Running From COVID

How the pandemic affected our tribe-like racing culture.

Photo: howie stern

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There are few times in our lives where events occur that shake the world on a global level. For the most part, we go on about our lives pursuing our careers and passions as well as adventures with family and friends.
With the onset of the covid pandemic in March of 2020, all of that came to what felt like a screeching halt, as the world shut down and we all faced an uncertain future at the hands of a novel virus full of unknowns. All facets of life were affected: employment, gatherings of family and friends, shopping, and recreating outdoors. For many of us, running and racing encompasses a large role in our lives serving many purposes: It may be for mental and physical health, feeding your competitive spirit, finding where your limits lie or, perhaps for many, it is being part of a greater community of like-minded people, the tribe, if you will.
As race after race was canceled, for many, this led to feelings of anxiety and even depression. Racing provides focus and discipline to train. A goal, something to look forward to and accomplish. Something to pull you out of bed, when you’d rather stay under the covers. It was a tough pill to swallow as people were trying to hold on to some hope for normalcy or stress relief to deal with the drastic change to our everyday lives.
To fill some of the void, virtual races began to pop up in all sorts of forms, everything from racking up Everest levels of vert to long-distance hauls that would take some months to complete. It wasn’t ideal, but it was something. Fortunately, as the year progressed, a glimmer of light shone at the end of the tunnel. A number of states began to give the go-ahead for racing to resume with limited fields and protocols in place to ensure the safety of all involved. Races were going to look different than we were used to, but for those craving the competition, seeing friends, travel, it was exciting times.
First impressions were a bit surreal. It felt part sci-fi, part family reunion. People were excited to be out and see each other, but afraid to get too close or touch each other. You only saw eyes, you couldn’t see full expressions, which at this point, we were more than accustomed to. But it still felt awkward in this setting.
As race directors counted down the seconds, though, and the runners took off from the line, all seemed right in the world
again. The sinewy trails, the sight of other runners in front of or behind you. Conversations with friends. Soaking in the beauty all around. Volunteers at aid stations. All the sights and sounds you dream about were reality once again, and it was sublime. Sometimes you don’t realize how much you miss something. How much you need something, until it is taken away. While the finish lines were devoid of the usual crowds of family, friends and strangers, they still had that feeling of coming home.
And, as they say, there’s no place like home.

The Milky Way provided a brilliant backdrop for runners in the Indian Creek area of the Moab 240, Utah.
Tim Tollefson cools himself en route to a win at the Javelina Jundred.

Tessa Chesser in hte heat of battle chasing the leaders at the Black Canyon 60k, Black Canyon National Recreation Trail, Arizona.
A focused Kalie Demerjian in the hunt for the podium at Javelina.

Brianna Grigsby and Jenny Gormley enjoying some prerace camaraderie.
For Gabe Rubenstein, a return to racing and competing in Utah’s Moab 240 was a life-changing experience.

Bruce Nguyen’s mantra at the Moab 240: When you cast fear aside, you are unstoppable.
Jerry Pi releases all emotion upon coming home to the finish after four days of self-reflection, racing with friends new and old and soaking in the otherworldly beauty of the Moab, Utah, area.
Lisa Roberts riding the competition high, earning a Golden Ticket to the Western States 100 at the Black Canyon 100K
 For Jessica Wicks, the Moab 240 offered the opportunity once again to push the envelope and challenge herself, to share the experience with friends, to see the desert beauty whether it was real or hallucinated … and to help the larger community to raise funds to help Tommy Rivs in his battle with cancer.

Phil Clark has run many 200-mile races. This one was special as his wife, Jill Clark, was present helping out as a medic on course. Phil turned on the gas during the second half of the race, coming in sixth place so that he and his wife could make the last of her cancer treatments on time the following day. They are a special couple that is always giving back to the ultrarunning community.
The start area of Moab 240 was stepping into a new reality of racing in the Covid era. Masks may have hidden familiar smiles, but as Pascal Fuchs shows, they could not hide the intensity of the morning as you prepare to cast off into the unknown. To challenge yourself in new ways and to get that feeling of leaving civilization for a number of days as you journey across the Utah desert.
Amelia Boone on Big’s Backyard Ultra: “137 miles of joy, friends, and lessons in self-belief. I learned that my body and mind can feel stronger at mile 120 than at mile 30. I learned the power of other competitors (and especially my lady crew) to pull you through the ebbs and flows. And I also learned how quickly the wheels can come off in just one loop. Bigs’ Backyard is a strange and glorious race, no matter how far you go, there’s always that little gnawing voice that says: ‘Is that enough?’ Well I would have liked to have gone farther, I left it all out there, and it’s all I had in me that day. And that has to be enough.”
For David Goggins, the Moab 240 was a race for redemption. His first attempt the prior year didn’t go as planned but he came back with a determined focus to take care of unfinished business. Despite some setbacks during the race, he weathered the storm and fought hard and finished in second place, inspiring many his many followers to never give up, no matter how difficult things may be or how dark things may seem.
The joy of the journey. The joy of sharing beautiful places, making memories, being with friends family and fellow runners. Hans Siemelink embraced all of that and more as he finished the Moab 240, running the last 100 miles accompanied by his wife and crew member Fiona.
Coming off a DNF in his prior attempt on top of one of the most challenging years with Covid, Jason Brady made the most of his time in Moab to push himself and elevate his game to a higher level. Heading off into the night at mile 181, into the lofty heights of the La Sal mountains, he persevered and vanquished his prior attempt and finished in a very respectable 17th out of 191 starters.

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