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Reflections on Organising The Lockdown Virtual Race From Rootsock Racing

Abby Perkiss (Rootstock Racing) / 28.07.2020
The 'Rootstock team' on the Yeti Virtual Challenge
The 'Rootstock team' on the Yeti Virtual Challenge / © Rootstock Racing

April 11, 2020. 9:00am. I had three miles left to complete my souped-up Yeti 24-Hour Ultra Endurance Challenge: a virtual event where participants run five miles every four hours for twenty-four hours – six runs, thirty miles. Sometime during my third or fourth lap, I’d made the decision to push on to fifty miles. I was having too much fun. In the midst of the pandemic, I was enjoying the “normal” of an organized event too much to stop. 

As I turned towards home, I pushed harder. Three blocks left, two blocks, one. I didn’t want it to end, and I also knew I needed to return to real life: parenting, homeschooling, and a job as a professor that had six weeks earlier transitioned to entirely online. I stopped in front of my house and caught my breath. And I started thinking: how could this sort of event translate to adventure racing? What would an asynchronous AR look like? How would we design it? Permit it? Would people want to take part?

I walked inside to find my husband/teammate/partner-in-crime at Rootstock Racing, Brent Freedland, who had finished his own Yeti hours earlier.

“We should do a virtual adventure race,” I said.

At first, he laughed. And then he looked thoughtful. And then he got serious. Within hours, we had developed the framework for the course. By the end of the day, we’d emailed our t-shirt vendor, researched virtual sanctioning considerations, and set up a registration page.

The next day, a Monday, we launched The Lockdown. This 21-hour AR-style virtual challenge included seven stages, ranging from mountain and road riding, to trekking and bushwhacking, to multisport, strength, and a non-foot/bike discipline of the participant’s choosing. Racers had 96 hours to complete the event; along the way, they had to collect at least ten geocaches, a GPS-based navigational activity designed to replicate as best we could the map-and-compass navigation of adventure racing.

We had no idea what to expect, but quickly it became clear that adventure racers were craving that same feeling of normalcy that Brent and I had experienced during the Yeti. By the end of that day, we had 47 registrants. Two days later, 147 people had signed up, representing 35 states and three countries. When registration closed on May 31, 392 people from 47 states and nine countries were on board.

Tim Buchholz of Rib Mountain Racing in Wisconsin
Tim Buchholz of Rib Mountain Racing in Wisconsin. Photo Anna Nummelin

And the rest of the US adventure racing world joined in. More than a dozen race organizers and promoters donated prizes. Several more blasted the event on their social media and mailing lists. Unexpectedly, The Lockdown became an incredible community-based project, a chance for racers throughout the country – and around the world – to come together at a time when everyone was experiencing varying degrees of isolation.

One of the highlights of the challenge was the chance for folks to play Race Director. Because the event mandated specific features for several of the sections – the bushwhack had to include two hilltops and three reentrants, for instance; on the road ride, participants had to visit a historic marker, a stone wall, a ruin, and a coffee shop – folks had to be thoughtful in their planning and route choice. We received dozens of emails from registrants, excited to share their process for organizing their race. Though unintentional on our end, we loved hearing about the RD exploits as much as we enjoyed the actual event recaps.

And we were consistently surprised by the challenges people chose to put themselves through. Though the instructions said nothing about level of difficulty – or level of suffering – many participants took it upon themselves to go big and dig deep. Glen Lewis, with eight years of adventure racing under his belt, described his trekking leg as “one of the deepest holes I have ever fallen into.” And Brent, finally able to participate in a Rootstock event after planning them for the last five years, bonked so hard that he stopped at a teammate’s house, three miles from home, unable to continue. When he called, I rode over with our two kids and found him lying on the front lawn, eating a mug of ice cream as our friends sat six feet away, laughing sympathetically at his sorry state. 

Hard Days Night Tour of London from Team Untamed England (Todd Fallesen and Teresa Bertran)
Hard Days Night Tour of London from Team Untamed England 

The event Facebook page transformed into a gathering space for these stories and hundreds more. Participants posted photos and videos of their efforts. There was in-race commentary, post-race reports, and plenty of colorful language about highs and lows of geocaching. Parents took part with their kids; teammates came together; participants donated prizes for the oldest finisher, the best coffee shop selfie, the most colorful spandex donned while rollerblading.

In total, we had 219 official Lockdown finishers. Many others completed the event over the course of several days or weeks, technically unofficial, but participants all the same. Ken Walker, Sr. of Vermont took the prize for the oldest official finisher. There were several racers under ten years old.

Right now, it’s impossible to foretell what the immediate future of AR will look like. And with COVID-19 surging in the US and spiking in countries around the world, many of us have had to put training on the backburner to deal with pandemic-related disruptions, to care for sick family members, to grieve. But for those who are looking for an outlet, or craving that little bit of relative “normalcy” – in quotes with the awareness that so many people in the world think what we all do is anything but normal – perhaps virtual events like The Lockdown can provide some stopgap relief, and hopefully remind us all of the incredible community of which we’re all a part, even when we can’t come together in person.

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