Go, avatar, go: Icons track virtual team marathon progress

Sports News
Jared Ward, Dathan Ritzenhein, Hayato Sonod

FILE – In this April 15, 2019, file photo, Jared Ward, center, of Mapleton, Utah, leads the pack during the 123rd running of the Boston Marathon in Natick, Mass. Elite runners competing in teams of three from places like Zimbabwe, Peru, Ecuador and across the U.S. will take the starting line Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020, for a unique sort of marathon relay race. Ward will be among the participants as he and his teammates race on their home course in Utah.(AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

Olympic distance runner Jared Ward and his teammates will take turns dashing around a short, shady course they hand-picked in Provo, Utah.

Almost simultaneously, an avatar mimics their movements across a computer screen — and races against other avatars representing rival teams from all over the globe.

This unique sort of marathon relay competition is just another way for an elite race to feel more like a real competition in this time of COVID-19.

Runners compete Saturday in teams of three, with racers from places like Zimbabwe, Peru, Ecuador and across the U.S. taking the starting lineat the same time (most, anyway).

“We were like, ‘OK, how can we make this feel like a competition between runners, not just a bunch of random people running times by themselves around the world?’” explained pro racer Tyler Andrews, who organized the grass-roots event for his fellow pro racers.

There are also competitions for weekend runners, too.

“In this, you can see their split times and dive into their data. Or you can just see the icons moving across the screen in real time,” Andrews said.

The format goes like this: Approximately 17 elite teams of three will split up a marathon into 12-, 8- and 6.2-mile segments. They’ve mapped out their own home courses — whether it be on grass, pavement, dirt or around a 400-meter track — and the data will be collected and loaded into an app for easy tracking.

The race begins at the same time (6 p.m. EDT), regardless of whether the runners reside in Peru, Ecuador or Utah. Although, the African teams will run earlier in the day to adhere to local coronavirus curfew restrictions that may be in place. Their split times will be reflected in relation to how close they are with the other groups.

Organizers of races all over who are wary of the coronavirus pandemic are trying to find creative ways to stage competitions. For instance, participants in the Boston Marathoncan run a virtual race anytime until Sept. 14. And the London Marathon recently announced plans for a bio-secure bubble to hold elite-only races on Oct. 4, along with a virtual race for other runners that quickly sold out.

For this event, Andrews reached out to fellow runners, who were eager at the prospects of competing.

“We got everyone on board just by calling people up, asking who knows whom, and pitching folks on a cool, new idea,” said Andrews, who’s planned a series of virtual events this summer through an organization he founded called Chaski Endurance Collective. “And, honestly, people are psyched.”

Des Linden, the 2018 Boston Marathon winner,is taking a different approach to picking her two teammates for this race — an online auction. It’s a way for her team, Brave Like Gabe, to raise money for the foundation of Gabe Grunewald, an elite runner who lost lost her battle with cancer on June 11, 2019, at age 32.

In Utah, Ward will be running on a road course with training partners Connor McMillan and Clayton Young. The excitement is already building.

“Preparing for a virtual race in this format, where I’m racing someone live, gets me out of bed in the morning to train,” said Ward, who finished sixth in the marathon at the 2016 Rio Olympics. “In a virtual race like this, the viewer knows exactly what’s going on while the racer hasn’t got a clue.”

But they will have updates from teammates and coaches who are monitoring the screen and helping feed the split times to the data collectors. The software for the men’s and women’s races was designed so the icons replicate the splits.

It’s not 100% live, but close.

“As a viewer, you will get a sense of where people are in the race,” said Andrews, who will be participating from Flagstaff, Arizona, at an elevation of 7,000 feet (there’s an elevation category for teams competing at high-altitude training locations).

All the sights and sounds of a real road race will be duplicated inside a virtual one. There will be online warm-up exercises before the start and pump-up music.

There’s an open race for any runner who wants to join in, too. They can select a 5K race, marathon or collaborate as a team of three, just like the pros. Entrants can record their time on their own course until Saturday, with prizes awarded.

In addition, double-amputee runner Brian Reynolds will attempt to go under the 16-minute mark in a 5K race Friday on a 400-meter track. His event will be broadcast live with his avatar tracking his pace. He’s raising money for the Range of Motion Project, which provides prosthetic care to people without access to services.

Earlier this summer, Andrews held a treadmill challenge in which eight world records were broken. Andrews is also organizing an unofficial world championships for 50K in late November.

Whatever they can do to compete — in a safe manner.

“There are a million virtual races out there,” Andrews said. “We just wanted to do something different to make it feel more like live sports.”

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