Local runners share their virtual race success stories

Traditional races may have nearly all been cancelled, but that hasn’t stopped many competitive and self-motivated runners from taking part in racing.

Thursday, 25th February 2021, 10:11 am
Jilly Walstow, left, and Louise Greenwell, right.

The rise of the ‘virtual race’ has made events more accessible and this includes one of the world’s toughest endurance races – the Montane Spine Challenger.

This iconic race would normally see runners aiming to complete the non-stop, gruelling 108-mile race from Edale to Hawkes, in the depths of British winter, within a time limit of only 60 hours.

Fellow-club members, as well as friends and families for a few days become avid ‘dot watchers’ - tracking the progress of runners virtually on the interactive map.

Necessity being the mother of invention, when another lockdown loomed, the Spine’s organisers made the sensible call to switch from a physical race to a virtual one, with runners having the whole of the month of January to complete the distance.

Todmorden Harriers’ Ruth Thompson-Davies decided to swap dot watching others for taking part and despite 108 miles in one month being quite a commitment, she was confident she could achieve it.

Since the first lockdown she had been running a lot and had improved so, from January 2 to 31, Ruth embarked on the challenge not anticipating the often ferocious weather she would need to contend with. From freezing wind, to snow and ice, January certainly did not make things easy.

The distance required focus and commitment, with Ruth complimenting her weekdays runs with 15 to 20k fell runs at the weekend. She followed her progress on the virtual map and crossed the finish line at Hawes on January 28.

St Pol Striders runner Jilly Walstow first attempted the Spine Race’s 268-mile brutal run along the Pennine Way in January 2017. The epic race got the better of her that you, but she has always wanted to have another crack at it and the virtual version provided just that.

She ran the last 11 miles with a friend from her running club and she suggested a finish at her house. To Jilly's surprise, her friend had organised for a few other members of her club to be there (in line with guidance at the time), complete with a makeshift finish line and a bottle of fizz.

After missing out on the race several times, Todmorden Harriers' Louise Greenwell found that the virtual race was more accessible in terms of time constraints and financial resources, but it also allowed her to sign up with a group of ultra running friends from all over the country.

They subsequently created a WhatsApp group and this was a great source of motivation for Louise who, in the middle of the month allotted for the virtual race, found herself with a fortnight’s full-time training to become an on-call fire fighter, with 11-hour days and studying in the evenings.

This meant she could only squeeze in a quick 5k a day and her mileage for the Spine took a big hit.

To make up the total miles, Louise had to put in a lot of mileage in the final week. Being based now in the Lakes, she ran the Ullswater Way a couple of times and increased the distance of her morning runs to about 15k. Unfortunately, her plans of making up the miles with the Lady Anne’s Way 100-mile race at the end of January were dashed when this was postponed.

Louise is now is working towards the 2022 race and hoping to get a place in 2023 in the volunteers’ lottery. She emphasised how the Spine is a special event and the virtual race managed to capture some of the atmosphere and togetherness.

To stay motivated with his running, Calder Valley Fell Runners' Manhar Patel entered a couple of virtual events.

The events had differing time frames for completion. The longest took five months to complete - the 268-mile Pennine Way - and he also took part in the Spine challenger event (hosted by a different race organisation from the Pennine Way race).

He ran longer weekend runs for three weekends and then supplemented this with two miles per day during the week, he would complete the event with a few days to spare.

He thinks the pandemic may have been a challenge but has also been an opportunity for him to discover local trails and routes that he had overlooked previously. He has also used the car a lot less by jogging everywhere, including to the supermarket and then walking back. Virtual racing has encouraged him to get out into the fresh air and Manhar is keen to emphasise how this has had important positives in terms of both his physical and mental well-being.