The Capital District Challenge

by Josh Merlis

The impact of COVID-19 struck right at the start of the spring race season. For those of us who hang up the running shoes after a Turkey Trot, springing the clock forward in March unofficially reminds us that it’s time to dust them off. For those who run year-round, the return of races around St. Patrick’s Day signifies that long awaited opportunity to test how well our cold weather efforts have prepared us for moving fast again. And practically like a strike of lightning that has reverberated for nearly 3 months (and counting), COVID-19 took it all away from us.

One of the most fun parts of starting the Albany Running Exchange was the opportunity to be creative. Having run competitively on teams since elementary school, the chance to make the enjoyment of the activity - and not necessarily the time on the clock as the focus - was of great appeal. In addition, I wanted to put my computer programming classes to more practical use than the generic assignments I was getting from my UAlbany professors. So with the mission of creating an online portal to enable a member-centric organization, I set out to provide a digital platform that would enable the posting of IRL (“in real life”) group runs and experiences, along with tools to foster interaction. The year was 2002.

While the organization has grown and expanded considerably since then, our focus and mission has unwaveringly been providing the infrastructure to motivate our community to run. Until now, it’s always been through hosting a never-ending supply of organized group runs and special events, often integrating free food along with plenty of time to socialize. Who doesn’t like eating and talking?

When society as we know it shut down at the start of this past spring, it stole our Spring Trail Run Series, our Tuesday Track Series, Tom Ryan’s Tuesday Group Runs, our Druthers Helderberg to Hudson Half Marathon, our Summer Trail Run Series, and literally scores upon scores of other group runs and events that are organized through the ARE. But it didn’t take away our collective desire to run.We launched the Social Distance Running Challenge (SDRC) towards the end of April as a 5 week event to encourage our participants to “virtually” race a 5K, 10K, and/or 13.1M. Over 500 took part, and amazingly, nearly 200 of them raced all 3 distances (at least once) during that time. We definitely had some fun with it as toilet paper played a strong part in the event theme (logo, medal, shirt, etc.) and it was a true pleasure to see all the media submitted by participants. It was also quite amusing to see how creative they got, including Stewart Dutfield running a marathon basically around his backyard/neighborhood - a total of 149 laps.

A few weeks into the SDRC (mid-May), with it clear that races were still a ways off, we started brainstorming for other ways to engage our community, but differently. Thankfully, inspiration was knocking on the door as I noticed one day that one of our SDRC runners was logging a 5K every day. We had another who was running a 10K every day. And while the stated purpose of the SDRC was only to record your race efforts (ie. once a week, do one of the 3 distances as hard as you can), many started using the platform as a training log.

Around that time, AREEP/ZippyReg built the Connect the Corridor digital platform, which was an event aimed at the competitive racing communities of DC, NY, and Boston. And so we built the infrastructure to simulate the runners and teams virtually running I-95 from DC to Boston.

In speaking with some of my friends in the industry about their virtual events and the lack of limitation with respect to accessibility, I still felt some discomfort in what feels to me as not authentic to what our events traditionally are: focused on our community, the runners of the Capital District. And so when we decided to launch this Capital District Challenge, while it could just as easily be scaled for any region (or the country), we wanted it to be about us. The entire collection of those who call our region home, and who run or walk on the streets and paths throughout it. And so we named it the Capital District Challenge, picking the 4 major cities as the ‘top level’ teams a person can join, in addition to forming your own team with anyone. And with the idea of us connecting the landmarks of those cities (The Egg, Proctors, Saratoga Race Track, Troy Savings Bank Music Hall) in an effort to connect all of us.

The most exciting component of this, to me, is the Heat Map challenge. A few years ago, I upgraded the ARE Running Log system to allow for imports from Strava. As such, anyone who uses the ARE system and imports from Strava has their route (map) imported too. So in developing the Capital District Challenge to essentially be a mileage challenge over the course of 5 weeks, I figured why not integrate the map component to see if we can literally run the entire Capital District!?

In a matter of a few very long days at the computer, along with the quick help from Joe Woodworth of CNY Racing with the logos/giveaway designs, the system was built, and on May 27, we started spreading the word about perhaps the coolest digital running event we’ve ever created.

So just what exactly is the Capital District Challenge?

The CDC (yes, that is its abbreviation) is a multi-faceted mileage challenge that encourages participants to stay motivated to keep running and walking from June 1 through July 5, a total of 5 complete weeks. When registering, you also are to choose which of the 4 major cities in the Capital District you want to represent (Albany, Saratoga Springs, Schenectady, Troy) and you also have the option of creating/joining a team too. Lastly, you can set a mileage goal for each week which will help keep you focused during the 5 weeks.

During those weeks, log every intentional run or walk (ie. where that is the activity, not just from your car in the grocery store parking lot to the cereal aisle) within the Capital District Challenge online portal. Your miles then immediately update the tracking page, shown below:

In the map above, the outer red line is essentially the outer boundary of the Capital District. It is exactly 300 miles long, and our 4 cities and all teams are ‘racing’ around the Capital District. While Albany has a commanding lead (and size), the other 3 cities are relatively extremely close, which definitely makes it exciting.

All individuals are racing around the 100-mile blue line that connects the 4 major landmarks of the 4 regions.

Additional Components to the Challenge

There are a few other layers to the challenge, as follows:

1. Weekly Competition
In addition to our quest to keep us all moving for the next 5 weeks, each week exists as its own ‘sub-challenge’ as well. So at the end of week, we recognize the mileage totals for that week for each City/Team/Individual.
2. Heat Map Challenge
Let’s paint it red!

This is the component that I personally feel is what truly encourages our coming together as a community - namely for us to actively check this map and try to seek out places to run that others haven’t been to yet. From a social distance (running and walking) perspective, it’s ideal in many ways. Well, if 10 people go there at the same time, it’s not, but you get the point - let’s explore our community! Go places you’ve never been! Let’s paint the map red!

3. The Features of the Portal

Your personal CDC is both your personal log as well as performance analyzer. There are tools and graphs you can use to monitor your progress along with your own personal heat map as well.

Let’s also be clear, this is all in good fun - and we hope that the innocent joy of us all pushing ourselves as well as seeing your team/region do well is all the motivation you need. Ultimately, we decided against any tangible award because we truly want people to focus more on the real benefits to themselves, and so the blanket that is the award for everyone!

Four days into the challenge, and barely 1 week into announcing its existence, we are pushing 500 participants, with over half of them on teams. On a personal level, this has motivated me to get out each day this week - something I haven’t done that many days in a row in a long time - and I hope it is helping everyone to feel that same level of my miles count.

If somehow events can happen again by early July, AREEP would definitely love to host an in-person celebratory run with everyone. We’re not quite sure how that could work; perhaps we hold simultaneous group runs in each of the 4 cities, or even within each town - but however and whenever we can get back out there together, we surely appreciate the efforts of everyone in the Capital District Challenge to make it fun for all of us to remain focused on our fitness - and running our very own Capital District!


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