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Lost and still running in a virtual world

| May 5, 2020 12:38 PM

By BILL BULEY

Staff Writer

The morning of April 18, I stood at McEuen Park, waiting for the start of the 38th annual Spring Dash.

But instead of being joined by the usual 800 to 1,000 other runners and walkers, I was alone.

Welcome to the coronavirus world of virtual races in real time.

What does that mean? It means I’m still running as fast as I can for five real miles. It means I’m sucking real air. It means there is a real starting line and I thought, a real finish line. But it would turn out, not for me, not on this day.

I managed to not reach that invisible finish line. Oh, it’s still out there, waiting for me, the clock frozen in time. I may be the only one of more than 400 who signed up for the virtual Dash who could not find the finish line, which I thought was impossible. I’m really lost in a virtual world.

Otherwise, my first try at a virtual race organized by the United Way of North Idaho went really well and I’m pretty sure I would have won my virtual age division and beaten my son Nick and daughter Jennie — if only I had really finished.

It’s not all my fault. At least, I don’t think it is. Well, maybe it is.

After registering, I followed the instructions to download the RaceJoy app and select Spring Dash.

“When you are ready to ‘participate’ in the run/walk, tap start and let the app record your progress. You can run/walk any five-mile route you’d like.”

Only, when I went to McEuen Park and did all that, it brought up on my phone screen the actual five-mile Dash course that winds through the Sanders Beach neighborhood, follows the North Idaho Centennial Trail for a short stretch, and Lake Coeur d’Alene Drive, and then back. Cool, I thought. I didn’t know it would do this.

Excited, I hit start and charged up Front Avenue. Yeah, this is just like the real race. I’m the leader. I’m super fast. Well, maybe not. A minute later a virtual voice came to life and told me with very real instructions that I was off course. What?

I turned right on Seventh, passing the Coeur d’Alene Public Library. OK. Back on course, but the first mile was painfully slow — real pain — because of that extra real distance I managed to really run in a virtual race.

I charged on, determined to make up ground on the runners in front of me that I could not see, but knew were there.

A voice came on each mile, offering splits and projected finishing time. As that voice didn’t tell me where or when to turn around on Lake Coeur d’Alene Drive, I guessed.

The third and fourth miles passed quietly. I wasn’t passing anyone and no one was passing me. Not sure if the dog walkers I did pass realized I was in a race, with all the gasping for air I was doing. Strange.

It got stranger.

As I made my final turn back into McEuen Park, I felt good. Running in full stride, fighting for real seconds, I thought my virtual race organizer told me I was really done, so I hit stop. Only, I wasn’t finished. The flashing icon that indicated where I stood was short of the red flag that was somehow both the real and virtual finish lines.

Problem now, I couldn’t figure out how to restart the clock. No button to hit. I thought maybe I just needed to resume running, and it would somehow sense that. Nope.

I zigged and zagged toward the red finish line on my phone screen and thought, maybe I just need to really cross the virtual line and it would say done. Nope.

For only the second time in my life, I did not finish a race.

And 10 days later, Virtual Runner Bill is stuck on 38 minutes, 3 seconds, average pace, 7:50, projected finish time, 39:11. I tried to submit it, anyway, but the virtual timer rejected it. I tried to start over, run this race another day. Nope. My virtual running self is stuck in some kind of Matrix world, unable to get out, unable to finish, unable to reset.

But all is not lost.

In this world, I don’t tire. I don’t slow down. I don’t even sweat. I just run. And run. And run.

And that is a perfect virtual world. Really.

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Bill Buley is assistant managing editor of The Coeur d’Alene Press. He can be reached at (208) 416-5110