Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Ultrarunning as a (virtual) spectator sport

Ultramarathons are not ideal spectator events. Almost by definition, ultramarathons take place on isolated trails, and part of the point of the sport is figuring out how to motivate yourself to keep moving forward, even if you're running alone, in the dark, on a trail in the middle of nowhere, with no one else looking out for you. It's not exactly the kind of sport that accommodates itself easily to throngs of cheering fans, except for those infrequent hubs of light, mirth and activity known as "aid stations." And if you're trying to "watch the game" remotely, you're even less likely to be able to get a sense of how things are going out on the trail. This is not football, folks! No play-by-play here!

All the same, I've been amazed over the past couple weeks to discover how compelling it can be to "follow" an ultramarathon on the internet. So many of my good friends ran in the Bighorn Trail 100 in June, and I carefully tracked their progress online. A week later, I tuned in to the webcast of the Western States 100, with almost-live results posted at each aid station, to "watch" local superstar Nick Clark as he ran this legendary race for the second time (ultimately finishing third in a screaming-fast 15:50:23 -- a time that in almost any other year would've been good for first place!) And less than two weeks later, it was the Hardrock 100 that kept me checking the computer periodically to see how Pete Stevenson and Nick were doing, making their way across the ups and downs of this very challenging course.

Perhaps I have an over-active imagination, but throughout the day as I checked the computer, refreshing the page, awaiting each runner's arrival at the next aid station, I really did feel like I had a window into the race. I could almost "see" the runners pass each other, or fall behind, and (occasionally) drop from the race. Sure, to any observer I was just maniacally refreshing the same spreadsheet over and over -- something slightly less compelling than watching paint dry -- but to me it was an awesome way to follow my friends through the challenges of their choosing.

It's no substitute for being there, and I doubt that the Western States or Hardrock webcasts will overtake the SuperBowl anytime soon as the most-watched sporting event in America, but I'm surprised by just how exciting it can be to follow a race in this way. Thank you, race volunteers, for making this kind of tracking possible!

Happy running, and see you on the trail!
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