I love the bustling crowds and jostling at the start of a road race. I have run the Falmouth Road Race (in person) many times with a pack of over 12,000 participants. The crowds were loud and encouraging and the seaside course was sublime. This year, however, I ran the 7 mile Falmouth Road Race virtually on the Cape Rail Trail, a 25 mile paved trail through woods, cranberry bogs, ponds and marshes.
I started running in my late 40s for one reason, to run the Falmouth Road Race. I was not a runner by any means, actually I had never run at all, but for some inexplicable reason, I bought Runners Magazine at Logan Airport before heading back to California after a summer on the Cape with my four kids. An article in the magazine described the Falmouth Road Race as one of the most beautiful races on the East coast. It was also described as a race with local running legends like Bill Rodgers, Frank Shorter, and Joan Benoit showing up. When you run Falmouth, you run in the same race, follow the same course, on the same road with an international field of Olympians, elite runners and 12,000 of your friends.
I was fortunate to get picked in the lottery in that spring and I trained all summer. I ran the race and I was hooked. I ran it for seven years before we started going back to CA earlier and earlier to accommodate kids schedules. With no Falmouth Road Race, I ran less and found myself in the gym more until I ultimately stopped running outside.
During the pandemic, with the gyms closed, I started running outside again. I was quarantining on Cape Cod after flying back for the birth of a grandchild in March and then staying in place for what I thought would be a short visit. Running got me outside, out of my head and into a good, relaxing routine. The streets were fairly deserted and the familiar neighborhoods felt safe and comforting.
When I learned the Falmouth Road Race would be run virtually because of the pandemic, I was intrigued. I was concerned that, because it was virtual, I would not have the discipline, or perhaps even the inclination, to actually do the run, but, on a whim at the exact time the registration opened, I got in. I encouraged my son, Jake (not a runner) and his girlfriend,Taylor (a good runner) to register and they also got in. We had 2 months to train for the 7 mile virtual run.
There is nothing like the start or the finish of the Falmouth Road Race. Runners start in corals based on their expected finish times. Runners are elbow to elbow, everyone revved up, friendly and enthusiastic. It was like you were about to run a 7 mile long party. The entire race was lined with spectators who held up signs and screamed our numbers to cheer us on and give us the motivation to finish. It felt like a neighborhood race, but it was run in someone else’s neighborhood. What would running a virtual race feel like?
The email for the virtual Falmouth Road Race said, “Run or walk, all at once or a mile a day for 7 days – everyone can do this race”. This was going to be a different kind of race. The race directors had figured out how to make it work as a virtual race with a community component and I became very excited to be part of it.
About a week before the race I received my swag with my personalized bib (complete with 4 pins), coffee cup, stickers, gift cards and a medal that was to be unwrapped upon completion of the run. The race organization had been communicative, sending emails to remind runners to tag and post photos on social media and, above all, to be safe. They were able to create, through social media and emails, a supportive and fun experience and a real race community.
Jake, Taylor and I decided we would run the 7 miles on the Cape Rail Trail on Saturday August 15 and we mapped out the run. At 7 am we set off in 2 cars, leaving the first one 7 miles from the start. Our personalized numbers were pinned to our chests, waters filled, masks at the ready and the wrapped medals were tucked into the glove box. I thought I would be embarrassed to wear my number with my name emblazoned across it, but it actually became a way to identify us as a group of organized runners along the path and it most definitely motivated me to keep going.
We got out of the car and with no fanfare, no horns or starter pistols, just the sound of the running app opening on our phones and watches we began on our way.
It almost felt like a regular start to a run through the awnings of scrub pines and up and down the rolling asphalt trail.
There were many more people on bikes than runners passing us. Some, not wearing masks, held their nostrils and looked away when they passed us. One guy yelled at us, “Don’t worry I won’t breathe on you” as he biked past. Other bikers and runners who wore face coverings thanked us for also wearing masks and we all tried our best to maintain a healthy distance of at least 6 feet away from one another. Lots of runners called us by name or yelled “Yeah Falmouth!” and cheered us on. A few said, “Oh yeah, that’s right, it’s Falmouth this weekend,” almost like we were really running through the streets of Falmouth. Running with a mask was not easy, but it eased my mind. The longer I ran, the more I forgot about the mask and settled into a rhythm.
At 4 miles, Jake and Taylor ran ahead of me but they were waiting for me at the 7 mile mark with cheers and fanfare. A lady, about to get on her bike, joined the cheering. She had not ridden a bike in 20 years and was about to go for a ride on the trail. We took our medals out of the glove compartment and ceremoniously put them on. We took some photos and then drove home for breakfast. I think we left our medals around our necks all day long.
The race was different from an “in person” running race experience, but it was, without a doubt, just as much fun and I earned me the same bragging rights just like finishing any race. I am looking forward to running more virtual races. Just like everything in quarantine, it was up to us to make it happen and to make it fun, and we did.
AFAA Certified Group Fitness Instructor and Functional Aging Specialist
Zelek is co-partner of Donuts and Pie Fitness which explores health, fitness & lifestyle topics to educate people over 50 how to lead happy, productive and healthy lives.