonably normal people would have a decent chance of finishing, but something that reasonably abnormal people would also find challenging. 

Like going across Tennessee, but the long way, diagonally, from a point at the southwest corner to a point at the northeast corner. The longest possible distance. And even though it's virtual and people would cover the distance while staying near home, it needed a real course - not a straight line as the buzzard flies.

The two courses across Tennessee. 

It was billed as a 1000K course (math people will want to call it a 1M course), but precision is not a strong point of Mr. Lake, and it ended up being just under 1022K. Or right around 635 miles. 

More than double the Vol State race. 

But we had four months to finish, from May 1 to August 31. 123 days.  All you had to do was cover about 5.2 miles per day. Every day. You could choose to cover 20 miles on one day and take a few days off, and many took that approach. Others, like me, took the approach of consistently shooting for  around five miles a day. You could start in June or July and just cover more miles per day and catch up.

A quirk of the course was that you spent a considerable amount of time outside of Tennessee. The first 25 miles was spent in Arkansas (followed by spending a stupidly long time trying to get across Memphis). At a bit over halfway, you dipped down into Georgia. And as you neared the finish, you found yourself crossing into Virginia for about 30 miles before dipping back down into Tennessee to finish. Very much not the way a buzzard would fly it.

About the buzzards

Speaking of buzzards, a fun addition to the race was a wake of buzzards (I looked this up and find it appropriate) as pacers. Important point (maybe) - they were all female. A second important point - they never took a day off. Your progress was always with respect to a buzzard. Their names:

  • Buzzard: She was the one that methodically made her way across Tennessee, about 5.2 miles a day, and the one I paid the most attention to. 
  • DCCC Buzzard: She was the next one I could chase (about 6.5 miles per day). I finally had to ask what the name meant - think Roman numerals. She was the 800 mile buzzard for those that finished but wanted to go a little bit further.
  • Thousand Buzzard: As her name implies, she was the 1000 mile buzzard (about 8.13 miles per day). You could enter to chase her once you finished the main crossing, and you would get a pin for catching her. 
  • Double Buzzard: A surprising number of people, once they finished the main crossing, had time to head back. This buzzard paced them (about 10.33 miles per day).
  • Dr Buzzard: This was tough to work out for me. I already knew the Roman numeral trick, but "DR" is not a Roman numeral. It turned out that another way to refer to a doctor is as an MD. That IS a Roman numeral - she was the 1500 mile buzzard (about 12.2 miles per day) for those that finished returning across Tennessee that wanted to start back across for the third time.
  • Triple Buzzard: As her name implies, she paced those that wanted to make three crossings (about 15.5 miles per day). Sheesh.

And I should also mention the Gingerbread Man. Not a pacer, but a "runner" intended to lead the whole way. And he did.

So, how did I do?

I managed to make it across the state in 118 days (along with 257 others). I had no double-digit days and no zero days. I'm proof that just about anyone could take on this challenge. (The biggest finish day was the next to the last day, day 122 with 841 finishers. The final day had 632 finishers.)

A bit less than half of my spreadsheet. It's not as fascinating as it looks.

I decided to create a spreadsheet to track my runs/walks and progress. (The column with sporadic green shows whether I am ahead of the buzzard or behind it. The blue cells indicate runs as opposed to walks. There was a lot of walking done.) I kept thinking of things to add to it as I went along, and because of it, I can give you a few of my stats:

  • 218 runs/walks: There were 218 official run/walk events for me. The shortest was 1.05 miles and the longest was 8.74 miles.
  • Treadmill runs/walks: I only had four treadmill run/walk events, accounting for a whopping 5.66 miles. Partly this was due to our treadmill having issues. But even once it was fixed, I tried to avoid it since I was pretty sure I was why it had issues in the first place. (Who knew pizza and Cheetos weren't good for the treadmill belt?)
  • Trail runs/walks: I had 32 run/walk events on trails in the area, accounting for 161.26 miles. Most of those miles were on flat trails that had as few people as possible on them. Once in a while Mrs. Notthat and I would venture out to proper trails, but all too often, so did many others.
  • Neighborhood runs/walks: I had a staggering 182 run/walk events through the neighborhood, accounting for 468.65 miles.
  • Miles run vs. walked: I ran 90.12 miles and walked all the rest. (That's not quite true - there were some mixed events with a bit of running and a bit of walking that I just lumped in with walking.)
  • Minute/mile average: I averaged 18.01 minutes/mile. Note that a lot of these walks were with our two dogs, and I did not pause the timer for poop duty. And wow do they like to smell everything.
  • Time: You did not log time for this race, so officially, it took me 118 days. I actually spent 189 hours and 49 minutes on these events.

I spent a remarkable amount of time wandering around in our neighborhood. A typical day would be a morning dog walk followed by a lunch or evening run/walk - always with my eyes set on getting around five miles in.

A dozen random "courses."

I tried to make the neighborhood miles as interesting as possible, but they still got very redundant. Early on, there was a lot of chalk on the sidewalk that would help.

Another huge help was that the city restricted traffic on a nearby street which made it much easier to navigate while dodging others.

I must have passed this fence 50 times before I noticed that someone was using it to store gum for later.

In the end, the neighborhood miles were fine. And wildly better than treadmill miles.

How did others do?

When Laz set up this event, he hoped for maybe a couple thousand people to sign up. Maybe 3,000. He ended up with nearly 20,000 people registered. 

And immediately had some technical issues to deal with, such as how do you handle that many people trying to log miles every day for four months. I can only imagine the flood of emails that would come in daily about one issue or the other. After some growing pains, it became a fairly smooth process to log your miles every night, and then in the morning, you could look in a massive table to see your progress. 

One thing that amazed me was how I could wind up at some random mile point, say, 413.2 miles, and look at the table to see that there were maybe 40 others at that exact same point. It was fun to picture what this would have really been like if we were all actually on the roads.

Not all 20,000 finished. 326 people never logged a single mile. 818 never even made it to Tennessee and are still wandering around Arkansas. But 13,737 did make it across. 

A group I find interesting are the 32 that made it at least 99% of the way but didn't finish. (99% would put you within 6.5 miles of being done.) 10 ended at about 99.9% - most less than a mile from the finish. Some of those I believe were competing to see how close they could get to finishing without actually finishing. (Look, nobody ever said runners don't come up with stupid ideas and goals.) I do worry that some of those were runners that truly thought they had finished, but really needed just a bit more - and that makes me sad.

I'm sure Mr Lake will get an email or two.

There were also a lot of runners that had issues come up - maybe an injury, something in the family or at work - that severely restricted the time they could spend on this. Those people will be able to continue logging their miles for a bit and eventually reach their goal, and they are awesome.

And then there are the over-achievers. Those that wanted more miles. More crossings. More buzzards to chase after. 

  • RAT (Race Across Tennessee): 13737 earned the right to be called a RAT. Three runners managed the 635 miles in just 12 days (53 miles per day average).
  • 1000: 2718 ran at least 1000 miles. The fastest did this in 22 days (a 45.45 miles/day average).
  • BAT (Back Across Tennessee): 1487 made it all the way back to the start. The fastest did this in 27 days (a 47 miles/day average). 
  • CAT (Cross Again Tennessee): (I don't know what CAT actually stands for - the "C" might just be the next letter after "B.") 142 made it across Tennessee a third time, the fastest doing it in 47 days (a 40.5 miles/day average).
  • GNATS: (Maybe this is an acronym, but I think it just meant these were people that were causing Laz an annoying amount of extra work he hadn't bargained for.) These are people that did more than three crossings:
    • Four crossings: 24 made it.
    • Five crossings: 9 made it.
    • Six crossings: 3 made it.
    • Seven crossings: 2 made it.
    • Eight crossings: 1 - Mathew Jenkins covered 5080 miles in 119 days - an average of 42.7 miles/day. That's truly astonishing.


One thing that came up was whether you could enter your miles in multiple virtual events. 

As it became apparent that real races were not going to be happening this summer, a number of race companies jumped on the virtual race bandwagon. There were a LOT of races similar to this that involved crossing a state (Mrs Notthat and I ran the Maryland version). There were a number of races that involved supporting local race companies (we did several of those too). 

Because GVRAT was four months long, there was a lot of overlap. Which brought up the question - if I run eight miles, can I log it as eight miles for multiple races (double-dipping) or do I have to split it between the races? 

All the virtual races I saw explicitly allowed you to double-dip, which makes sense since most of them were not really races, but more like training programs designed to give you a goal to shoot for. In my mind, I looked at them as ways to support local race companies and didn't feel the slightest bad about using my miles for two at once.

A number of people decided to not double-dip - if they ran simultaneous races, they ran miles specific to each race. That's pretty awesome, but well beyond what I would be able to do. If I had taken that approach, I would have only been able to participate in one race at a time, and GVRAT at four months would have been all I could have done. (Some of those people avoided GVRAT just for that reason.)

And that's about it

This event was challenging but fun - pretty much exactly what I was looking for. In addition to the event's large Facebook group, there was a Northern California-based Facebook group started by Jen where we could commiserate and whine about the buzzards. Laz would regularly post insightful things that covered everything from his bewilderment at people that refused to read the rules or do a tiny bit of research on their own, to inspiring things that made you feel great and maybe convinced you that, in spite of what you were thinking, you really could get this done.

We were to have the choice of a buckle or medal once we finished, but by the time I finished, all that was left were buckles, which was fine by me.

Everyone that registered got this shirt. The "1000" sticker was included with the buckle.

The back of the shirt, with one of those stupid buzzards.

Laz and his team really outdid themselves for this event. For almost all of us, this was going to be our one shot at participating in a Lazarus Lake event.

Well, until he created another audacious event - the Circumpolar Race Around the World (CRAW). I don't know much about this - I've been avoiding looking into it very closely - but it makes going across Tennessee look like a walk around the block.

For now I'm good with being a RAT.

That's it - move along…