Up to the Invisible Starting Line: Running a Trail Race Virtually

The first major life event I notched in 2020 was registering for the Rut Mountain Run 28K in Big Sky, Montana. The 17.5 miles, 7800 feet of elevation change, months of training and relatively expensive registration fee, all of which normal people might call roadblocks, seemed like perfect springboards for launching myself towards glory…the glory of being an intermediate mid-distance trail runner in remote mountains a mile above sea level, testing my physical boundaries and setting goals that push my limits. Who doesn’t love a good nearsighted plunge into a long-term commitment right around Resolution season?

The 28K course is aggressive and daunting in its beauty. Drone footage on the race website pans out over Big Sky Ski Resort to display terrain dominated by open rocky ridge lines and long ascents up the same trails that normal people prefer to ski down. Somehow, I watched the race footage, saw the wincing and the gasping and sheer rocky drop-offs and thought “yeah, this is absolutely something I would pay to do.” The race was scheduled for September 6th, and promised to draw a crowd of cheerful dirty sweaty trailrunner types – the very types that I would run myself into the ground to join the ranks of.

Now, I hesitate to say the past eight months have “flown by.” Regardless of how time has paced itself since January, tomorrow is September 6th. Tomorrow is the day. Right now, I’m slugging down water like it’s, well, water, and in a few minutes, I’ll stretch out and crawl into bed. I will be running 17.5 miles tomorrow like I promised myself I would nine months ago to the day.

But I will be running them alone. In the woods. In Connecticut. After waking up in my childhood bedroom and riding along in my dad’s pickup truck to a wildly popular trailhead in a wildly popular state forest teeming with wild (but maybe not so popular) kids.

My family will see me off from the parking lot. They will go make themselves busy for a few hours, and then they will sit in the same parking lot and wait for me with a double-decker peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a change of clothes, extra water, and congratulatory hugs and smiles.

And then I will upload my stats from my Garmin watch to a web platform, allowing me to self-report my time. The platform will rank me among the other dirty sweaty happys from around the world who did the same exact thing. And that will be how I foray into the glory of being an intermediate mid-distance trailrunner: virtually.

I’ve been training on this trail network all summer long. It’s relatively flat, very family-friendly, and highly accessible for people from the heavily populated surrounding areas. The parking lot is right on a major state road and it doesn’t require high-clearance vehicles, and the trails are remarkably well maintained. Now, all of these things make the trail network an absolute gift to this region. More access to approachable and safe green space is always a good thing, especially for the more suburban and urban communities prevalent in southern New England. In any other circumstance, I would praise this state forest and its trails for the exact same reasons why, in this particular circumstance, I am the slightest bit annoyed by them.

I’d bet my best sports bra that every registrant reacted to the news of the Rut going virtual with identical sentiments; “running it virtually just won’t be the same.” After receiving the news myself, I considered foregoing my hard-earned registration fee and the glimmering promise of the official race socks and dropping the whole thing. 17.5 miles was a lot of trail to run without aid stations, without other people to commiserate with, without official chip timing, without the caffeinated energy at the starting line and the rejoice of barreling over the finish line in a crowd of exhausted triumphant endorphin addicts. As cliche as it sounds, these really are the components of organized races that make them worth all the hard work and logistics and planning…or at least the $90.

So for the sake of transparency, I can admit that I’m having a bit of a hard time getting excited about tomorrow’s race. In fact, I’m having a bit of a hard time even calling it a race. I’ve had weeks to take this opportunity and turn it into something equally as difficult and awe-inspiring as how Rut alumni describe Big Sky. But instead, I’m practically running it in my backyard.

This is certainly not for a lack of support. My family was willing to road trip anywhere within reason to see me off at a “starting line” and greet me at a “finish line,” both arbitrary locations entirely of my choosing.

But interstate travel restrictions kept changing. A weekend away in a long list of states means 14 days of quarantine upon reentry into Connecticut. Hotels and AirBnBs required confirmed negative tests and liability waivers. And the months-old adage of “the situation could change any day” hung over my planning process like a busy mosquito swarm…the type you run through and instantly regret ignoring in the first place. So I made the safe decision and plotted my route fifteen minutes from my house.

The irony is hilarious. Trailrunners, by definition, don’t make a lot of safe decisions. Choosing foot landings on a course littered with shadows, leaves, roots and rocks is best done at a walking pace. But trailrunners throw that little bit of self-preservation and common sense out the window. They force their feet to work fast and their eyes to work faster, with a reliable reaction time and trained flexibility weaving the safety net that saves their ankles and knees from errant lapses in focus. Trailrunning is an endurance exercise in rapid decision-making and self-control as much as it is a test of physical health.

But there is no safety net for COVID-19. A bad step doesn’t mean a minor sprain or a scraped knee, and there is zero assurance of popping back up bloody and bruised but able to carry on. Trailrunners gamble with the consequences of getting too confident and overzealous with their cadence every time they lace up. I turned an ankle on what felt like every single training run this summer, only moments after cockily congratulating myself on having “secured the footing.” But the stakes are much higher for the overconfident and overzealous who venture down COVID’s path.

So when I walk up to my starting line tomorrow morning, in that familiar parking lot that has watched over my months of training, and I chop up the same initial ascent that rendered me breathless back in June when we thought a vaccine would have been invented by now, and I step at least eight feet off trail to let other families pass safely, I’ll let myself bask in a new glory; the glory of being an intermediate mid-distance trailrunner who doesn’t push the boundaries and limits.

And after I cross my finish line and greet my spectators and chow down on my post-race meal, I will be proud to upload my results and virtually join the ranks of the other trailrunners who didn’t push the boundaries and limits either. Maybe taking safety precautions seriously is a little out of character for some of us. But staying focused on self-control over a long rocky road? That is something we’ve gotten pretty good at.

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