Race Directors Embrace Virtual Options to Keep Runners Motivated During Pandemic

The Trail Animals Running Club’s annual TARC Spring Classic is one of the most popular trail-running events in Massachusetts, drawing more than 300 runners to the trails of Weston each April to tackle distances from 10K to 50K. The 10th annual Spring Classic was scheduled for Saturday, April 25, and it was shaping up to be another busy day on the trails with hundreds of runners once again signed up to race.

As the global pandemic caused by the new coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, expanded its spread across the state and the country, the race’s future was put in doubt. Then, following an order by Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker limiting the size of gatherings to no more than 50 people to help slow the spread of COVID-19, Spring Classic co-Race Directors Annie Gagliardi and Michael McDuffie announced on Wednesday, March 18, that the race was canceled.

The Spring Classic was the second TARC race and third in Massachusetts to cancel due to COVID-19. That number has since grown to eight cancellations, three postponements, and another that will take place as a virtual race. That means that after kicking off the year with the G.A.C. Fat Ass 50K and the Cape Cod Frozen Fat Ass 50K in January and the TARCtic Frozen Yeti on Feb. 1-2, the earliest the next in-person ultra in Massachusetts might take place is July. That’s a long time for ultrarunners to go without connecting with their trail tribe. Some race directors are doing what they can to minimize that disconnect even if races can’t take place in person at the moment by introducing virtual races, a concept that has exploded in popularity nationwide during the pandemic.

Despite officially canceling the Spring Classic, Gagliardi and McDuffie were the first race directors in Massachusetts to develop a virtual alternative for a race that had been impacted by COVID-19. In doing so, they added their own twist to the concept. Rather than having runners log the distances they’d signed up to run at the Spring Classic and submit their GPS data as proof, they instead challenged runners to “race” creatively, with competition categories such as Best Route, Most Socially Distanced, and Best GPS Art.

“At the point we decided to make a virtual run, it was just going to be something fun, to get people out doing something that was meaningful to them on a day they had planned to race,” Gagliardi said. “I didn’t want to be in the position of determining whether people really ran a certain distance or if certain things ‘counted,’ and we both have a lot of creative ideas so it just felt more natural to go in that direction.”

TARC award
A homemade TARC Spring Classic award, crafted by Race Directors Annie Gagliardi and Michael McDuffie.

The timing was perfect. Local runners recently had begun branching out to explore new places and find less traveled trails since regular haunts like the Middlesex Fells Reservation in Stoneham and the Blue Hills Reservation in Milton had become overrun by walkers and hikers seeking escape from pandemic-related stay-at-home orders. Several runners embraced the challenge during “race week,” though not all submitted their entries for award consideration. Eight ultimately earned finisher’s awards that Gagliardi and McDuffie hand-crafted in traditional Spring Classic fashion.

“We ended up giving everyone an award since we normally have eight awards for the Spring Classic, and we ended up tailoring our categories for each individual contribution,” Gagliardi said. “It was nice to see the thought people put into their runs and hopefully it provided a little distraction to the tedium of social distancing.”

While Gagliardi and McDuffie challenged runners with a nontraditional approach to virtual racing, Vegan Power 50K and 25K Race Director Alex Bancroft opted for the more traditional approach when she converted her race that was slated to take place on June 27 at Pittsfield State Forest to be a virtual event instead. Vegan Power has been a staple in the Berkshire Ultra Running Community for Service’s ultramarathon series since 2014 and has raised thousands of dollars for animal sanctuaries. The virtual race ensures that mission will continue.

“Canceling was not really an option in my mind,” Bancroft said. “We already had 60-plus runners registered, and I had already spent the winter trying to draw attention to this year’s animal sanctuary on our Facebook page. I had to decide whether to reschedule it until later in the year or turn it into a virtual race. Knowing the late summer and fall race season is now going to be super-crowded, I decided to go with the virtual option. I also wanted to make sure the runners that had already signed up had fair options, including the option to receive a refund due to the financial constraints COVID-19 has put on our world. I created a spreadsheet to keep track of everything, put my big girl pants on and sent out the email. The support of the runners was overwhelming.”

Runners will have 36 hours, starting on the scheduled race day of June 27, to run their distance and submit proof to Bancroft to compile onto a results spreadsheet. The manual review and compilation of data will mean Bancroft has more work to do, but she said the extra effort will be worth it to make sure this year’s selected benefactor, Red Robin Song Animal Sanctuary, receives the attention and financial support it needs.

“Honestly, it was the primary reason I made the choice to direct it virtually,” Bancroft admitted. “When I took over this race, I decided to try to spotlight one animal sanctuary each year with the bulk of the profits going to a rotating sanctuary. I hoped this would create a sustainable source of income in perpetuity by creating a new and lasting donor base in runners who are introduced to each year’s sanctuary through our Facebook page. Our goal is to raise as much money as possible to donate each year and we couldn’t let this year’s sanctuary down by canceling the race.”

While Bancroft is disappointed that she won’t be able to spend race weekend cheering on runners in person and welcoming them as they cross the finish line, she is embracing some of the opportunities that come with a virtual event. For one thing, she will get to run her own race this year, which she is excited about. She’s also encouraging runners to “check in” via Facebook Live on the event page so they can share their day from afar. Additionally, she hopes that the virtual option will allow vegans and non-vegans alike who are interested in the race or supporting the charitable cause to join in the fun.

“Vegan Power is super special,” Bancroft said. “It draws plant-based runners from all over the country (and world) who want to race with like-minded athletes and that supports a cause they are passionate about. I am hoping the face that we are still having it virtually will open it up to even more runners who wouldn’t otherwise be able to travel to Massachusetts in a normal year.”

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